The right performance measures can make great streets for all users as ubiquitous as the American arterial highway / Photo: karmacamilleeon via Flickr

The new transportation bill, Moving Ahead with Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), became law in the US on July 6th. Since then, MAP-21 has spawned a series of mini-riots in cyberspace.  Every group of professionals and advocates seems to be able to find their reasons to gather up and start lobbing rocks at the metaphorical DOT riot police just trying to hold the line with what Congress gave them. Frustration is a natural and understandable reaction to a major change like this, but the fix is not to holler about the new Federal policy; now is the time to look inward and change what needs to be changed in our own cities and states. This doesn’t mean that we at PPS believe that MAP-21 is not problematic–just that we think it is now time to determine where the real problems are and start working with DOT and AASHTO to fix them.

For the next few days, we have an opportunity to stop throwing stones and participate in a constructive discussion about the future of transportation in the United States. The Department of Transportation has created a website for a National Dialogue on Transportation Performance Measures to inform the implementation of a performance-based system under MAP-21. The site will be accepting public input through this Sunday, September 30th. While some may be skeptical as to whether U.S. DOT will listen, at a minimum, this will allow the transportation reform movement to crowdsource priorities to be addressed.

Principal arterials like this one are currently evaluated mostly on Level of Service and Speed / Photo: Tony Case via Flickr

The Project for Public Spaces has long advocated for silo-busting, both within the transportation policy world and between transportation and other agencies. While the loss of certain dedicated funds, programs, and policies is surely unnerving, the move towards a more holistic transportation planning, design, and evaluation process should be the long term goal. MAP-21 can be seen as a stepping stone towards that future, because a move towards a performance-based system allows for a wide range of objectives and values to be seamlessly integrated into the decision making process. For example, instead of using dedicated funds for sidewalks and bike lanes to retrofit a dangerous roadway, the vision is that multimodal safety and accessibility metrics will lead to a balanced design in the first place.

FHWA has high hopes for performance measures, too:

“Under MAP-21, performance management will transform Federal highway programs and provide a means to more efficient investment of Federal transportation funds by focusing on national transportation goals, increasing the accountability and transparency of the Federal highway programs, and improving transportation investment decisionmaking through performance-based planning and programming.”

With the Sunday deadline fast approaching, the number of ideas has skyrocketed from 29 last Monday to 192 by Wednesday afternoon. The voting system gives each idea a score.  Voting for the idea adds one point to the score. Voting against subtracts one. You can retract and/or change your vote after the fact, as well.

The Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) currently has one of the top ideas with 90 votes.  They write:

“Performance measures should be defined and measured in ways that reflect all of the benefits of an integrated, comprehensive system based on the movement of people, not vehicles. In particular, this means performance and unit costs for passenger travel should include a mobility and accessibility component such as a passenger mile basis rather than solely a vehicle mile basis.”

However, commenter Dan Kaempff thinks that miles traveled isn’t a good enough metric, arguing that “[g]reater emphasis should be placed on better linking good land use decisions with transportation investments.”

Other comments run the gamut from detailed tracking of bicycle and pedestrian crash rates to indexes of pavement conditions to the spatial and temporal extent of transit coverage.

While numerous individuals have cited the general connection between land use and transportation, relatively absent from the discussion are the core concepts and principles of Placemaking. Streets are places–or at least they should be. Placemakers should be adding to this discussion to make sure that metrics for ensuring quality of place and community engagement get a fair shake. Tools already exist for street audits and evaluating the access and linkages to multi-use destinations. Could these be used to evaluate the national transportation system?

An understandably less popular comment from Sarah Lowery of the Washington State Department of Transportation highlights the fact that some agencies will face difficulty implementing the national measures due to budget constraints. However, Sarah’s point is an excellent one. It highlights just how important it is to make sure that the measures agreed upon in this go-round are useful in the long term so that the next transportation bill, set for two years from now, won’t have to impose a similar burden on local agencies. All the more reason for Placemakers to participate now.