Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why We Desperately Need Four (or Maybe Even More) Lanes on Trinity

What happens when, in a state of denial, you cut down the last tree? What happens when you build a road to worship the car-culture of the nineteen-sixties?

Some compelling reasons we need a wide, fast, multilane road on Trinity.

1. Evacuations off the Hill will proceed faster with four lanes, even though Trinity bottlenecks to two lanes at the Airport.We didn't really need to exit through the San Ildefonso Pueblo (Rendija Canyon) back in May, 2000. After all, Trinity was four lanes through town.

2. Traffic is always slowed in a storm if a road is two lanes, but never slowed if it is four lanes. Diamond Drive in a snowstorm at 8 a.m. on a bad day, when traffic is sometimes backed up from town to the Golf Course entrance, notwithstanding. Gimme decent drivers with snow tires on a two laner any day. I did that for years growing up in Western New York.

3. Gasoline will get cheap again, many predictions notwithstanding. Oil will remain abundant and accessible. Everyone will drive single occupant cars on and off the hill in five to ten years. We will not have more carpooling, vanpools, or public transit. Conservation is for commies and Europeans.

4. Traffic tieups in blizzards are always caused by lack of lane capacity. Never by individuals tying up traffic because they are driving on worn all season or summer tires or can't see out the windshield because their wipers are five years old or because the motorists are just plain terrorized by snow on the road.

5. LANL will greatly expand its work force, and we will diversify the economy to bring more people onto the hill with high paying jobs. Combined with cheap gas, traffic loads will increase well beyond 1% per year as workers and shoppers flood the hill with cars.

6. One or two (or even five) minutes of delay on a really bad traffic day really will ruin your life forever.Or, perhaps the consultants have it all wrong and our local traffic modeling amateurs (since there are no roundabouts on Trinity, any estimates of how the road will behave with roundabouts are models, i.e., hypotheses) are right. Hence all the Sturm und Drang in the Monitor.

All sarcasm aside,  there are some very real concerns.

Regarding function. Roundabouts move traffic continuously and effectively, as long as they don't clog up and fail. That's why you can move more traffic on two lanes with roundabouts without a level of service degeneration. Until it clogs. So one question is: what will be the real world, not "model" peak capacity? Does MIG have it nailed? What are the uncertainty estimates on their models? I suspect, though, that we will likely see future declines in peak vehicle loads at rush hour as gasoline costs make the convenience of the single occupant vehicle inconvenient to the paycheck--especially for those making long commutes from Rio Arriba or Santa Fe Counties. The present may be the worse case.

Regarding safety. Frankly, we don't kill or maim a lot of people on Trinity but one has to ask if this will change as we continue to build on its south shoulder. Is pedestrian safety as straightforward as some roundabout enthusiasts proclaim on a roundabout-equipped Trinity arterial, especially in roundabouts lacking positive ped crossing controls?  If such controls are present, they could affect roundabout efficiency at heavy load times. The devils are in the details.  Bike lanes and roundabouts may not make the road safer or "friendlier", as I discussed earlier. Here is a recent Transportation Research Board paper on bikes and roundabouts. The jury was not in yet, at least in 2008..

The converse problem, adding pedestrian crossing amenities to the present or a new multilane design, is not trivial. Examples include adding more, closely spaced traffic signals or building pedestrian overpasses (flyovers). The problems with these are that more signals will slow traffic down while conversely, each pedestrian flyover is a multimillion dollar endeavor and no traffic calming for other modes would exist. Pity trying to cross between a couple rare and expensive flyovers.

So there is no free lunch when you screw up planning and zoning, i.e., add commercial and residential space to the wrong side of the main highway through town and then try to retrospectively make the highway "friendly" to all competing interests.Council will have to make someone very unhappy or everyone a little unhappy.

Furthermore, two other things to consider. One, we overbuilt Diamond Drive for the same reasons we hear so much about now--fear of too much traffic on Diamond. Diamond is now a super-arterial that is lightly used, even at peak rush hour. We aren't building more housing, we are using the Atomic City Bus, and we have an overbuilt, expensive arterial. Two, if we keep a wide multilane road, we are building for two hours a day (ok, maybe three) to get into and outa Dodge or grab a burger at lunch. The rest of the time, that overbuilt road will not benefit residents. Perhaps we need to divert more commuter traffic onto Truck Route and Pajarito Road or stagger work hours rather than throw money at motorist convenience to all show up in one big glut.

As I said before, we need to move Los Alamos forward, not backwards. Stop building as though peak oil is a myth. Its not--its an urgency. The last century was powered on the backs of several hundred million years worth of dead bugs compressed and heated into oil deposits. The future, depending less on fossil fuel and more on ingenuity, may not be as easy.  Building a highway to worship past auto-dependence is short sighted and for the home of a national laboratory, downright silly. But even labbies are human--with human limitations. But I wonder if a reconstructed multilane road through town will be be our last expensive gesture to the age of cheap and abundant gasoline. Why not put up a few Easter Island Moai along the curbs while we are at it? With the short-term thinking I see in the Monitor editorial page lately, the fate of the Easter Islanders may be our own**. 

** Arnold J. Toynbee in A Study of History (1934–1961) also studied the collapse of civilizations. Diamond agrees with Toynbee that "civilizations die from suicide, not by murder" when they fail to meet the challenges of their times. However, where Toynbee argues that the root cause of collapse is the decay of a society's "creative minority" into "a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit", Diamond ascribes more weight to conscious minimization of environmental factors.

1 comment:

Gene Dougherty said...

I suggest that much of the anxiety over the Trinity reconstruction study is a direct consequence of the daily headache of getting through Diamond drive construction. After literally years of being impeded every day, the LAST thing many people, myself included, want to fathom is more construction. We must separate construction anxiety from street planning in order to plan correctly. The earliest Trinity work could begin is 2013, and that would probably be delayed. Also, everyone needs to bear in mind that Trinity is currently falling apart and not to ADA code. Construction WILL happen on Trininty in any event, so objecting to designs won't get us out of that frying pan.

Traffic simulation is modeling human behavior. Its more sociology than a quantum science. The simulation knobs can not be dialed like those in hard science. Driver one has a bee in her bonnet, driver two has a bunch in his undees, driver three is just messing with people, while a fourth had too much coffee, and a fifth is racing to pick up kids on time; there's just way too much uncertainty in the simulations. If one is looking to verify the simulation as you would for material science, you're bound to be disappointed. And we can't perform the validating experiment without building the road.

Roundabouts also may be viewed as un-American. There are a lot of very proud people here, God bless them, with a well-earned sense of pride. Roundabouts are not the way we do things in America. That's how the Europeans do it and we're different. We are different, but there are compelling reasons to consider design changes. The traffic engineers are not on a covert mission to bring gridlock to Los Alamos. They are using contemporary enginnering standards to design the best road for our community. Trinity is currently ugly and dangerous, and there aren't accommodations for south-side residences and businesses. The street was designed for a very different set of requirements than it currently operates with. The equation currently solves to a different design. We don't have to switch the design, but it might be foolish not to.