City of Elkhart awarded $100,000 grant to remove low-head dam

Rendering of the Elkhart River after removal of the dam.

Rendering of the Elkhart River after removal of the dam.

ELKHART (October 30, 2018) – Mayor Tim Neese has announced that the City of Elkhart was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Lake and River Enhancement (LARE) Program. The grant will assist towards the City’s financial obligation for removal of the Elkhart River Dam.

Removal of the low-head dam will open the Elkhart River up to approximately 15 new species of fish and allow for additional recreational use of the rivers in downtown Elkhart. The junction of two rivers, the River District Revitalization Plan prioritized the removal of the dam in order to capitalize on this unique community asset.

Specifically, the plan includes river access at Junior Achievement Drive for kayaks and paddleboards, made possible by the dam’s removal. The overall project is aimed at developing a vibrant urban space that complements existing Main Street assets and creates a destination where people want to live.

“As we look at a number of quality of place amenities to attract additional residents and visitors to downtown Elkhart, the removal of the low-head dam presents an opportunity to capitalize on an asset many communities do not have,” Neese said. “In addition to these recreational benefits, the dam’s removal will also increase safety and improve the biological health of the river. As part of the River District Revitalization Plan, I believe this project will facilitate and enhance other development in the area. Combined, these projects comprise a significant investment in Elkhart’s future, and I want to commend the Public Works and Utilities Department for seeking opportunities, such as this, to lower the cost to local taxpayers.”

In 2011, as a then member of the Indiana House of Representatives, Mayor Neese authored legislation to allow LARE funds to be used for projects in rivers. Previously, LARE funds could only be used for lake projects, and Neese authored the change as a direct result of feedback received from constituents living along the St. Joseph River. The goal of the LARE program is to protect and enhance aquatic habitat for fish and wildlife, and to insure the continued viability of Indiana’s publicly accessible lakes and streams for multiple uses, including recreational opportunities.

The Elkhart project is one of two grants awarded by IDNR to address the removal of low-head dams. The $2 million total project cost will be shared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Elkhart. With the grant from the LARE Program, the City’s share will be $430,000. This is significantly less expensive than the cost to repair current deficiencies in the dam.

The Elkhart River Dam is scheduled to be removed during the fall of 2019.

For the latest updates on the River District Revitalization Project, visit

No better time than now

While the economy is strong, the City of Elkhart is working proactively to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.


ELKHART (October 5, 2018) – The City of Elkhart is known currently and historically as a manufacturing hub, contributing significantly to the regional and state economies. In fact, Elkhart’s base industries – which make up approximately 34 percent of the City’s employment – accounted for $14.6 billion in economic output and generated nearly $900 million in state sales and income tax revenue in 2017.

One week after a recent report by the New York Times deemed the state of the Elkhart economy as “decidedly ambiguous,” Elkhart-based Thor Industries became the largest RV manufacturer in the world. The annual Dealer Open House in late September reinforced the strength of the RV industry and a review of data collected by the City’s Building Department also shows that residential and commercial investments continue to rise. This Department, which plays a key role in the community’s economic development, is on track to complete over 4,000 inspections on new construction/renovation projects this year alone, a 58 percent increase over 2016. Through September of this year, the value of permits issued for these projects was just under $100 million.

This implies that confidence in the economy is still strong, but for many who have lived in Elkhart through various economic cycles, the sentiments expressed in the New York Times article were not surprising. Throughout the City’s history, the economy has been primarily driven by one industry at a time – pharmaceuticals, band instruments, manufactured homes, and now recreational vehicles. This over-reliance on a singular base industry has made Elkhart more vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy.


Recognizing this, the City of Elkhart began working earlier this year on an economic growth case study. It was important to dig deeper to understand and quantify what many local officials and residents know to be anecdotally true. While the economy is strong, the City is proactively working to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.

As details continue to be finalized on the economic growth plan, certain overarching recommendations have already emerged. Economic growth objectives addressing industry diversification, talent development, quality of life issues, land use planning, and investment in aging real estate are needed to ensure Elkhart’s future resiliency.

Industry diversification

By examining the current base industries as well as workforce requirements, the City will identify two to three industries that they would specifically target for future growth. These industries should complement the existing base, have different market demand factors, and have the ability to be filled by the existing and new workforce talent. These industries could include distribution, logistics, supply chain management, information technology, data analytics, advanced manufacturing, engineered solutions, healthcare and technical training and education fields.

Addressing workforce and quality of life issues

Young people today are relocating to communities that offer lifestyle opportunities. Job opportunities are a secondary consideration. If the opposite were true, we would expect to see significant population growth as a response to the demand indicated by Elkhart’s low unemployment rate. However, that has not been the case.

Nationwide, millennials and baby boomers represent the largest populations, and both largely desire to live in walkable, urban communities with a variety of opportunity for recreation, hospitality, social connection, arts, culture, and other activities. By working now to create these conditions in our community, Elkhart will be at an advantage in terms of future population growth and the ability to support local industry.

In addition to creating a signature destination along Main Street and the River District in downtown Elkhart, we are also working to create more livable neighborhoods throughout the City. One way of doing this is through investments in our community gathering places, our parks. A citywide Housing Strategy is also being developed to address how we meet current and future housing demands, which will be essential to welcoming new residents to our reinvigorated community.

Investment in aging real estate and infrastructure

As the City identifies the industries we will target in the future, we must also prioritize local investments in a way that appeals to these target industries. Around the country, effective community growth is occurring in cities that have built a brand identity and have reinforced that identity through quality of place amenities and strategic infrastructure developments. These intentional strategic investments will be outlined in Elkhart’s first economic development plan and will aim to resolve impediments to targeted industries relocating to Elkhart. This will be done through creating shovel ready sites or repurposing aging real estate to meet current industrial standards.

These goals and recommendations offer a glimpse into the dedicated work being completed by the City of Elkhart’s economic development team over the past year. As we continue to invest in ourselves, we must have a plan that demonstrates to new industries and workforce that we are organized, and we are open for business. As that plan comes to fruition, the City is looking forward to sharing that with residents and business owners so that everyone will be a part of a reenergized Elkhart.

>> Download release here.

The Elkhart River District: Vision in motion

Mayor Neese’s vision of the River District Revitalization Project is to develop a vibrant urban space that complements existing Main Street assets and creates a destination where people want to live.

ELKHART (September 21, 2018) – The Elkhart Common Council recently approved the second appropriation of the City’s commitment to the River District Revitalization Project. This overall public investment of $30 million is expected to leverage approximately $300 million in private investment over the next 10 years. With that will come growth to the City’s tax base, allowing for needed investments to continue throughout the City, as well as numerous construction, retail and hospitality jobs. Yet with nearly 9,000 job openings countywide, the vision behind the River District is about much more than diversified job creation. It is the beginning of a new approach to economic development, one that prioritizes attracting people.

To facilitate our needed population growth, the City looked at housing trends. Studies clearly indicate that both millennials and seniors prefer to live in urban, walkable communities. These two generations, representing our country and city’s largest populated demographics, prefer to live where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices. In response, the River District plan calls for mixed-use spaces that complement existing Main Street assets and create a destination where people want to live.

The renowned Zimmerman Volk and Associates completed an Elkhart housing market study for the River District Plan. The study indicates that a concentrated critical mass of walkable, urban housing will fuel the River District’s revitalization. The analysis projects, over a five-year timeframe, 680 to 880 rental and for-sale housing units could be supported. Assuming this rate of absorption continues for the next decade, there is enough existing market potential to fill the River District, as well as Main Street and the near downtown neighborhoods, with dense urban housing to welcome enough new residents to truly bring the city center to life.

As the City begins to pave the way for these private investment opportunities, residents can already see the primary streetscapes coming together. Jackson Boulevard reopened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic in August as a new divided boulevard lined with on-street parallel parking and ADA compliant sidewalks. The planting of trees along the sidewalks and in the medians on Jackson Boulevard is expected to be completed by year end.

While the new 10.5-foot lane width is different from what suburban motorists are used to on Jackson Boulevard, similar lane widths exist throughout the City where speeds must be reduced for residential living. Reducing the speed on Jackson Boulevard will increase safety for those walking, dining, and shopping in the River District and downtown, while still providing through-traffic and east-west connectivity via primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie Street, Beardsley Avenue, and Middlebury Street.

This year, additional placemaking projects include the Elkhart Avenue streetscape and a Riverwalk extension from INOVA Federal Credit Union to Junior Achievement Drive. Work will continue in 2019 with streetscape projects along Junior Achievement Drive and Lexington Avenue. The intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Junior Achievement Drive will be reconfigured so that the two are perpendicular, achieving a true grid structure. As a result, residents can anticipate Jackson Boulevard, from Easy Shopping Drive east to Johnson Street, to be temporarily closed again next spring. The reconfiguration will allow for a public green space to be developed on the southeast corner of the intersection and increase pedestrian safety. 

When the initial planning began, the River District Implementation Team (RDIT) knew they had to have a bold vision to win over residents for future growth. Yet, they also knew that Elkhart is far from the first community to take this leap. Peer communities were identified, and they have helped to inform the important design decisions that have been made thus far. One of these peer cities was Greenville, SC, a location that Mayor Tim Neese and the RDIT toured and met with local leaders about their success.

As the project expeditiously moves forward, property owners continue to approach the RDIT with interest in selling and redeveloping their properties. With construction well underway, the core infrastructure needed to develop this signature destination is becoming a reality and the positive energy is ramping up. Next summer, the completion of both the Elkhart Health Fitness and Aquatics Center and Stonewater at the Riverwalk will be upon us. In addition to the 205 housing units at Stonewater at the Riverwalk, the City anticipates an additional 300 will be under construction in 2019 - 500 of the plan’s targeted 1,000 housing units.

With this vision now in motion, public feedback continues to be encouraged. For more information on the Elkhart River District and redesign of Jackson Boulevard, visit

>>Read The Elkhart Truth version of this article here.

Intersection improvements to reduce backups around Elkhart’s River District

ELKHART (September 19, 2018) – Beginning Sunday, September 23, Elkhart residents will see a change in traffic pattern at a near-downtown intersection.

The traffic signal at Jackson Boulevard and Johnson/Prairie Street will be modified and new pavement striping will be added to allow for two right turn lanes from westbound Jackson Boulevard to northbound Johnson Street.

This improvement creates more capacity for the approximately 5,000 travelers who make this right turn each day, particularly during afternoon peak traffic hours. It also eliminates the need for a lane merge on Jackson Boulevard within the River District, which was recently reconfigured to increase safety and connectivity. Combined with the signal improvements completed last year at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Goshen Avenue, this change is expected to further reduce traffic backups in the area.

In addition to signals, pavement striping, and signage, lane delineators also will be in place for the next few months to help drivers navigate the new traffic pattern.

For questions or concerns, please contact Elkhart Right-of-Way Engineer Jeff Schaffer at 574-293- 2572 or

Jackson Boulevard: Creating a destination for living and playing

Creating a destination for living and playing - not a speed zone

Since spring 2017, public meetings have shared the vision for the River District as a walkable, urban community that is designed and vetted by experts responsible for the success of building successful communities around the country.

Through the planning process we found ourselves needing to be much more proactive in shifting from suburban thinking -- with strip malls and parking lots -- to the principles required to create a walkable, urban environment that people of all ages are relocating to.  These urban principles have worked in cities for decades, including the historical Elkhart and the current Main Street. During the planning process we tested these principles by visiting other cities and speaking with their staff about what they learned -- while walking their streets and measuring their lanes.  We hired experts who have completed successful projects in other communities.  We also worked closely with local staff, understanding what they have learned from past projects and our local conditions.  

With all the research and planning completed, the current changes to Jackson Boulevard were well-vetted, as they are integral to developing the core infrastructure required to achieve success as a signature community that is a safe destination to live, play and visit. Our goal is to make Elkhart a special place to live -- much more than merely a generic place to pass through. 

Following are the planning considerations that were completed with experts during the planning of Jackson Boulevard to date.  Further plans and adjustments will be made as development and construction continues in the area through 2019. 



  • Deliveries and emergency access have been designed and reviewed with all property owners and the fire department.  The design was reviewed with all property owners for their truck access.  Truck deliveries were already being accessed from the rear of buildings and this will continue. 

    The fire department has reviewed the plan and the following design modifications were confirmed to meet their requests:
  1. Rear 20-foot alleys will exists for all buildings, not only for their daily deliveries, also for emergency vehicle access. Fires and emergency approaches in urban environments are accessed from the rear of buildings. 
  2. The median on Jackson at Nibco Parkway will be shortened 30 feet so that fire trucks can clear a left-hand turn if needed.  
  • Lane widths are standard. The original lane-width design on Jackson was widened from the standard 10-foot lanes to 10.5-foot lanes to accommodate any concerns for travel and emergency access.  Standard 8-foot parallel parking lanes are designated by concrete pads. Lane widths less than 11 feet exist throughout the city where speeds must be reduce for residential living. Narrow lanes are specifically designed to reduce speeds from state route speeds of 40 mph to 20 mph to accommodate the urban, walkable community that we are building.  

         >> Read why narrow lanes are safer as stated by AASHTO and NCHRP, Washington, D.C. 

  • Snow removal plans have been developed.  No different than any other urban area such as Main Street, snow removal requires a plan for potentially the worst conditions. Edges with radius curbs for plows have been installed. Excess snow will be removed and disposed in the river as needed.  This first winter, overnight parking will not be permitted on Jackson, so that plows can pass, giving the street department time to consider the long-term options. 
  • Downtown streets are not truck routes.  While all downtown urban areas accommodate trucks for delivery to the many businesses that exist there, they are not truck routes. For instance, for years the truck route on SR 120/Jackson, from CR17, ends at Middleton Road and diverts truck traffic to Middlebury Road.  

    The intention of the downtown traffic plan is to divert through-traffic to primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie, Franklin, Elkhart Avenue, Beardsley, Middlebury, Bristol, County Road 6, and County Road 17. Our city is a network of roads with much easier and faster routes for through-traffic not intending a downtown destination. Main Street and Jackson Street are designed for urban living, walkability and commerce. Speeds must be slower and safer for pedestrians.  
  • Residential living is the focus.  Downtown, including the River District is targeting to build 1,000 urban housing units to accommodate our housing shortage to attract workforce and lifestyle amenities for new residents and industry. Approximately 500 of these units will start construction by end of 2019.  While it may be difficult to imagine now, the change is real.  The infrastructure changes that are underway are designed to support a thriving community and compete to attract people that we are otherwise losing. Designs for more diversified housing solutions in industrial areas are also underway.


About the River District Plan and Team

The River District Implementation Team is a private-public partnership involving private leaders and city leaders and staff who have united as a team and are working together to design the solutions presented to the public. These solutions involved and continue to engage significant investment of time, scrutiny, and commitment for us to work together in unprecedented ways.

>>Read the River District Master Plan

>>Read about why narrow lanes are safer


Why narrow lanes are safer

Developing a Safe, Walkable, Urban, Residential Community

Greenville, South Carolina is a peer city that we are modeling from for Elkhart.  The population has grown to be 90,000, from just 50,000 in 1990. Their streets and parks are renowned attractions as a smaller USA city.  

Greenville, South Carolina is a peer city that we are modeling from for Elkhart.  The population has grown to be 90,000, from just 50,000 in 1990. Their streets and parks are renowned attractions as a smaller USA city.  

The River District is designed to be an urban residential extension of downtown Elkhart.  That means that people must feel welcome and safe to live there.  It will not be traveled as a truck route and it will not be a highway or state route.  It will be traveled at 20 mph - not 40 mph.   

A common question we get is "why are narrower lanes necessary in urban, walkable communities?"  The simple answer is... safety.  While narrow lanes also provide an intimate, quaint and special vibe to the community -- safety is clearly the most measurable reason for narrow lanes.  Please see the following charts and article: 

Per the chart below, note that creating a welcoming and safe walkable environment begins with well-planned traffic control. Traffic studies support that Jackson Boulevard traffic mostly splits to north and south bound routes at Johnson/Prairie -- leaving only 9,000 cars per day traveling on Jackson between Main Street and Johnson/Prairie Street. Near-term intersection improvements at Jackson/Johnson (two westbound lanes on Jackson will turn north on Johnson starting October 2019) will help better transition traffic to their north/south destinations: primarily leading traffic to Middlebury and Cassopolis. 


More Facts

The following article is an excerpt written by our urban planner, Jeff Speck, and it clearly highlights the facts supporting narrower lanes as stated by U.S. safety and transportation agencies. 

Bottom line:  Just because we may be conditioned to travel faster on wider lanes -- doesn't make it right, safe, and suitable to where people live.


Excerpt by Jeff Speck

A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here.

Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.

Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes.

Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.

States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are "dead" wrong.

In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won't relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.

Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.

They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who's texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.

The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you're good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.

Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way.

On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe.

That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.

All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.

The following paragraphs lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers.

First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers' bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.


Consulting the Green Book

For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its "Green Book," the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it's "safe."

Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?

Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book's position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:

For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.

Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it's worth.


The Studies: Rare but Conclusive

A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn't mean squat to the TRB. If you don't have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.

Happily, it turns out that engineers have conducted studies of their own. Two of these deserve our rapt attention. The first study, called "Effective Utilization of Street Width on Urban Arterials," was completed by the TRB itself. It found the following:

… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.

So far so good. A second study, called "Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials," was conducted by the conservative Midwest Research Center. Comparing 10- to 11-foot lanes to 12-foot lanes, it found:

A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.

It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?

Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:

On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.

Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.

A pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h.

To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.

All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.


Protecting Capacity

Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what's the data?

Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:

The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.

It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.


Pointing Fingers

Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to "implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices," a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.

To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a "complete streets" policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entire Strategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.

In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow." Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.


A Test Case

I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT's willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.

Before and after drawings for Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida, show how narrowing 12-foot lanes to 10 feet creates ample room for protected bike lanes. (Image: Speck & Associates LLC)

What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.

But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let's find out. The agency's bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?

Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.

It's time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.

>> learn more about Elkhart's Jackson Boulevard EXTENSIVE planning process

Putting people before cars

Putting People Before Cars

By Scott Ford, 2013
River District Implementation Team Member
Associate Vice President for Economic Development, University of Notre Dame 

The present conversation surrounding the restoration of two-way traffic across downtown South Bend is about returning to the fundamental principles for how successful cities operate. It is about putting people before cars, and thereby creating places where people want to live and businesses want to locate. It is not a secret formula; it is the net result of thousands of years of human experience.

Winston Churchill’s adage that, “you can always count on Americans to do the right then…after they have tried all else” is especially apropos in the realm of urban design and city planning. After 4000 + years of organizing human settlements to promote the exchange of goods and services between people, a process that naturally created all of the cities, towns and neighborhoods that we cherish today, we began to tinker with the model.

In the decades following World War II, pedestrian malls, public housing tower blocks, urban renewal, monoblock ‘civic centers’, and urban highways, each in their own turn, were deployed as “silver bullet” strategies to reimagine the City for reasons that have been explained elsewhere. Well intended as they may have been, these actions eroded the underpinning framework that gives life to a city, and in so doing, they accelerated urban decline. The story is not unfamiliar to downtown South Bend.

Enough time has passed to distill the undesirable outcomes of the post-war urban strategies, and with these lessons in mind, cities, towns and neighborhoods across the country are returning to the fundamental tenets of urban design. When these principles are followed, struggling cities find themselves in rejuvenated circumstances, as evidenced by recent urban renaissances in nearby places as Crown Point, Ft Wayne, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, etc.

In South Bend, we have an opportunity to redress some of our local experiments of post-war urbanism. The introduction of one-way traffic in the 1960’s accelerated the decline of the core. Resolving the obstacles that the one-way highways created will not solve all of downtown’s challenges, but it will reposition our downtown to economically benefit from the renewed interest in vibrant, mixed-use urbanism.

To be sure, any investment of public funds to improve the infrastructure will be measured through an economic prism. The plans for streetscape improvements are in the early stages, and there will be iterative rounds of public involvement to refine the concept to ensure a design that balances costs and the benefits. Nationally, where one-way streets have been reverted back into two-way traffic, the results have been overwhelming positive. For example:

  • A survey of 25 towns and cities found that all had experienced an improved business climate, evidenced by increase sales, investment, and office occupancy rates. In particular, the $10M public investment in street conversions in West Palm Beach, Florida yielded approximately $300M in private investment.

  • On the other side of the ledger, 40% of the businesses along Cincinnati’s Vine Street closed when the two-way traffic was limited to one-way.

  • Anticipated traffic speeds will be slightly slower with two-way traffic. A recent study in Northern Virginia concluded that a 10% increase in traffic delay was associated with a 3.4% increase in per capita gross domestic product of a region.

  • A statistical analysis of Charleston South Carolina’s Upper King Street, following its reversion to two-way traffic confirmed a correlation between the two-way traffic and increased property values.

  • Lastly, it is worth noting that dense mixed-use development, the type of ‘walkable’ urbanism that our two way streets would foster, yields, on average, 800 times the property tax revenues on a per acre basis when compared to the values of auto-oriented “strip mall” development.

Transforming our streets downtown may require an upfront investment, but the positive economic and social benefits will improve the quality of life for people throughout our community.

By restoring two-way streets and making the city center more attractive, we can improve the business and residential atmosphere and help restore the vibrant core that once defined downtown South Bend -- for current and future residents.

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