NACTO 2016: Designing Cities

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Last week, our Executive Director, Nora Kern traveled to Seattle for the NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Designing Cities Conference. Here's her report:

NACTO is a conference for transportation officials, so as an advocate I was in the minority. Nonetheless, it was inspiring to hear about the work of cities across the country and world who are working to make their city streets safer, more efficient, and more equitable. Here are a couple of my takeaways.

My Takeaways for Metro Nashville:

IMG_20160927_075729616.jpg1. We need more to increase our Metro transportation staff  capacity.

Perhaps the most apparent different between Nashville and many of the more progressive cities that I learned from at NACTO was the size of their transportation departments (and nearly all had Transportation Departments). Cities with robust, multi-modal transportation systems have many, many more transportation planners, transportation engineers, and departmental staff working for them.

It is amazing how much our Public Works and Planning Departments accomplish with just a handful of transportation planners and transportation engineers for the entire city. But without a significant investment in the capacity of our Metro departments it is impossible that Nashville will be able to tackle the number and size of the transportation projects we need to complete to ensure our city provides transportation for all. Until we can grow our metro capacity, it doesn't matter how many great ideas we have--there will not be enough (wo)manpower to make them happen.

IMG_20160929_100414904_HDR.jpg2. We need more ways to allow community groups to influence their city streets.

At NACTO I heard about cities that have extensive bike parking programs for local businesses, that allow community groups to construct low-cost sidewalks, that have robust traffic calming programs, and that have micro-grants for community groups wanted to use tactical urbanism to create safer streets. These programs are an essential part of growing the consensus around better streets and in allowing people to have ownership over their communities. Nashville needs to seriously consider ways to engage the community in our transportation system beyond simply holding community meetings. (For example, here's a photo of bulb-outs and seating created by a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways using grant funds from the city).

3. Our Public Works and Planning Departments must adopt equity as a foundational goal.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of this convention was understanding just how far to go we have as a country to ensure our transportation system is equitable across all races and socio-economic groups. Many of our lower-income and minority neighborhoods have been underserved for decades, and yet these communities continued to underrepresented (or not represented at all) in our Metro Departments. We must work to ensure our city officials look like our city, and ensure that our city works first to address institutional and historic imbalances in our society.

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4. We need to commit to mode-share goals.

The city of Seattle is experiencing a similar level of explosive growth as Nashville. We heard from city officials at every level, from metro staff to the Mayor, underscore the fact that there must be a real and significant shift in the percentage of people making trips in single-occupancy vehicles if the growth is to be possible. It’s not enough to just say that we want more people walking and biking, our city needs to set clear goals of how we want people to move around in the future and ensure that all decisions, at all levels of government work towards achieving those goals. And yes, that will mean more of us will drive less, and walk, bike and take transit more. (For example, here's a photo of a street much like West End Ave. But Seattle has ensured their streets reflect their multimodal goals: wide sidewalks, separated and protected bike lanes, floating bus stops, cue jump lanes for buses and car lanes).

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