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Department of Defense

Houston, No America, We Have A Problem!

Department of Defense
Department of Defense

 Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen the news and know the devastation Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath has caused in Southeast Texas. When we witness such tragedy on a large scale, we immediately begin discussing ways to prevent it; however, flooding is an everyday occurrence in many cities across the United States. While this flooding in the human environment may not be enough to blanket a city or trap people in their homes, it’s enough to destroy property; cause waterborne illnesses; cause loss of life; destroy crops; and impede access to essential public services such as ambulances and firetrucks. The aforementioned list is by no means exhaustive but a snippet to illustrate some of the impacts of flooding. Sadly, it doesn’t take a hurricane to have this impact. Heavy rainfall or even sustained rainfall over a long period of time can be just as destructive.

Unfortunately, climate change is causing more frequent and extreme weather events. Unless we take action to mitigate the damage caused by these wet weather events, we will see more devastation in our communities. As an environmental engineer who happens to work on stormwater management issues, here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

1. Preservation of natural resources – Wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, ponds) are land areas covered by water that consist of plant and animal life. In the context of flood control, wetlands help protect against storm surges by serving as an intermediary between larger waterbodies and land. Unfortunately, development often destroys this natural barrier allowing more water to reach land and without filtration. Jurisdictions should include preservation of natural resources as they update their land use plans, comprehensive plans, and/or zoning laws.

2. Getting smarter about growth – During wet weather events, water is looking for a place to go. Water naturally seeps into the ground; however, many of our cities are covered in asphalt, concrete, and other impenetrable barriers. This surface water runoff can overwhelm our sewers and become stuck in areas where there is little flow. In addition, waterfronts are being developed with housing and commercial space without regards to rising water levels due to climate change. As this land erodes it will impact these places that are now high value corridors of living and entertainment. Despite these challenges, waterfronts are and will continue to be popular locations for development. Developments should consider sea level rise or consider new design techniques such as floodable buildings.

3. Increase in green infrastructure -Trees, rain gardens, green roofs, bio swales, pervious pavement, rain barrels and constructed wetlands are a newer approach to managing surface water runoff. Many urban areas are using green infrastructure as a tool to imitate the natural process that should occur after wet weather events by adding soils and other vegetation back into the ecosystem. Green infrastructure has to be a part of a larger strategy to effectively minimize the impact of wet weather as well as place making in communities.

4. Increase and maintain gray infrastructure – Poor drainage, lack of maintenance, infrastructure not designed for high density populations are all issues impacting our existing gray infrastructure such as storm drains, storm sewers, holding tanks, dams and levees. In fact, both dams and levees received a grade D on the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. New gray infrastructure as well as the maintenance of older infrastructure are important components in preventing the outcomes we often witness in wet weather events.

The damage and destruction that we witnessed post Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey are not isolated to these extreme wet weather events. Until we extend our conversations and more importantly our action to maintenance and prevention, we will continue to play Monday morning quarterback. Unfortunately, it’s more than a football game at stake. Lives depend on it. America, we have a problem!

P.S. Extreme wet weather events are occurring globally but for the purposes of  making this blog brief, I limited the issue to the United States of America.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

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5 Ways to Help Traffic

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Source: CNN

In the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey, our hearts and thoughts go out to the families whom are affected by this storm. Due to its flat topography, Houston is well-known for its susceptibility for flooding. Many people woke up to find they were trapped inside their flooded homes and waited to be rescued. We wish the affected families the best of luck in their journey to recovery.
 
I have never been to Houston, but I have heard many stories about Houston’s traffic and planning. In this blog, I will share what I have learned from my perspective and my extended knowledge of transportation.
 
Houston is known for its sprawl. People tend to complain about the traffic because they drive to most of their destinations. The traffic is usually at a standstill.
 
Here is a video talking about the Houston’s freeway system.
 


 
American Highway Users Alliance published a statement that the Katy freeway in Houston was the second most congested road in America. Drivers spend a combined 25.4 million hours every year sitting in traffic on that road (which is 36 lifetimes worth). That is why the government decided to spend $2.8 billion to expand the road to 28 lanes, making it the widest highway in the world. Many people thought that this extra capacity would surely solve the problem. However, between 2011 and 2014, travel time on Katy freeway went up 55% (Meaning that driving between downtown Houston and Katyland, a 28-minute drive without traffic, takes an average of 64 mins during afternoon rush hour.)

Katy freeway (I-10) in Houston, Tx

Sounds unbelievable, right?

The video explains that the road expanding solution violated the fundamental law of roads: MORE LANES=MORE TRAFFIC. When the road got extended, more people used it, causing it to reach capacity again.

Here are some solutions for traffic as discussed in the video:
 

  1. Take public transit

This is always the long-term way to solve traffic. Taking the bus and light rail can definitely reduce the daily amount of traffic and is also environmentally friendly.

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Source: http://www.abrahamwatkins.com/blog/images/METRO_Light_Rail3.jpg

  1. Ramp meters

Meters on entrance and exit ramps can control the amount flow of traffic entering the highway. It slows down the number of cars merging onto the highway, ensuring traffic stays at its most efficient speed.

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Source: https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop14020/sec1.htm

  1. Tolls

Tolls are a direct way to reduce traffic. In New York, which has high roadway tolls, people often prefer to take the train or subway into Manhattan instead of driving.

These fees can increase the overall cost of driving to a level where some people will decide the benefits of driving are not high enough and will choose alternative means of transportation.2005-03-13_15-53-32

  1. Roundabouts

Roundabouts decrease some of the worst type of collisions and still carry the same amount of traffic, according to study. Traffic tends to be smooth and consistent, albeit having a slower flow.

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     Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/XcK8sjzTlWI/maxresdefault.jpg

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Source: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Safety/roundabouts/benefits.htm

  1. Diverging diamond interchange (DDI), also called double crossover diamond interchange (DCD)
  • Fewer conflict points (14 for DDI, 26 for conventional)
  • Conflict points spread out throughout interchange
  • Better sight distance at turns
  • Virtually no driver confusion (FHWA study and new DDI observations in Springfield, MO)
  • Traffic calming features when desired
  • Wrong way entry to ramps extremely difficult
  • Shorter pedestrian crossings

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Source: http://www.divergingdiamond.com/trafficmovements.html

In the DC metro area, commuters also face heavy traffic during the rush hours, especially in downtown DC, I-66, I-495, and I-395. After all, traffic is an issue for every major metropolitan area. We all contribute to solve this problem. I highly recommend everyone to take public transit like Metrorail, Metrobus, or the Capital Bikeshare.

 

Mei Fang, is an urban planner with a strong passion in urban and landscape design, she also enjoy looking for the variety culture inside of the city.

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The Future of Transportation – Part I

As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CATALYST Academy at Cornell University. The purpose of the summer program was to bring high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to Cornell to spark an interest in engineering and the university. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute group activity. This blog post is a summary of the presentation portion of my workshop.

Transportation has always been about moving goods and/or people from Point A to Point B. Whether we are discussing the ancient empires with routes to trade goods, the slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas, or the latest flight deals that allow for global travel, transportation is an essential part of the economy. Today, the transportation industry is at an interesting crossroads of ‘we’ve been doing it this way for decades’ and ‘new technologies require new thinking’.

“We’ve Been Doing it this Way for Decades”

For the last six decades, the basic formula for transportation planning has changed very little. We examine existing conditions, forecast changes over a 20 to 30-year period, and then predict how people will move and what mode they will use. While this model gives us a general idea of movement at the regional level, it can be problematic when used at other scales.

Among the challenges with the current model, I discussed two with the students. One challenge of the model is that it assumes people use one mode to take a trip between point A and point B. Where in reality people, particularly in highly urbanized areas, use multiple modes. For example, if a person takes public transportation, they still have walk trips from home to the bus stop and the bus stop to work. The other challenge is emerging megaregions, where people are able to commute between regions on a daily basis. For example, there are people who commute to DC daily from Philadelphia, which is part of a different metropolitan area. However, the travel models are still regional in that DC and and Philadelphia have separate travel demand models.

‘New Technologies’

With the advancement of technologies, the transportation industry is facing new challenges and opportunities. I discussed:

  • Changes in Communication: With the popularity of smart phones and tablets, people are able to have face-to-face communication with the click of an application. Where long distance relationships required a plane ticket or long-distance phone plan 10 years ago, now we are able to communicate globally via Wireless internet.
  • Shared Economy: For the transportation industry, the shared economy includes sharing a motor vehicle, bicycle, or car ride. Programs like Car2Go, ZipCar, and Getaround allow for people to forego car ownership but still have access to a car when they need one. Bikeshare programs are a gateway to increasing the number of people biking as well as fill a short to medium transportation need. Rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft provide access to people who do now own a vehicle and have been shown to increase transit usage.
  • Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): When I was young, I was told we would live like The Jetsons by the time I was an adult. I also remember watching Maximum Overdrive and being freaked out at the thought of a semi-truck chasing people around. There has been (and still is) skepticism around AVs. However, fully autonomous passenger and freight vehicles are being tested on our roadways. There are still public policy questions around safety, cyber security, and infrastructure needs.
  • Delivery Bots: I showed the students a video of a delivery bot in DC. The technology is being deployed in communities as both airborne drones and little motorized food delivery vehicles. If and when this technology scales up, what will be the future impact on how people and goods travel?
  • MagLev: I shared with the students that there are ongoing discussion of using MagLev trains as an alternative mode of travel between cities. For example, the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail is examining a maglev train that would travel from Baltimore to Washington DC in 15 minutes.
  • Space: There are some big thinkers, such as Richard Branson, that envision a world with commercial space travel.

‘New Thinking’

With the emergence of new technologies, humanity will face unique challenges and the current generation of teenagers are equipped to provide the solutions to those challenges. Some of the things I shared with the students:

  • They are the first generation where access to technology and high-speed (and pocket sized) computers are the norm. I told them they do not understand the struggles of having to use a pencil to rewind a cassette tape. The first Apple iPod was release when many of them were born. The do not know a world without technology.
  • They are growing up in an inclusive society. Although the U.S. still has its share of –isms (racism, classism, sexism, etc), this group has grown up in a world that has been more socially inclusive than any other in U.S. history.
  • They have access to instantaneous and unlimited information. When I was in high school, research required flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia Britannica or going through card catalogue to find a book. The current generation has the ability to pull information on any topic at any moment. With the click of a button, Siri can answer question on music, history, biology, physics, etc.

The purpose of the presentation was to get the young people thinking about the current challenges and opportunities in transportation. After a brief question and answer, I broke the students into teams and assigned them an activity to address many of the issues I discussed in my presentation. In the next post, I will describe the group activity in detail and the ideas generated by the students.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.





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