The Transportation Change in Tallahassee
Times Change How We Think About Going Places – and What We Use to Get There
Thirty years ago, the goals of transportation infrastructure planning were simple: build more roads and widen existing ones. There wasn’t any talk of “pedestrian-friendly communities,” “multi-modal transportation districts” or “interconnectivity,” and the public’s perception of a “smart” car was the Chrysler Cordoba (“Now available with soft Corinthian leather!”).
In the late 1970s, an energy crunch and high fuel prices spurred the first paradigm shift in transportation when the new Honda 600 came to Tallahassee, prompting many drivers to begin considering more fuel-efficient, foreign-made automobiles.
“The 1973-74 fuel embargo and subsequent energy crisis brought consumers face to face with a need for a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and the Honda 600 filled the bill,” said Theo Proctor Jr., whose family has been selling cars since 1910 and Hondas since the 1970s. “In an instant, we went from ‘that strange little foreign car’ to ‘Put me on the list!’ The Japanese import car was here to stay.”
So, too, were roads, because the family car remained the choice of transportation for many. But gone are the days when cities can continue to afford throwing millions of dollars at roadways in an attempt to get ahead of traffic and congestion. These ideas are steadily being replaced with concepts such as New Urbanism, mass transit and other new-old systems that reduce dependency on the automobile.
“This country as a whole has changed,” said Ron Garrison, director of StarMetro, Tallahassee’s city-run mass-transit bus service. “We understand that we can no longer continue to build roads and maintain them. We can’t afford it.”
In past years, much of our transportation needs and plans were centered on the uniquely American love affair with the automobile and the freedom associated with it. But cars need roads, and that has been the driving force behind transportation planning for decades. That gets expensive; for example, widening a two-lane road to four lanes in Tallahassee costs an average of $10 million per mile per lane, according to one planning official.
“That’s a lot of taxpayer money that could go to better schools or other community needs,” said Cherie Horne, special-projects manager for the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department. “In a scarcity of funds, we have to prioritize what is most important to the community. Roads are important, but they aren’t the answer to every mobility problem.”
“With regard to roadway funding, we simply do not have enough,” said Gabe Menendez, the city’s public works director. “None of us, not Planning, StarMetro nor Public Works, has enough to adequately address the transportation problems facing Tallahassee.” However, “All three departments have been collaborating and cooperating better so as to deliver a much more comprehensive and all-inclusive approach to the problem,” he said. “Historically, there were too many ‘silos,’ resulting in little collaboration.”
Harry Reed, executive director of the Capital Regional Transportation Planning Agency (formerly known as the Tallahassee-Leon County Metropolitan Planning Organization), said the conventional way of doing things is madness.
“We keep on building (road) systems to accommodate the rush. There’s not another business in the world that builds capacity that they use less than 20 percent of the time,” he said. “If this was a private organization it would go belly-up, because we’re trying to meet a demand that occurs less than 20 percent of the time.”
Then what’s the solution? More sidewalks and Segway scooters for all? Not necessarily. But experts say it’s high time we rethink how we look at transportation planning – literally from the ground up.
“What we’re finding a lot more of is a much bigger, significant link between land use and transportation,” Reed said. “A lot of congestion problems have to deal with the way we’ve developed in the last 50 years.”
The wheels of change, though, are starting to turn.
“I would say the biggest change is still in progress, and that is a paradigm shift to see our transportation infrastructure more in context with its surroundings, and to think of overall mobility rather than just building roads,” Horne said. “Transportation modeling has advanced significantly during this (30-year) period. However, models accounting for other modes of travel (bike, pedestrian, transit) are really just now being introduced into transportation planning.”
More Connectivity Needed
There is little doubt that planning the transportation needs of a city like Tallahassee has become more complicated since the late 1970s. Garrison, the city’s transit czar, said he can think of five factors that have an impact on transportation planning.
“Smart growth, livable communities, compact development, transit-oriented development, sustainable communities: All five of those things have cross-pollination or are connected in one way, shape or form,” he said. “They’re all about us deciding how and where we grow, and how we do it correctly.”
“It has to do with changing our development patterns and looking at development similar to what you see in SouthWood,” he said.
Reed and fellow transportation planner Jack Kostrzewa say interconnectivity and centrally planned neighborhoods can help ease congestion. It’s a back-to-the-future approach involving multi-use facilities and old-fashioned grid-pattern streets that allow people to go about their daily activities without the need for clogging up major roadways.
“We’re slowly beginning to understand the need for interconnectivity,” Reed said. “What we ended up with (after World War II) was what is now called the conventional development pattern – you isolate your houses here, you put your apartments over here, you put the mall over there, and it all doesn’t interconnect.”
Reed said that like most American towns, Tallahassee started off with a grid system of street layouts, but that changed as the town got bigger and bigger and people began living farther away from the center of town.
“With a grid system you’re able to move around a lot better,” Reed said. “But as you get (farther) out, you end up with less and less connectivity. One of the most significant projects that has been done in the last 30 years is Blair Stone Road, because it provided a significant amount of connectivity between north and south.”
Kostrzewa said Blair Stone Road is unique because of the way it was designed.
“The difference between Blair Stone and Capital Circle is that the land use was constructed/developed around the road in a way that limits the number of driveway cuts, so you don’t have driveway after driveway trying to get onto the road,” he said. “So you actually have a good flow of traffic on Blair Stone Road because of that.”
Meanwhile, thanks to the recent wave of “condo craziness” in downtown, there may be new opportunities for improved connectivity – especially if everything you need is within walking distance.
“You had the flight from downtowns in the 1970s, but now through my window I see the Tennyson and other developments bringing people back to downtown,” Kostrzewa said.
“The market trends suggest the demand for this walkable type (of neighborhood) will at least double in the next 20 years,” Horne, of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department, said. “Essentially, I think people just want to feel part of a community, and that’s easier to do when you can see your neighbors regularly in public places like a town center or church or pass each other daily walking on the sidewalks.”
Goodbye, Family Car?
Will we ever see a day when the American public freely gives up its love affair with the automobile? Probably not completely, according to the Proctors.
“Automobile ownership is an American tradition,” said Theo Proctor Jr. “It is the ultimate presentation of one’s self in a mobile manner. The automobile is a personal cocoon in which we find ourselves much of the time.”
“The access to personalization and the ability to customize with technology – syncing with cell phones, iPods, navigation systems, etc., further enhances the automobile experience,” said Theo Proctor III.
And, because of the advances in auto design and manufacturing, the Proctors say we can have the best of both worlds: the perfect vehicle to suit our needs and desires as well as one that is “kinder to the planet” and has fewer negative effects on our resources.
The Proctors say that over the past 30 years the American car has evolved and adapted to fit changing lifestyles and economics, and in recent years it has even changed to become more environmentally friendly.
“We at Proctor find that the ‘environmental’ decision is just as important, and sometimes more so, than the ‘economical’ decision,” said Martin Proctor.
Awareness accounts for some of that change.
“We are much more aware of the needs of our planet and the impact we have on our natural resources,” Martin Proctor said. “With the oil crisis of the ’70s, we believed the oil was out there – and in abundant supply – even though the supply could not get to us for a period of time. Now, and in the past decade, we have come to realize there is a limited supply of fossil fuel. We have to accept that one day, and maybe soon, all fossil fuel may be used up.”
However, over the past few years – thanks to another round of rising fuel costs and a tanking economy – there has been a rethinking of how we move ourselves about.
“The 1970s were probably the height of the movement in which the automobile was seen as an element of freedom,” Horne said. “Just in my own experience, by the ’80s and especially in the ’90s, we start to see more and more congestion on roadways, lowering the quality of life. Furthermore, whereas the auto started as a source of freedom for the individual, now it’s really hard to find a home where you aren’t forced to own a car and drive.”
“Until we distance ourselves from our cars, we are continually going to look at the issues of transportation corridors to include all other forms of transportation,” said Jim Davis, executive director of Blueprint 2000, an intergovernmental planning agency. “Good planning and vision are huge.”
Horne said that sometimes, forces beyond our control cause us to change our transportation habits.
“We saw significant behavior change when gas rose to over $4 a gallon this year,” Horne said. “Transit ridership locally and nationally rose at unprecedented levels, and more people walked or biked where it was an option. Americans are a rational people. The love affair with the car was based on cheap energy and open roads, and it was the best and cheapest means to an end. If it becomes too costly to drive single-occupancy vehicles, either as a result of fuel prices rising again or because of time wasted in traffic, Americans will demand options and change their behavior to something less costly.”
StarMetro’s Garrison said that even with the drop in gas prices this winter, the number of people taking the bus has stayed steady.
“Where you saw a high of nearly $5 for gas and our ridership on our 80x (Express Shuttle) was up 500 percent, guess what, when the gas is down to $1.69 a gallon, we’ve kept most of that ridership,” he said. “And almost all of those riders were choice riders – meaning that they didn’t have to ride. They had cars, but they chose to keep using transit
because it gave them something they didn’t have before: time back, reduced stress and a sense of community.”
The car’s impact on planning can’t be underestimated. Experts say that historically, transportation analysis has been based on that one mode of transportation. But it’s time now to think about moving people instead of machines.
“From an automobile standpoint and the number of automobiles we can put on the road, we don’t have sufficient capacity,” Reed, of the Capital Regional Transportation Planning Agency, said. “But if you talk about moving people, there are very few places in the state that have a congestion problem if you fill all the seats that are out there on the road. If you have an automobile with four seats and you have one person sitting in it, there’s three more people that could be moving. And from a capacity standpoint, looking at the car, there is plenty of room – just start filling those seats up and you have less cars on the road.”
Horne also said that we need to think outside the box.
“As a planner, I’m starting to see mainstream acceptance that we can’t just assume all growth will need more and wider roads to serve it,” she said. “I’d say the biggest shift is that we are beginning to think about moving people, not just cars, and are finally realizing that transportation decisions greatly affect how desirable a place is – and how sustainable the land use patterns will be.”
Garrison said that many young people have already realized that there are better ways to get around. For these young people, public transit is the answer.
“The young people of today are realizing we need to change how we do things, and they’re moving to places like Portland, Ore., and other places where they have a choice,” he said. “They don’t have to own a second car. Or even a car at all. What does that mean? It means more money to the businesses, the retail outlets, the governments because they’re not spending $9,000 a year on that car. They have more disposable income to invest in the economy.”
Rather than moving away to take advantage of other transportation systems, Tallahassee residents seem content to be taxed to maintain their roads.
“From a financial standpoint, I think the greatest thing that happened to this area was the sales tax,” transportation planner Kostrzewa said. He is referring to an extra penny of local sales tax that was originally approved by voters in 1989 and, in a subsequent election, extended through 2019. “If we didn’t have those funds, if those funds weren’t used for roads, we’d still be looking at widening Thomasville Road north of the interstate and Mahan Drive from Capital Circle to Dempsey Mayo Road. We’d have no widening of Capital Circle done. The better part of 75 percent of the projects on (our planning map) would not be done if it wasn’t for the sales tax.”
New Era of Cooperation
Another helpful change has been the new cooperative attitudes among the various players responsible for planning and building those roads.
“In the past, we did our planning in a way that was less than cooperative or less than a joint effort,” Garrison said. “The MPO did their planning, the city and county did theirs, the transit entity did theirs and the surrounding counties did theirs. None of them were long-range and none of them were coordinated.”
“In the past, the city and county commission were not as collegial as they are today,” said Blueprint 2000’s Davis. “I think there were some issues with a lack of common vision.”
Today, of course, that has changed. The Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department, Blueprint 2000 and the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency all are working together to address the long-range transportation needs of the city and surrounding area.
For example, the city/county planning department is working on a Tallahassee/Leon County Multimodal Transportation District Plan, the goal of which is to eventually create an urban core where a person can easily live without a car, if that’s his or her choice.
The district includes Florida State University, Florida A&M University, Tallahassee Community College, the downtown area, Midtown, South Monroe Street, Frenchtown/Springfield, Innovation Park and Governors Square mall – approximately 18 square miles.
“Within these boundaries over the next 20 years, all transportation concurrency fees paid by developers will be used to better the bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities,” Horne said. “The StarMetro system will be decentralized to go to six different ‘Super Stops’ where passengers can make transfers without going all the way downtown and, over time, buses will come more frequently.” This plan is being reviewed by the Florida Department of Community Affairs. It could become effective in mid-March, Horne said.
Meanwhile, the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency has its 2030 Long-Range Transportation Plan, which also looks at road, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Adopted in 2005, the plan is used to annually select project priorities for funding and implementation in the Florida Department of Transportation’s Five Year Work Program. The “needs plan” has a budget of approximately $1.5 billion. Planners reviewed 238 projects costing $2.3 billion; from that laundry list only 84 projects could be selected, costing approximately $1.48 billion. That means 154 projects – $830 million worth – will have to remain unfunded.