There are countless ways to help our built and natural environments coexist in an enduring way.
You probably hear the buzzwords—sustainable, resilient or green—multiple times a week. At the beginning of this movement, my thoughts were limited to making a project “green” by integrating design features, like infiltrating stormwater runoff or using recycled materials. I thought this way because, for the most part, building roads and bridges seems inherently bad for the natural environment. But as I listened to smart folks talk about what makes their current project or idea sustainable, they taught me that there are countless ways we can help our built and natural environments coexist in an enduring way.
Enduring Public Spaces
My particular “aha” moment came at a community advisory group meeting that was brainstorming ideas for improving Washington, Adams and Jefferson streets through Peoria’s Warehouse District. An urban designer we were working with, Keith Covington, asked the group, “What makes a great street?”
Most of us answered with some variant of the activities that go on along the street, or design features (landscaping or art) incorporated into the finished product. However, one member, a local businessman, talked at length about how great streets last and complement the surroundings for generations. This was particularly important in the Warehouse District, as many of those buildings are nearing 100 years old—and are being refurbished to last another 100 years.
His passion for making the public spaces in our community more timeless and integral made me realize that even roads, bridges and sidewalks could be sustainable if we simply apply the 3R’s we were taught in elementary school: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
As a transportation planner and traffic engineer, my work has recently focused on using the 3R’s to guide sustainable investment in the transportation system—because every available dollar of revenue could support a number of capital improvement needs. So, how are transportation professionals trying to use the 3R’s in practice?
Resiliency in Action
Reduction in transportation investment isn’t good for the local economy—even if all of us wish we could see a few less orange barrels during construction season. However, investment in building new roads and bridges for the expansion of the transportation system isn’t always the best transportation investment for creating economic opportunities.
Sometimes, just like with your house, the best return on capital investment involves taking care of what we already own. These types of projects don’t usually result in big ribbon-cutting events, but can you imagine the productive time lost or businesses shuttered in communities if “Main Street” or an important bridge were closed due to disrepair? Think of what Pekin would be like without Court Street, or Peoria without University Street; each are going through the process of resurfacing and constructing new sidewalks and curbs. Being mindful of our paved “footprint” is sustainable because properly maintaining what we have reduces our future consumption of materials and converts less of our natural environment to hardscape.
Reuse or recycling in transportation is more than reusing recycled shingles to rebuild asphalt roads. It may also be thought of as repurposing existing right-of-way to help meet other societal goals, or to serve modes of transportation other than cars and trucks.
Prior to the advent of “big data,” transportation planners and traffic engineers didn’t have accurate-enough information or processes to carve out the proper amount of space within the right-of-way for buses, delivery trucks, bicycles and pedestrians. Lanes were added to busy streets with the idea that more pavement would carry more traffic. That’s how streets like Sheridan Road (south of War Memorial Drive) ended up with two lanes of traffic in each direction.
Now we know that three lanes (one lane in each direction, with a center turn lane) move traffic more safely and efficiently than two lanes in each direction. The recycled space allows for the repurposing of right-of-way to help reduce stormwater runoff or air pollution by creating dedicated and usable space for bikes, pedestrians and buses.
So, the next time you drive through a construction zone or attend a public meeting for a project in your community, take a minute to think about how the 3R’s of sustainability and resiliency can improve the transportation system for generations to come. iBi
Kurt Bialobreski, PE, PTOE, is a traffic engineer with Hanson Professional Services Inc.