It was simply exhilarating to read Anchorage Assembly member Daniel Volland’s manifesto two weeks ago exhorting Anchorage to make safe transportation infrastructure a priority. Huzzah!!! Now the epistle can be reverently placed in that honored archive with the dozens of other calls to action uttered over the last decades, all of which have resulted, well to be frank, in little or nothing. Nobody thinks our transportation infrastructure is effective, adequate, or safe. And while Municipality of Anchorage Project Management and Engineering and Department of Transportation are undoubtedly culpable, the real culprit is Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS), which has planned for our current mess since its inception.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has done its homework and has made it VERY CLEAR that in order for us to be able to provide the kind of environment demanded by Volland we need to cease deploying auto-centric transportation paradigms and correct what is already in place, lower speed limits, and impose ASE – automated speed enforcement.
Instead we have doubled down on dangerous infrastructure misrepresenting safety data (e. g. almost all safety data relied on locally in planning and design essentially excludes anything not a motorized vehicle). We raise speed limits while places like Norway, Sweden, and Finland have virtually eliminated traffic deaths in this way. We have refused to reinstitute ASE though its been successfully deployed in dozens of cities. We could take advantage of an in rem, civil, day fines style process that would avoid all the issues of criminal prosecution.
The only people against ASE are the people threatening to run over your children. To be clear, the previous traffic engineer agreed that a person (think of a seven year old on his way to school) must STEP INTO THE STREET at a SIGNALED CROSSWALK before they get the right of way against traffic doing 35 mph. Yes, the particular crosswalk in question was a safe routes to school crossing.
Volland, in his manifesto announces a task force of himself and fellow Assembly members Randy Sulte and Kevin Cross to look at bike and pedestrian safety. But two of the three have already admitted they are not even familiar with National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines (more on this critical aspect below), which have been the kernel of progressive design for decades. (I have spoken with Volland and Sulte, Cross has yet to respond to my email).
Volland has apparently joined the AMATS cabal (AMATS is governed by a five member policy committee two of which are Assembly members – Meg Zaletel and Forrest Dunbar – and one of whom is Mayor Dave Bronson’s representative Adam Trombley) which just recently pushed a resolution also full of sound and fury, and arguably signifying nothing.
Indeed, Dunbar, representing East Anchorage, went so far as to praise AMATS though the Northeast Community Council (NECC) whose constituency he supposedly represents had arguably condemned AMATS’ Non-Motorized Plan for excluding community councils from plan development! AMATS responded by assuring the NECC that it would meet with them before the plan was finished. However, they reneged claiming they did not have the time or money to meet with community councils. When it was noted that ordinances require all planning to be done in collaboration with community councils, AMATS promptly noted that they were exempt from all municipal ordinance (yes, they are indeed on the MOA payroll.) The policy committee approved the plan without even commenting. This is the team that Mr. Volland is joining.
What impact does all this rhetoric have on our streets? AMATS “planned” for a protected bikeway on Pine. In fact, after we spent $100,000 all we have is disastrous drainage, ineffective traffic calming (speeds have not come down), and a painted bike lane not even connecting Russian Jack Springs Park to Davis Park. Lots of fanfare, lots of attaboys, but NO protected bike lane on a street not safe for all ages and abilities. In other words, we actually went BACKWARDS. Anchorage has no protected bike lanes to serve commuters, a failing multi-use-trail system (repairs simply can’t keep up with poor design and construction, especially with years of deferred maintenance by former Mayor Dan Sullivan and others), and inadequate sidewalks which are poorly maintained in summer, and a danger in winter.
What to do!? Years ago the AMATS own Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) recommended that the guidelines produced by the leading authority on such matters, NACTO, be adopted formally. The BPAC was actually attacked by AMATS for the recommendation and recent attempts to put that back on the table resulted not only in AMATS slamming the door shut on any specific adoption.
AMATS refused to consider seating a BPAC applicant with planning expertise, Bar membership, and decades long advocacy for pedestrians and bicyclists because their position, critical of AMATS’ past performance, would render AMATS an unsafe space …. You heard me correctly; AMATS carefully screens members of advisory committees to insure compliance with unwritten AMATS perspectives. Indeed, the past AMATS head, lecturing the committee after I suggested that the BPAC could pursue NACTO adoption about what they could and could not do, not once touched on the actual BPAC bylaws. By the way, virtually all BPAC members are either government employees, government contractors, or private corporate personnel historically supportive of AMATS.
On advice of a previous AMATS policy committee member who claimed that any resolution regarding NACTO affiliation or guideline adoption should be presented to the Assembly (which he sat on), not AMATS, I prepared a resolution to that effect and presented it to the Assembly TWO YEARS AGO. The resolution has never been introduced before the Assembly. After years of lobbying the Assembly, no one in the Assembly is familiar with NACTO guidelines at all, which does not bode well for persons claiming to be interested in pedestrian or bicycle safety.
There is a link above to the NACTO resolution which itself has links to NTSB documents and the NACTO “Designing for All Ages and Abilities” guidelines. Read up, decide if the material is simple enough even for your Assembly member, and call them. Demand something besides promises that someone will ask someone else to maybe think about it, if they have to (thank you, Red Green).
The truth of the matter is that planning and design are being dictated by a small coterie of traffic engineers lost in antiquated and debunked traffic saws who are largely unquestioned, unrestrained, and, dare I say it, irresponsible. While I may see some possibility of course alteration, rhetoric is not going to accomplish anything of the sort; we already have a wealth of rhetoric. We need real action; action that has physical ramifications.
The truth of the matter is that this is not a politically partisan issue; effective transportation management that follows NTSB recommendations has proven to be both good for the public welfare and good for business. This is a political will question. And a matter of growing out of the paradigms that put us in this mess and will keep us here.
Don Kostelec may be very right; perhaps we do need warnings about roads being a danger to your health? I have appended a short reading list below for those who really want to be able to speak intelligently on this issue.
Marc Grober has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1977, held a Professional Teaching Certificate, provided IT services to federal and state agencies, worked as a field engineer on an atomic power plant, subsistence fished, and run dogs. He currently spends his days on Anchorage trails, on Anchorage roads, and in Anchorage parks walking Bernie, fatbiking, road biking, and skiing.
Longhurst, James. Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road. United Kingdom, University of Washington Press, 2015.
Marohn, Charles L.. Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. United Kingdom, Wiley, 2021.
Montgomery, Charles. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Schmitt, Angie. Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. United States, Island Press, 2020
Speck, Jeff. Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. United States, Island Press, 2018.