Assembly member Volland’s approach won’t solve Anchorage’s transportation problems

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.

Be safe!

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.

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CAN YOU HEAR ME, MARC???
27 days ago

A LAWYER WHO USES ALL CAPS? DID YOU NEED TO SHOUT, SIR? I COULD HEAR YOU FINE AS I WAS READING

CAN YOU HEAR ME, MARC???
27 days ago

PS IT’S SAFE TO CROSS THE STREET MARC YOU CAN STOP SHOUTING NOW TRY ITALICS OR ENGROSSING WRITING NEXT TIME

Sean Dewalt
27 days ago

While I disagree with Marc Grober 90 times out of 100- literally, this is a well written article with fair points.

Downtown resident
27 days ago

I went back and read Volland’s op-ed and frankly do not see why this author seems to harbor such disrespect and contempt for him. The author does not list a single thing that he actually disagrees with Volland about, rather he seems infuriated that Volland is joining a board that can actually help solve some of Anchorage’s traffic problems (a board that the author seems to hate due to actions they took when Volland was NOT on it). To be blunt I feel that there is something else going on here. The author’s disdain is very off-putting and feels misplaced/misdirected.

Downtown resident
27 days ago

The author of this piece wrote: “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…”
This is exactly what Volland argued for in his op-ed. Which was titled “Anchorage should be designed around people, not just cars.” So the author of this piece is angry that Volland wrote an op-ed calling for the exact thing the author claims he wants? Very strange.

MARC, I CAN’T HOLD ON FOREVER
27 days ago

DANIEL VOLLAND WASNT TYPING LOUD ENOUGH FOR MARC. MAYBE IF DANIEL TYPED LOUDER MARC WOULD HAVE HEARD HIM. DANIEL IS AN EXPERT ON EYES, NOT EARS.

I’M STILL HERE, MARC.
27 days ago

WHAT? YOU DIDN’T APPRECIATE THE ALL CAPS? I DIDN’T EITHER, TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH.

Rick G
27 days ago

I ride a bike all the time around Anchorage. There are plenty of places for bikes to stay separated from cars. Some of the major intersections (Tudor and Old Seward, Dowling and Lake Otis, etc.) require a bit of experience and fortitude to cross, but for the most part it isn’t nearly as dire as this piece makes out.

Dan
26 days ago
Reply to  Rick G

I rode a bike to work for years when I moved to Anchorage from Fairbanks. I was blown away by how bike friendly Anchorage is going East-West on greenbelts. North-South is a bit marginal, and sharing roads is damned dangerous. I even have had a cop hit me with with his side mirror.

So… it’s a work in progress.

Jan Wright
27 days ago

A thousand words plus on why decades of rhetoric aren’t enough and one responder is screaming about a half a dozen words in upper case while another seems oblivious to the premise as apparently stated in the title.

Dewalt summed up my initial response, and I have to wonder what the Assembly could find objectionable in the author’s proposed resolution, while this impressed me
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/sep/02/shawlands-glasgow-school-bike-bus-traffic-stopping-tech

Last edited 27 days ago by Jan Wright
JAN IN CAPS
26 days ago
Reply to  Jan Wright

WHAT SOLUTIONS DID MARC PROPOSE THAT WERE LOUDER THAN HIS OWN HOSTILE TONE TOWARD VOLLAND, JAN? HE STARTED OFF WITH SARCASM AND GENUINE RUDENESS AND THAT IS A POOR WAY TO SAY YOU DESIRE TO SOLVE A PROBLEM. IT WAS PRETTY WEIRD AND NOT A GREAT WAY TO ADVANCE THE CONVERSATION SURELY YOU MUST ADMIT

Jan Wright
18 days ago
Reply to  JAN IN CAPS

Actually, Mr Grober appears to have made a number of suggestions focused on making calls on our politicians for action and offering a resolution which would mandate adhering to national guidelines embraced by the FHWA.

Seems to me that your comments suggested you didn’t read the piece, which I think is unfortunate.

I would love to see ASE, lower speed limits, and transportation design and planning that is not “auto-centric”.

Undaunted
27 days ago

Let’s turn this conversation into an action plan Thank you, Mr. Grober, for your reading list of reform-minded transportation perspectives. I’ve been engaging in AMATS public participation process for several years. I’ve found that the AMATS public participation process is pro forma and dismissive: an abuse of public time and trust. However, I am encouraged by several Assembly members’ and legislators’ efforts to make specific changes inspite of AMATS. I am also encouraged by the increasing number of citizens who are speaking in favor of transportation reform. There is a rising call for speed limits and traffic calming, complete streets,… Read more »

26 days ago
Reply to  Undaunted

Unneeded,
Do we have you to thank for the lovely lane dividers just put in on C st. The ones where you stand on the middle of the road in winter waiting to get smashed by a sliding car or truck?

Einziggler
9 days ago

What’s with Capn Capslock screeching about what is clearly appropriate use of caps in this piece?

And it seems like many of Jeff’s commenters need to work on their close reading skills.

Quite a few great recommendations, a neeed acknowledgement that decades of the same old rhetoric has gotten us nowhere, and a reading list. Bravo Grober.