Drexel engineering professor breaks out scare tactics on Open Streets PHL
As the groundswell of public and official support for Open Streets PHL continues to build, the Philadelphia Inquirer publishes a new article putting Philly’s Open Streets proposals in the context of similar events around the world. The piece also muddies the waters, however, by including some bizarre comments by Drexel professor of civil engineering Joseph Martin.
While Dr. Martin is a highly respected engineer, and while his body of work may include transportation issues, Drexel's website indicates his research concentration is “geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering, waste management,” not urban transportation. There are plenty of transportation engineering educators and practitioners the Inquirer could have contacted to make a professional opinion of Open Streets based on research and practical experience with similar issues, for future reference.
What Dr. Martin offered instead was a bumbling mix of emotionally-charged claims and unsubstantiated predictions having little to do with the logistical and engineering implications of opening streets for people. Of the nine or ten statements attributed to Martin in the article, only two (addressed below) bear any relevance to the logistics of Open Streets in which an engineer’s experience would add value.
Engineers have important technical knowledge and experience that will be crucial in planning Philly’s Open Streets days, but unfortunately Dr. Martin provided merely his personal opinion. In this sense he was not speaking as an authoritative engineering expert but as an ordinary citizen, adding as much value as you, or me, or any of the article's commenters.
Asking the right questions
We can’t necessarily blame Dr. Martin for giving his personal opinion about Open Streets, or neglecting to provide genuinely thought-provoking guidance. Technical experts are only as good as the problem statements we (the Public) give them.
In this case the reporter, Julia Terruso, may not have asked the right questions. Judging by Martin’s responses, I can only guess that she asked “do you like Open Streets?”
More value-added questions would have been: “what are the logistical implications of temporarily restricting motor vehicles?” or “how can Open Streets be implemented such that we accommodate the needs of people who might be affected?”
As the recovering New Jersey highway engineer Gary Toth (now a fellow at the Project for Public Spaces) said in a lecture: “engineers will amaze you with their creativity in solving problems, if society gives them the right problems to solve.”
Breaking out the scare tactics
When Martin does get around to remotely substantive assertions, they’re focused on scaring people into opposing Open Streets - dramatic traffic jams! stranded elderly relatives! - rather than making a serious case that the logistics are unworkable.
First, while seniors are the most vulnerable to being killed by cars while crossing the street legally (see pg. 25) - and may have the most to gain from car-free streets - it is true that restricting vehicle access could cause a temporary inconvenience to the small minority of people who have no other choice but to use a car in city neighborhoods on Sunday mornings.
The idea that this is an insurmountable obstacle to hosting Open Streets, however, is ridiculous. It barely takes an engineer to devise a scheme in which people can walk freely while simultaneously making arrangements for the few people who truly need vehicle access to their homes.
Second, Dr. Martin’s claim that vehicular traffic would be “doubled or tripled” on adjacent streets is totally without justification. Not even a transportation engineer could begin to prove or disprove that statement.
Without knowing the specific location, the time of week, the extent of traffic restriction, or other relevant factors, there’s just no way to make an accurate quantitative prediction, let alone generalize about it.
If Open Streets grinches like Dr. Martin or Stu Bykofsky have real evidence of Summer Streets in New York City, or Open Streets Pittsburgh, or any of the dozens of similar events from around the globe in which the mobility of any population segment was grievously limited, we should take them seriously, but so far all we’ve heard is overheated rhetoric.