Idaho Communities Rethink How Roads Fit In

24-Nov-2014 Source: Idaho Business Review

BOISE - Across the country, vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, have declined 5 percent per capita from 2000 to 2012 and 8 percent in the 2006-12 time frame. Even in car-centric Idaho, the rate dropped 2 percent since 2000 and 1 percent since 2006. One group driving this change is the Millennials, many of whom no longer see getting a first car at age 16 as a rite of passage.

“Since 2006 and the recession, total VMT has declined in every state,” said Jim Charlier, president of Charlier Associates, a Boulder, Colo., multimodal transportation planning firm. “This is the first time this has happened. We’ve had increases in traffic since the 1920s.”

Commercial truck traffic increased by 30 percent in the 2000s.

Charlier said “walkability” is catching on with developers and home buyers.

“Urban living is not about tall buildings. It’s the lifestyle,” Charlier said. “In the 2000s, people are moving from the suburbs into neighborhoods. Idaho has a lot of opportunities, from Boise to Bonners Ferry. Mixed-use neighborhoods with walkability can happen in a small town.”

Back before the car and even into the 1920s, “everybody worked toward building a better community,” said Gary Toth, director of transportation initiatives at the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City planning, design and educational organization focused on creating public spaces.

This gave way to freeways, parking lots that engulfed streets and buildings, and uninviting architecture that featured blank walls along sidewalks.

“This happened because we became focused on high-speed mobility,” Toth said. “We lost touch with our community. We need to move away from high-speed mobility.”

Charlier and Toth’s talks were part of a reception at a three-day Community Mobility Institute put on by Idaho Smart Growth in partnership with the Sonoran Institute, Community Builders, Project for Public Spaces, and Bike Walk Montana. These entities established New Mobility West, a four-state initiative that provides communities across the Rocky Mountain West with tools and resources to improve  transportation systems and create connected neighborhoods and more vibrant downtowns.

The Nov. 5-7 institute brought community leaders from Cascade, Lemhi County, Bonner County, Sandpoint, Post Falls/Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls, Kimberly and Wood River Valley to Boise to gain insights on how to work with transportation departments to improve communities.

“One of the messages we’re conveying in the workshop is the rules have changed. You have to be aware of them,” Charlier said.

Idaho communities learned that transportation has a broader purpose than moving vehicles.

“Each community came willing to understand how to better connect transportation, economic development and community development,” said Clark Anderson, director of the Sonoran Institute’s Western Colorado Legacy Program.

The institute drove home the point that communities need to get more strategic with transportation investments in an era of decreasing transportation funding as well as changing dynamics in housing and retail toward more walkable streetscapes.

“They are looking to create transportation systems that are serving a wider range of users,” Anderson said. “The connections they are making need to make sense in an economic development sense.”

Each community drafted an action plan at the institute on how to apply the concept of increasing economic development with strategic transportation investment, said Jillian Sutherland, the Sonoran Institute’s project manager.

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