The Public Works Nerds

Traffic Engineering for Cities with Marc and Mike

August 08, 2023 Marc Culver, PE and Mike Spack, PE Season 1 Episode 12
The Public Works Nerds
Traffic Engineering for Cities with Marc and Mike
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Marc and Mike go solo in this episode focusing on Traffic Engineering for Cities. Leveraging Mike's years of compiling data and producing reports and guides for various traffic related issues at the City level, the Public Works Nerds tackle a couple of frequent complaints such as speeding, request for stop signs and crosswalks. We also touch briefly on Complete Streets Policies, Comprehensive Plans and managing requests from elected officials. It's a conversation between two seasoned engineers at the City level!

Show Notes:

Referenced Book - The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande (blog article)
The Checklist Manifesto: Summary, Quotes, and Lessons - Checkli
Amazon Link to Book:
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right: Gawande, Atul

Mike on Traffic"
Guide to Citizen Traffic Requests
Manual-on-Citizen-Traffic-Requests.pdf (mikeontraffic.com)
Checklist for Street Audits
Checklist-for-Street-Audits.pdf (mikeontraffic.com)
Other Resources from Mike on Traffic
Resources - Mike on Traffic

Complete Streets Policies
Complete Streets Policies | US Department of Transportation

Minnesota Department of Transportation Complete Streets Handbook
https://edocs-public.dot.state.mn.us/edocs_public/DMResultSet/download?docId=19626144

City of Rochester, MN Complete Streets Report and Policy
Street Use & Complete Streets (rochestermn.gov)

Mike Spack:

Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast with Mark and Mike.

Marc Culver:

Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast. I'm Mark Culver and I'm Mike Spack. Today we're going to talk about traffic engineering. We're going to mix it up a little bit by going without a guess, which is going to be Mike and I talking about our experiences doing traffic engineering at the city level. And Mike has got a lot of experience and a lot of great tools that he's developed in his time with Spack Consulting and Traffic Data Inc and Mike on traffic, and so we're going to talk a lot about those tools as well. But so I guess we're just going to kind of jump in and frame this as you are a city engineer somewhere, maybe you're an assistant city engineer in your city, or maybe you're just a public works director. You don't have a city engineer. Yes, I'm a public works engineer, you're an assistant city engineer and somebody calls you with a speeding complaint. There's this car that goes down our street or go on 50 miles an hour. Something's got to be done out there.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, and typically you hear that call about the second day after school. That's how the kids are playing in the front yards and mom's seeing it happen. And then you got the speeding teenagers going by and yeah, you all of a sudden become the complaint department in the city. I read a book 15, 20 years ago called the Checklist Manifesto by Dr Atul Gawande and he talked about how pilots in the airline industry, the safety record was terrible at the beginning of kind of flight it kind of like up until the 1960s where lots of people died and airplane crashes. But then the airline industry started to get more serious about having checklists and the pilots walking around the plane and making sure everything's in working order and not moving forward. And his lens on it was really interesting as a surgeon, bringing the notion of we are trained experts, we are seen, we're put on a pedestal. As surgeons have gone through all this background, we have an extreme confidence, yet we make all these silly little errors of we saw a person with a sponge still in their chest, and so the medical profession took a big leap forward once they started developing checklists in their operating rooms and throughout the system of. Hey, we started with five sponges. Do we have five sponges over on the tray? We're supposed to operate on the left knee. Did we mark the left knee? Did we confirm that? Because there are plenty of cases of the wrong surgery getting done. And I've brought that idea into the traffic engineering profession in the city by developing a guide and we'll put it in the notes resources around dealing with citizen complaints, of kind of having a checklist and a procedure you go through instead of making it up every single time you do it, having a script you go through of dealing with that request coming in and up in Maple Grove, where I started my career, a lot of these cities have these street naming conventions where you have 96th Street, 96th Avenue, 96th Place, 96th Trail, 96th Lane and someone gave us the wrong location and we went out and put out a tube counter to measure speeds and it was at the wrong location so it just drove home. We need to have clear communication with the resident coming in, so slowing the process down to say we're not just gonna jump out there and do something, but here's we need to go through a quick couple of minute questionnaire of what is your concern, where are you located. Then emailing out here's what we're gonna do with a little map just to confirm and to have them a little bit more skin in the game of having a response back. It's easy to, in the heat of the moment, for somebody to call and be mad at you. I got a call when I was sitting in Maple Grove 4.30 on a Friday afternoon, just as I'm starting to pack things up. A guy had been pulled over at a ramp meter and he called me venting. I'm like there's nothing I can do here. But you have to be ready to take all these kinds of calls. But we have to drill down to have an engineering issue we need a response to, or are we just there as the complaint department?

Marc Culver:

Yeah, just to let them vent, kind of thing.

Mike Spack:

So kind of having a checklist, of being polite, listening, asking the question, getting to the root issue, because often these speeding complaints will come in of we need a stop sign. Well, you dig into. Well, do you need a stop sign because of speeding? Do you need it because there's a berm on the corner, there's a shrub that should be trimmed? Do you does it end up? There's one kid who comes barreling down the street at 3.15 when he's driving home from school. All of it, there are different root causes we need to get to. So I developed this protocol in that citizens guide for kind of all of these different complaints I had experienced and drilling into. Here's the protocol of how to talk about that speeding complaint, getting down to the root issue and then what to do about it. And my philosophy was I want it, I want to hear, I want to listen, I want to get to the issue that, as an engineer, I want to get some data of if there's a speeding problem or there's a site distance problem or there's conflicting volumes, like we need data to make the decisions on and every great once in a while there would be a speeding problem or there were enough traffic volumes to meet the warrants for an all-way stop. But we all know 95, 98, 99 times out of 100, it's a perception. It's not rising to the level that it's gonna have an engineering solution. And one thing I've learned on the private side working in a tech company is the more permutations answers you give, the more things you build. Those are legacies that you have to maintain in the future. And it's easy to give somebody a stop sign today, but do you want to maintain that stop sign for the next 200 years, right?

Marc Culver:

right, right Cause hopefully your city is still there in 200 years.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, that cost of having to replace it every 20 years as it's faded and or knocked down, yes. So the easy answer of hey we're gonna put in a sign today that has legacy costs that we need to recognize. One of my favorite tools and luckily I had the budget in Maple Grove and we had the staff to put it out was we got a radar trailer and the data is clear. A radar trailer does not impact long-term traffic patterns.

Marc Culver:

It brings some awareness to the neighbors and it may be speeding Right to both the driver and the people watching the vehicles go down the street. It brings them awareness of what their actual speed is.

Mike Spack:

Right, because if you're standing out there and you don't stand very often by traffic going by, a car going 27 miles an hour can feel really fast when it's five feet away from you, right.

Marc Culver:

And just to quickly clarify this cause, it's a common term that we use the radar trailer. It's basically a speed driver speed feedback sign that's mounted on a trailer.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, it's got radar and it displays the speed as they're driving by. Usually has the speed limit sign below. It may flash if they're five miles an hour over.

Marc Culver:

And you see in more and more in Roseville we actually had and the police managed us we actually had. We didn't have them on trailers, we just had these small devices that had a small battery pack that they would strap to a pole or something in there. So you see this in variety of formats, but it is really a great tool for both the driver, so make them aware of when they're speeding and but also, as Mike was saying, you know the people that are standing on the side of the road watching your car whiz by. What is that actual speed?

Mike Spack:

So at the end of my process, when I would go through, if a person was serious enough to engage with me to make sure we documented what they thought the problem was, then we would go set out some two, a two counter. There's different radar counters. Now we have big data. There's all kinds of ways to get the data on. Is there a volume problem? Is there a speeding problem? However you wanna define it, that needs an engineering solution. Or is it kind of just a? Hey, it's a perception? Sorry, we're not gonna do anything, but I would always close the loop of hey, there really isn't a problem by engineering standards, but we found a couple cars going over the speed limit. So just for an awareness here's in this kind of timeframe over these couple of weeks, two months in the future, because we're booked out with the radar devices, but we're gonna get out on your street to make people aware of not should lower speeds. So that went. I call it a placebo because it's not really gonna change the situation long term. But that resident really felt heard and it was such a public relations win to invest in putting that device out there. I recommend, if you can find the few thousand dollars in your budget. I'd much rather have you do that than investing in stop spines and permitted speed limit signs.

Marc Culver:

Right, and the tricky thing about speed in a neighborhood environment, because, let's be honest, the most of these calls we're talking about are in a neighborhood environment. We're down by local streets, yes, people driving past other people's homes to the stay at home mom or a stay at home dad or what have you or a pandemic stay at home.

Mike Spack:

Worker.

Marc Culver:

Or a pandemic stay at home worker and really the engineering solutions to that, if we were really trying to solve a speed problem, are really traumatic. Yeah, solutions and geometric changes and speed bumps are a lot of people bring them up and such but they are controversial in their own right from a maintenance perspective, from snow plowing, from even people who have chronic pain issues going over speed homes even at an appropriate speed. I mean there are negative issues with speed humps as speed bumps.

Mike Spack:

And often any of the traffic calming measures, and they have the potential just to move the problem over to a parallel route Right right.

Marc Culver:

So you know a lot of, like Mike said a lot of times, it really is just letting the person be heard doing the study, putting the speed trailer out there, and they will probably come to the realization that the magnitude of the problem isn't as large as they think it is. And the other side of that is the people who are speeding, particularly in a neighborhood, are probably your neighbors. Yes, there's a peer pressure element to that and that actually again, the radar trailer helps with that. Again, that peer pressure. You know, I was just gonna kind of maybe veer off a little bit here, but what do you think about uncontrolled intersections versus two-way stop control intersections in a neighborhood environment?

Mike Spack:

In a neighborhood where, if you're a minor street coming up to a more major collector or tutorial whatever, obviously you need stop control because one road has a dominant traffic pattern. But in a neighborhood where the streets are more or less equal, I may sign minimalist. The only time I wanna put up stop signs are when there's a physical sight distance obstruction, so if there's a hill, a berm, a fence, a tree, a shrub, something blocking the sight distance. But I had as an experiment when I went to Maple Grove there were signs, stops hentel over the city and as an experiment I had a summer worker and we had some time, so it felt like free time, but I had him sit out during rush hours at some of these two-way stop signs and just measure, sit back and record Did the car come to a complete stop, did it roll or did it blow the stop sign? And it really opened my eyes to how ineffective they are of it was on the order of a quarter of the cars came to a complete stop. More than half of the cars rolled through, so treated it like a yield sign, which is probably the right behavior you want anyways, but the really disturbing part was about 15% of the cars blew the stop sign, didn't touch the brakes, wow, and I tied this back. I grew up inside Minneapolis on a grid system and as a little kid I was walking to a friend's house across the street and I think it was one of the. I was probably five years old one of the first times I was crossing the street by myself. My parents taught me how to safely, but a car turned in front of me and they didn't have their turn signal on and I was taught hey, cars were that are gonna. So I was kind of, I thought I was walking in parallel to the car, but the car cut me off and it didn't use its turn signal. Well, that has stayed with me my whole life and informed me as a traffic engineer of that. Really scares me that to think that 15% of these cars are blown through a stop sign because most of the time they can safely blow through the stop sign. But what if that kid is walking to school and something has changed? Normally mom drops him off, but one morning they have to because some change condition that they're distracted by their phone or whatever you wanna say. But that is just setting up the system for that tragedy. Where, if there are no stop signs, the people, I believe my opinion. From what I've observed, people are a little touch more cautious going through a completely uncontrolled intersection that they know nobody asked to stop. So they're a little bit more aware.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and I do think we've created a little bit of a dilemma or a problem in which most drivers coming up to an intersection probably are looking to see if it is uncontrolled or two-way stop controlled. You know they're not looking. They're not necessarily looking to see if there are stop signs on the cross street, right. We all know that. If it's a hopefully we all know our public works nerd should know that if it's an all-way stop it's gonna have an all-way plaque underneath it. But if it's a two-way stop control, you don't have that plaque there. So it's that non-stop controlled approach to a two-way stop controlled intersection where people are just assuming that it's stop controlled on the other side because there's nothing to tell them otherwise if they're not looking for those signs. And we've created this environment and I know, like St Paul, minneapolis and Minnesota, here in our metro area most of those streets are stop controlled. They're using stop signs to assign right away. Yes, and I think in St Paul they kind of have this pseudo basket weave thing where it's like every other street is stop controlled and blah, blah, blah. And is that really in the grant, in the larger picture? Is that really more dangerous than it is safe?

Mike Spack:

And that because pedestrian crashes and crashes in neighborhoods are so rare and it's hard to tease out statistically what's the right answer. But I go back to that situation when I was a little kid. Of everyone in these neighborhoods they're commuters. You don't have somebody driving from out of town, that's very rare. So it's people going to work every morning and everybody's getting into their groove of what they're expecting to happen. And if you expect the other person, you know the other person has a stop sign. Because you drive through there every day, you're a little bit more assuming they're gonna stop and that, I think, becomes more dangerous. And we're talking on the margins. It's hard to prove statistically what are your thoughts?

Marc Culver:

around the basket weave and using two-way stops, yeah and I mean I have to be full disclosure I preferred the stop sign to a sign right away, essentially At intersections, and I would say, looking back on my career, I probably almost definitely overused stop signs, especially in Maple Grove where we're building brand new developments. Yeah, it's easy just to put them on the planet and have the developer as streets are getting built.

Mike Spack:

Yep, drop them in. Yep, but looking back, probably overused them.

Marc Culver:

But again, it's this I lived in St Paul, I lived in St Paul, I grew up in St Paul, I've owned two homes in St Paul now and that's what I'm used to, and so that's what I see as kind of the default situation. And if those stop signs aren't there, how are people actually gonna drive through it? But I'm not saying that's the right answer by any means, and I do think we should probably get back to that uncontrolled intersection environment and put up yield signs at first, when we think it needs it because there's a cyclist's issue or what have you or you need to aside, right away to one of the approaches, and then, as a last resort, you use the stop sign when there's some severe cyclist's issues that you can't resolve or something like that.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, and I would prefer our whole industry If we could get to more of a geometric design solution. Thinking about narrower streets result in slower traffic. Speed limit signs alone don't do it. It's the conditions. There's all kinds of data. I've collected a lot of data. It doesn't matter what speed limit sign you put out there. If there's a cop there, you will see people will slow down. And if it's a narrower road, if it's a curvier road, if there are cars parked on the street, high demand of parking, the conditions will that friction slows the traffic down. So these engineering standards that we apply to arterials and major collectors of hey, it's a 30 mile an hour speed limit, but we're actually the design speed is 45. You take that kind of thinking and put it in a neighborhood. People are gonna drive what the road conditions are comfortable at and most of the time the pavement is dry, the conditions are clear, there aren't that many cars parked, there aren't any out in the suburbs. So, building these 42 foot wide or whatever cross section streets, if we would skinny them up, we would end up with slower traffic, which is what I really think the people living along those streets want.

Marc Culver:

You know that gets into one of the other bullet points you have on our outline today and that's street audits, and I think that's a really great tool and exercise for practitioners out there to go through when they're doing projects on their streets.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, and this refers we'll take this in a couple of directions. But if you haven't listened to our episode with Deb Heiser, the city engineer for St Louis Park, engineering director but talking about going through when you're doing a reconstruct, pausing and measuring the traffic patterns in that neighborhood and then seeing if you wanna make changes and redesigning, that's your opportunity in a reconstruct. Obviously, out in the growing suburbs, you have the opportunity, as the fields are being turned into neighborhoods, to work on the design there. But I also think we need to develop an ongoing kind of inventory quality control system for our cities that I don't know how many signs I've driven by that are totally faded out or are covered up by growing trees or shrubs. People have planted shrubs on corners that all of a sudden do present a site distance issue. That going through. I did this when I started in Maple Grove. As a way I wanted to understand the city. I got a map of the whole city, 24 by 36, I kept it in the car and whenever I'd go to a meeting or I'd talk to a resident I would highlight the street segments I had been on and I would try to pay attention, going both ways, to what is all the infrastructure and the signage and the traffic control and does anything need to be maintained of especially trimming trees? It's amazing, if you pay attention, how many signs are blocked by growing trees that would be Right and that just stops signs.

Marc Culver:

It's like something simple as a street name sign. You don't know where you're trying to look for a certain street and it's obscured by a tree or a bush or something. And now you're looking for the street. You're looking up for the street sign instead of driving. Yes, you know.

Mike Spack:

Yep. So thinking about, I purposely would look at my map when I was going somewhere and say, well, that's the fastest route to get there, but I haven't been on these streets yet so I might take an extra five minutes to drive. So it became part of my routine of driving around and then I would just make the work orders and get it to the appropriate public workstrap staff to deal with the tree trimming or the signs or get it into the rotation. Now I realize I had the luxury of time when I was the traffic engineer for Maple Grove, but a lot of cities end up hiring engineering interns and they are looking for all kinds of different experiences and they are also antsy. They don't wanna just sit behind a computer all day. So this is a task you can give them to as they're driving around and as they're doing different inspection projects and they're helping set out traffic counters wherever they're doing. Just build it into your system of people continually looking at what is going on in the entire streets. Because I'm a, it really bothers me how often I see stuff like that, including a previous Engineer putting in three times more signs than needed and I'm not gonna call out any communities, but I've seen so many crazy like Trail crossing signs every 200 feet and things that just you don't need these. This is again goes back to that tech debt of. Are you really gonna maintain all of these signs for hundreds of years Right when they are not adding value?

Marc Culver:

you know, that touches on one of the other things that Always bothered me and and I struggled a little bit with it, but, but I would back off on it and that was crosswalks, and At least in Minnesota and I know the law varies from state to state, but, you know, in Minnesota, a Driver still has to yield at an intersection with an unmarked crosswalk, where you have a sidewalk crossing an intersection. That is the law. Yes, as much as they do if it's a marked crosswalk, and the problem that we've done, though, is we've created the situation where, because we've marked so many crosswalks, it's to the point where drivers don't think they need to yield to a pedestrian unless it's a marked crosswalk right in the.

Mike Spack:

It's still this. I had me maybe pushing 25 years old. I still remember an article in the IT Journal from Los Angeles that went through and looked at pedestrian crashes. And again, they're very rare, yeah, but they found a statistical uptick in pedestrian crashes where they had more crosswalks and the really only Thinking around, that is, the pedestrians are bolder Crossing the street and assuming that because there's paint on the ground that the driver will yield to them. And again it Almost. A situation that is so unsafe becomes safe because everyone is treating the Dynamics with the respect they should right, it's a that's a very hard thing to Convince a resident of.

Marc Culver:

That's calling you, yeah and talking about. You know, even with the same side on the stop sign, you know it's very difficult to convince them, even with data and studies and the other, that we can actually make this more. Potentially. We can potentially actually make this more dangerous by putting the stop sign in or putting the crosswalk in. Then we are by not doing it right and you know there's an issue with how drivers, when they do and don't yield to pedestrians, and enforcements and education, and there are parts of this country that are much better with Um Actually yielding to pedestrians compliance. Thank you, yeah, I mean there are parts of this country where drivers are much better complying with that than other parts of the country. Is culturally, yeah, it's built, and and I don't, you know, I don't know what the psychology of that is, I don't know how we do a better job, you know, of Training our drivers to yield to pedestrians because they should.

Mike Spack:

They should. And I also think it's environmental that that closer into the core of the city, where there are is more pedestrian activity and you have the old-fashioned grid systems and Sidewalks and the whole deal. It just the environment is telling drivers pay attention, yeah, but if you're on the edges of a metro area where you may drive all week without seeing a pedestrian and I was a new cross one, it's, it's more jarring.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so the the? The summary on that is you know, crosswalks just like stop signs. In a lot of cases they're overused and we shouldn't be marking them unless there's really a strong demand or a really strong reason for it right then.

Mike Spack:

One counter argument I've heard is, as we're getting into self-driving cars and the mapping systems that are coming with that and the newer cars, the displays will have what the speed limit is, and so you, but a lot of those systems are picking up on the marking, the pavement markings and the signs, and they're pulling in the data to educate the basically AI system of what is out there, so that that is an area where our industry should be working with the technology companies of Do they need those markings so then their vehicles can operate better, I would put it. But we're in a messy middle where humans are still driving and computers are starting to drive more. It's very easy if it's one or the other.

Marc Culver:

Hey everyone, I just want to take a quick moment to thank our sponsor, bolton Mink, who is producing and editing our podcast.

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Marc Culver:

So related kind of to the street audits and some of these things that we're talking about, talk a little bit about Complete streets policies like what, what should a? Why should an agency or a city have a constraint complete street policy, what should begin there? We'll certainly post some examples of some, some policies, at least from Minnesota, if not more regionally. But what do you, what do you think about that?

Mike Spack:

I I've heard two kind of the barbell approach of the two extremes on policies in general, of if you have a policy, then you're kind of behold into the policy and there there are plenty of like going back to the surgeon Concept we were talking about earlier of I'm on a pedestal, I know better would just let me use my judgment to make every decision. But then you have to make every decision. If you have a policy, you have clarity but you're kind of boxed in by the policy of following the policy and if you're gonna deviate, you better you must have a stronger reason to deviate from the policy. So it kind of depends on your personality and your community's personality what you want. I personally like clarity and and having the discussions ahead of time and you're not gonna Be able to work through all of the edge cases. But come up with that Pareto principal 80 20. The 20% of the bet situations provide 80% of the benefit. I mean that seems to be a natural law. So you can come up with a policy of what is your community's feelings, desires, outcomes, just, and it should roll up to the political body and Residents. When we had dev I was a resident of st Louis Park and I was on a commission, as part of the comprehensive planning, that really took a Strong look at complete streets and who as an identity as a community. We had all kinds of neighborhoods with Sidewalks that would just stop mid-block because when they were built in the 30s the residents opted not to pay for the sidewalk in front of their house. So like, okay, as a community we wouldn't build a road that stopped midway. So we decided we should complete the sidewalks and Coming up with the complete streets policy I is coming up it's part of the character of your community. So I like to have clarity whether it's part of the city comprehensive planning process or that happens in a lot of communities only once a decade. So this could be kind of every in and off year when you're not going through the big plan, but kind of coming up with a list of here's how we deal with traffic calming policies, here's how we deal with complete street policies, whatever other policies you could almost have a cadence of. Okay, we do our comprehensive plan every decade or every five years and then the year after that we look at this policy, the year after that we look at this other policy and just have a cadence because, just like the laws of the land, there's lots of antiquated stuff on the books, because nobody ever goes back and refreshes that. The valid point, yep, but so complete streets of. Do we want sidewalks? Do we want trails? Do we want them on both sides of the road? Do we want them on one side of the road? How much do residents get to say we're working around trees? Are we gonna narrow? What is our standard? Curve. All of these things are up in the air and every community gets to decide what type of product they're putting out there. My personal bent the communities I like living in are more friendly to pedestrians, to bicyclists, to transit, to the automobile is not the king, but there are communities, especially if you get out of, like just going to Los Angeles, like it's a car centric, environmental and changing that 80 year history, like just because the current politicians may wanna change it doesn't mean you're gonna change the culture. So I'm not mandating every community needs to look the same, but I think you should be clear on what you wanna look like and that should be encompassed in these policies and plans.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and even in that LA environment and that I think the benefit of a complete streets and the whole concept of complete streets is how are we deciding our streets to be complete for everybody? And a treatment in LA is gonna be different than a treatment in St Louis Park for various reasons. But, like you said, talk about that. Talk about what you want your streets to look like, your community to look like, what's reasonable, and then document it and so you know what you're designing for, as you do, a major project.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, they're in a vacuum. People always make up stories and their default ends up happening, and so if there's a vacuum of policies and plans, something happens, and I just prefer for it to be intentional. Yeah, okay.

Marc Culver:

I think one really interesting item on here is working with elected officials and we chuckle because that can be more well. I guarantee you it's gonna be more frustrating than dealing with the general public. And hey, I've worked with some really great elected officials. In case any of them are listening, I've had some really great experiences with elected officials. What. They are technically your boss, you know, and they are the governing authority of your agency, of your city. So how do you balance that of working with elected official, that maybe they want something a little unreasonable?

Mike Spack:

Well, first I'm gonna start by challenging is the elected official, the boss of the street superintendent, like for sure they're the hiring firing of the city manager, the administrator, the person at the top? But how far down the org chart does an elected official get to reach Is again in a vacuum of information. I know I've worked with plenty of city officials that think they can reach all the way down to the bottom of the org chart. But in the ideal world there's more clarity on no, you can come to this person and then that person manages underneath. But one of my worst stories I was probably two weeks on the job in Maple Grove and my boss, the city engineers, like hey, mike got a request, we wanna put stop signs, always stop at this intersection. Like again, there's no way this meets Warts, but I wanna go and set some tube counter and do what you want. So I go set some tube counters. I'm like no way this meets the Warts in the manual on uniform traffic control devices for the always stop. And he comes back and says well, you can write your memo and deny this request, but I should let you know it's one of our longstanding city council members whose cat was just run over and she requested these stop signs. And you may be right, but is it worth getting fired on? And unfortunately, politics is part of our job and many of our decisions. We are the professionals making a recommendation, but it's really the elected officials who are making the decision, yes, and having them document the decision. So it is their decision to kind of buffer any of your accountability as the professional that everyone should do. Kind of cover your rear on that, those decisions, but say, okay, it doesn't meet the engineering standards, I would recommend it against it. But if they say they're putting it in, you're putting it in, kind of hopefully you can build rapport as you're the city engineer, as the public works director, you're in workshops, you're at the meetings, hopefully you build that professionalism. And as a consultant, I even started to feel that in a couple of the communities where I was routinely going to public hearings at city council so I was in there eight times a year the council and the mayor knew who I was, they knew my general presentation, they trusted me, they had seen my work for eight years that, okay, you build rapport. So that's really just being a human of we're all humans realizing, hey, maybe they're having a bad day yeah, everyone has bad days and trying to be compassionate and get to the root issues, being doing your professional due diligence. Not making a snap decision saying you look into something, but actually then following up and looking at it. That's the right way to be a professional, was my experience.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, no, I think that's really well said and the rapport component of that. I was fortunate enough in both of my positions to be able to develop that rapport, that relationship with the council members and so that they did trust me and sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they were that frustrated, angry resident that was calling and just needed to like vent something out and you listen and you reason with them and hopefully you have developed that level of trust with them where they say you know what? Okay, that's what you say. If that's really what would happen, okay, if that. Okay, we'll go with that, mark, thank you.

Mike Spack:

One danger we fall into and I know I fell into it as a younger engineer feel like, okay, I got this engineering degree, I made it through that gondolin. Okay, I got my FE, e-i-t. Okay, I got my professional engineer's license. I have to act like the expert. I have to know all of the answers on the spot. As I've matured as an engineer, I've realized, if I'm in the gray area, to keep my mouth shut and to do the research and come back with the right answer instead of taking a guess at the answer and my experience is actually the elected officials really respected that of I don't have to have the answer on the spot. As long as I do come back with the answer later, they would prefer me to get it right than make up something It'd be wrong later, absolutely.

Marc Culver:

And sometimes you know that's it's not easy to do because there's pressure like you're in a public hearing, you're at a city council meeting. You know there's pressure to have an answer, but sometimes, yeah, you, like you said, make you have to be the professional and say you know what, we will look into, that we will get back to you tomorrow or whenever with our position on this, or you know what we think is the right thing to do.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, and that takes confidence. I actually learned that from a couple of very seasoned city attorneys of. They seem to be masters of giving the answers they knew, but also being very clear when they didn't know.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah, and just like you said on the conference level, knowing that that's okay, that if anything it just gives, it shows more of your professionalism, that you understand when you know something and you are unsure about something, but you know where to go to find out that answer and not making it up in the moment. You know.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, and there are. Kind of a blessing of our industry is there aren't that many emergencies, there aren't that many critical decisions that have to be made on the spot. Many, many things can wait a week.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so you know we've talked some about complete streets and street audits and that and all of that. A lot of that comes down to how we originally build our streets, how we originally build our network or how we modify our network, what we're planning for. So you know, a lot of communities most communities, I know the communities in the metro area of the Twin Cities are required to put together a comprehensive plan and as a part of that, one very important chapter of that comprehensive plan is the transportation plan. So let's talk a little bit about our experiences, you know, working on transportation plans for the communities that we worked in and what you've seen, that's been, you know, good or not so great about them. What do you think are the really good elements and sides of the transportation plan?

Mike Spack:

Yeah, first of all, I think, as on the public work staff, on the engineering staff, we do need to respect our comp plans. There's a lot of thought and effort that went into them. So it is kind of our accountability to follow those plans, not to deviate, not to make up our own answers, that that's our playbook and there are opportunities to make amendments to those transportation plans if you need to.

Marc Culver:

but right, not just ignoring it, yeah.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, so if we do need to respect the plan and the effort that went into them and the whole process. Now my issue is many cities do it every 10 years and I went, if I think about my life 10 years ago, in any possible direction, like I could not have written a plan 10 years ago and then just magically followed it without modifying and adjusting to reality. I mean, this is we're just coming off a global pandemic. I mean, everybody had to adjust. So there's this balancing act, if we have this plan, but then how do we live with it and how do we make it a living document? And so really, the better elements are kind of the core principles of hey, if speeds are over 35 mile, 85th percentile speeds to get into the technical weeds are over 32 miles per hour on a local residential street, that is, we're gonna have this kind of policy. So defining the principles of when there are problems or if a local street has more than a thousand cars a day, kind of documenting what your thresholds are for when things go from being no problem to being something we should monitor, to something being a problem that green light, yellow light, red light, yeah, and I would in my perfect world. I would like to see us develop those thresholds but then have more of a live dashboard of getting all of our data in and that gets into the smart cities, of more traffic sensors, more sensors on our water system, portable water system, more sensors on our storm water system, our bridges, whatever it may be. So we could see that dashboard of green, yellow, red, so it's almost like stepping on the scale to see what your weight is every week. Do you do it every day? Do you do it every week? Do you do it every year? Do you do it every decade? Right, or go get your physical or go get your blood draw, or whatever it is. I would like to see more ongoing monitoring with our transportation plans. But in the transportation plan I want us to set the standards and the thresholds. But the problem is we go out and we go collect data, we collect traffic counts every handful of years and then we put it all in that transportation plan and we develop the 10 year road plan or the 30 or the 50 year road plan just based on that one snapshot. And it's possible that data was collected when there was a parade going on or some weird construction project, right, big road exposure, yeah. So this idea that we have these static data points that certainly made sense in the 1940s but now, all of a sudden, in 2023, moving forward, we have all of this technology sitting out there that we should be collecting more and more data and that allows us to cost effectively have more of a monitoring system and to have that capital improvement plan be evolving. That my experience with CIPs is they're pretty static and they are not evolving of. Yes, you need to set a three or five year window, but then updating it every year I think can be a much more living organism Looking at all the dashboard.

Marc Culver:

You said it a few minutes ago but it's stuck in my head that concept of a living document. We really do live in an age now where we've got the technology, we've got the ability, we've got the there are services out there, on the traffic side at least, where we can update that data on a regular basis and we can update it with data that is not just a snapshot, it is truly an average of traffic data, traffic volumes and such over a period of time.

Mike Spack:

Because we wanna see the trends. It's too easy as engineers just to keep trendlining a growth rate to say, oh, 10 years ago it was a thousand cars a day and 10 years later it's 2,000 cars a day on the road. So therefore it's got this growth rate of whatever 4% that it's going and it's gonna do that forever. And it's not. Well, it's not. The patterns go with kind of an S-shaped curve but it's low. It has a steep growth trajectory than it plateaus and most of our systems are like that. But if we're making these plans, we're in that huge growth phase. Everything's on a whack and we way overbuilt. And as I've driven through some of the suburbs I've worked on, it's like, oh, that got overbuilt.

Marc Culver:

You know. Getting back to the living document concept for the transportation plan, one of the besides traffic volumes and maybe speeds, one of the most critical maps and pieces of data that we develop in our transportation plans are from a safety perspective, looking at crash history, crash rates, this, that and the other on not only intersections but also segments of roadway. Again, that is something that could be more of a living document, and doing this at every, you know, 10 year snapshot time and making updated decisions on that information.

Mike Spack:

First of all, I agree the crash data should be at every transportation plan, but I've looked at transportation plans that don't even have crash data in it. So please, if your transportation plan is not looking at crashes, you absolutely should.

Marc Culver:

You really need to identify where your critical intersections are, where you have a safety issue, so you can focus on those.

Mike Spack:

But one part of the living document is what is the critical crash rate on that type of infrastructure, whether intersection or segment, and where is that baseline data coming from? So you know, compared to whether it's within your community, within your county, within your state, what are the benchmarks? So those thresholds of? Are you in green territory, yellow territory or red territory? And as our technology is changing and patterns are changing, those thresholds are also moving. But what I've seen, these thresholds whether it's capacity level of services or it's related to the critical crash rates or average crash rates those data sets are what would be laughable to hardcore statisticians. So if we're collecting mountains of data, not only can we see the trends in our communities, but if we can aggregate that to our communities, to our counties, to our regions, then we can actually see the benchmarks moving as well. So we can see how should this infrastructure be performing, not just based on a static line that was drawn 20 years ago by your DOT. Yeah, so, ed, there's so much more we could harness with analytics, but I'm not sure who's gonna be motivated because it's a huge body of data, yeah, and that's when we're talking about establishing those benchmarks, those critical crash rates.

Marc Culver:

I mean, that's a DOT level effort, I think, in my opinion, or at least a regional transportation agency type of level. And the larger cities can certainly do that on their own too the New Yorks and the LAs, they can certainly spend that effort, but there definitely should be a regional or a statewide efforts to do that and keep those updated and such but we also have to think about motivations and dentists kind of skin in the game.

Mike Spack:

The DOT folks. They're first and foremost looking at the arterials, the highways, the. They're not them driving into data on local streets. They're not motivated to do that. So it's much more at the city level. That's where the motivation is to refine that data in those algorithms. The DOT's art is intrinsically motivated to come up with that. They are, but they could help. They certainly could help, yeah, yeah. So other things that should be in a transportation planner are kind of the standards and thresholds, whether they're in the ordinances. I prefer not to have all kinds of numbers and details in the ordinances. I feel like the plans and policies are much easier to update. So to have exactly what your driveway standards are, what your street segments curb to curb or if you have ditches, well, whatever the standard plans are, to have those part of the living documents. So as we are evolving, they are easier for a staff level to have them evolve. But at that big vision level it absolutely has to be the elected officials and resident commissions. It should not be up to a single public works director, city engineer to come up with the vision of where do we have sidewalks, the trails, the kind of the complete street elements? Yep, that's a big decision. So the big overarching, what we want it to look like, that should be in the bigger kind of more set in stone plans and ordinances. But then, as it filters down to the specific tactics of how we're gonna implement that, more and more I want that to be living documents that, at a staff level, as we learn more, we can make the changes.

Marc Culver:

Right, right, and a really good example in Roseville was we we took a lot of that information that was in our ordinances and our zoning regulations in that over the last couple of years we started pulling that out of there because it got even to the level of water main pipes and and such, and so let that stuff be in a separate policy document or design standard document that you can change, you can modify with input, with some discussion if need be, but keep that out of the ordinances.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, in thinking of kind of the parking ordinances and stuff around drive-through lanes, like how long should a QB add a drive-through bank these days? I mean with ATMs and mobile deposits and everything. If it's in an ordinance, it probably hasn't been changed in 30 years when on a Friday afternoon those lines would be 20 cars long. Well, now it's a couple of cars if they even have a drive through at the bank. So having it be more in a policy or in a plan allows us, as the data comes out, to make the changes easier.

Marc Culver:

Yeah it's a valid point. Yeah, and I know that was one thing that we would do for drive-throughs in Roseville. That was a conditional use permit and so every time they came in with a drive-in request, we'd require a study on what's your key link or that, so then we could make specific design requirements and such based on that. And it's relevant, it's current versus something that's in a zoning code.

Mike Spack:

How did you handle when you're in Roseville kind of getting down to the inventory of street signs and going out and measuring retro reflectivity? We?

Marc Culver:

didn't, and actually I made that decision when I was at Maple Grove and that whole the federal requirements for establishing retro reflectivity standards in the set and the other was first coming up. We quickly decided it's not worth the effort to go out there and measure the retro reflectivity of every sign every one year, two year, three years, whatever, and to own the equipment to do it in the set and the other it was. We did the research, we established an, assumed a life cycle for the sheeting material on the sign, whether it was DG3 or whatever, and then we would have a set replacement at that lifetime that the sign needed to be replaced within that. If it was D18 years, you needed to replace it within that 18 year period, did you?

Mike Spack:

tweak it based on the direction it faced.

Marc Culver:

No, we know, at least for Maple Grove. I'm not quite sure, because my street superintendent was managing it in Roseville, I think, because the design life standards that we were getting from the manufacturer which we were going off of was, assuming, I think, kind of a worst-case scenario. Right, yeah, so that north-facing sign is going to last longer than the south-facing sign. But we kind of also took it from the perspective of if we're going to go in there and replace these two signs or three signs, we're just going to replace all the signs so that they're all the same life.

Mike Spack:

You're going neighborhood by neighborhood yeah, almost, and just blanket every 18 years, covering Right Now.

Marc Culver:

there's a higher cost to that, but there's also an efficiency to that. You can budget for it better, I think, because you know how many signs are out there and you know what their life cycle is going to be, so you can budget for that better as well.

Mike Spack:

Yeah, it's like replacing your roof. You don't go shingle by, shingle rest most of the time, right?

Marc Culver:

exactly.

Mike Spack:

I mean you're replacing your south-facing shingles when you replace your north-facing shingles, yeah, yeah, I think we've covered a lot of ground on the basics of what we're facing as city of public works, folks, traffic, engineering, issues, if you're not a traffic engineer, right, and you know, if you have some questions that we didn't cover in this, email us, go to our website.

Marc Culver:

You can contact us through our website and send those questions and maybe we'll do an episode of, like, you know, q&a yeah, q&a List of your questions and fill in some blanks of things that we didn't mention today. But that website that we're going to link to Mike on Traffic, it's got a lot of resources in there on some other topics that we haven't talked about. I know one topic you want to talk about in our future episode is school traffic control. Yes, and I think that's a really great one, particularly for, you know, smaller private schools in this set and the other. I think it's a really great conversation. Mike, you've done a lot of studies and work on that and I think there's a lot of good information to share on that one. So we'll just do that as a teaser for a future episode as well. Sounds good, great, well, thank you Mike, thanks Mark, and before we go here, although we don't charge for the professional development hour you just received by listening to the podcast, the Public Works Nerds is not free If you've listened to more than one episode. The cost is that you will tell one colleague about the Public Works Nerds to help us grow our audience. Thank you,

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