Greenways: Gonzaga students engineer future transport
Bicycle boulevard work could begin next yearMay 24th, 2018
Gonzaga University engineering professor Rhonda Young claims we’re in the midst of a new transportation era, similar to the days when cars first began to replace horse-and-buggy as the main mode of transportation.
“We’re looking at a future with vehicles that can communicate with each other, and with the roadways they travel on,” she says. “It’s an exciting time, but it’s probably going to take some adjustment.”
Young, who has worked as a consultant in the transportation industry for more than 10 years and has taught as a professor in Gonzaga University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science for the past three, says that adjustment is just one of the challenges her students face in designing tomorrow’s roadways.
“Civil engineering is a broad program, but all the work we do uses engineering skills to improve civilization or society as a whole,” she says.
“Transportation is the discipline that interacts most with the pubic, and engineers are tasked with seeing the bigger picture, balancing their knowledge of what works with public opinion and community needs.”
Young teaches several engineering courses at Gonzaga, including one that pairs engineering seniors with faculty and local professionals, to work on solutions for real-world projects.
“When I first started, I decided to join the city’s bicycle advisory board as a way of meeting people and learning more about transportation projects here,” she says.
One of the first projects Young heard about was the plans for the Cincinnati Greenway, a new kind of street that’s meant to prioritize biking, pedestrians, and public transportation over motor vehicle traffic.
Cincinnati Street runs along the eastern side of Gonzaga’s campus, just one block west of Hamilton Street, which is considered to be the Logan neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.
Young says greenways, also known as bicycle boulevards, typically are located a block or two away from main arterials and include features that encourage cars to go slow enough to allow walkers and cyclists to feel safe traveling the route.
“Some motorists see nearby streets as short cuts they can use to avoid traffic on main thoroughfares,” she says. “Part of the goal making those routes into greenways is to set a different tone, one that encourages drivers to go slower and be more engaged in their surroundings.”
While motorists still are allowed to use greenways, Young says they’re designed to create just a little extra friction between cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
“Spokane actually has some natural greenways already,” she says. “Most of them are in residential neighborhoods where streets are narrower, and cars and bikes have learned to share space.”
“Greenways help people to be more present and aware, which serves to increase safety and can also help boost friendly interactions between neighbors,” she adds.
The Cincinnati Greenway is planned to be a 1.7-mile route that will connect the Ben Burr Trail, Centennial Trail, and bike lanes on Addison Street as it runs between Euclid Avenue on its north end and on its south end.
Brandon Blankenagel, senior engineer with capital programs at the city of Spokane, says the City Council first conducted a greenway definition and development process in 2013.
“A group of citizens and stakeholders met several times and prioritized three main greenways for the city: Manito Boulevard, Cincinnati Street, and Everett Avenue,” he says. “The Cincinnati Greenway was selected as the first priority as it connected the northeast neighborhoods to downtown by tying into the Centennial Trail at its south end.”
He says the project already has nearly $1 million in grant funding, about half of which comes from local transportation benefits district funding, and half from a Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant through the Federal Highway Administration.
“We hope to start construction in summer of 2019,” he says. “The current budget will allow us to create the initial concept, and additional elements may be added over time to upgrade and increase service of the street.”
Blankenagel says the grant also includes an outreach program coordinated with the Spokane Regional Health District, with some of the funds going toward its Walk Bike Bus Spokane program.
“Once the greenway is constructed, they’ll be able to go into the affected neighborhoods with outreach and coaching, encouraging people to try the new street and use more active modes of transport,” he says.
While there are other kinds of greenways being proposed by various neighborhoods, Blankenagel says the three projects the city is proposing are specific to the needs of their surrounding areas.
“These projects are being designed to handle higher traffic volumes and fit within distinct neighborhoods,” he says. “So, they may include different tools than those applied to smaller projects in lower volume areas.”
Blankenagel says Cincinnati was in many ways an ideal street for a greenway, as it has plenty of space and is located in a low-volume, attractive neighborhood for much of its length.
He says the Cincinnati Greenway project also was suited to a partnership with student engineers, as the city was looking to narrow its options for what designs might work best for the project.
“It happened to work well to partner with students who had engineering skills and background, advancing our needs while also helping them to grow and meet their educational requirements.”
Young says she first approached the city about partnering with her students on early designs of the project in May of 2017, and a group of three students then spent the 2017-2018 academic year working on research and potential designs for the greenway.
She says the student’s research on the project included studying data on traffic volumes and average speeds, as well as safety and parking needs.
As a result of that research, she says, the project’s final design likely will include small traffic circles or traffic signals in places where the street intersects with major arterials, bumped out curbs, and a new concept called “advisory bike lanes.”
Young describes advisory bike lanes as a kind of roadway striping that allows for a single center travel lane with bike lanes on either side. The center lane isn’t divided into lanes based on direction, instead it’s shared by cars traveling in both directions. She says at times the center lane may not be wide enough for two cars to pass, so they would have to yield to each other or to bikes in order to pass.
“Since residential streets are low enough volumes that a car passing is relatively rare, most of the time cars can just travel down the center space,” she says. “Cars can use the bike lane space if they need room to pass, but bicycles have the right-of-way.”
She adds, “Most of our design proposals included about 40 percent of the corridor being made up of advisory bike lanes,” she says.
When researching the project, students spoke to neighborhood councils in each of its three affected neighborhoods—Nevada Heights, Logan, and East Central.
Although some of the people they spoke with were initially skeptical of new concepts like advisory bike lanes, Young says most seemed willing to keep an open mind.
“The students did a lot of community engagement on this project, including training on how to present plans, listen, and share insights in respectful ways,” she says. “They also offered tours of the project’s route and gave a presentation at this year’s Washington Bicycle Summit.”
Young says the students completed a recommended design charter for the project last month, which the city plans to use to inform its own final design and engineering.
“The design charter is essentially a packet with ideas that they’d researched and vetted through discussions with neighborhood councils,” she says. “The city can use that to create a final engineering design, and from there move toward selecting a contractor and beginning construction.”
Looking ahead, Blankenagel says the city is open to continuing to partner with area students on the design of transportation projects.
“We’re currently working with some Eastern Washington University students, as well as the Department of Transportation on a placemaking project for the Children of the Sun Trail along the route of the North Spokane Corridor,” he says. “We would certainly consider working with other students on future projects, if the partnerships are a good match of skills and needs.”
Young says there continue to be many career opportunities both here and nationally for engineering students, and as Spokane continues to grow, there will likely be more discussions about the future of transportation.
“A good transportation infrastructure is essential to helping generate economic development, which is something we’re seeing a lot of here in Spokane,” she says.
“We’ve started some forward-thinking conversations, but it’s important to keep looking ahead to what an advanced city network might look like, and so we can continue to prepare for and transition toward it in positive ways.”
In the coming months, Gonzaga expects to begin construction of a new $48 million Center for Integrated Science and Engineering. The 80,000-square-foot building is planned to house both the College of Arts and Science and the school of Engineering and Applied Science.
Young says the building is designed to bring together students and faculty from sciences and engineering, which should provide more opportunities for interaction between the two fields of study.
“Engineering often relies on science disciplines, so the shared spaces created by this building will give our students and faculty more opportunities to work together and share knowledge,” she says.