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Friday, September 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Transportation

Getting There: Imagining the highways and byways of tomorrow

If a bicyclist crosses a road with no traffic signals that’s filled with driverless cars, what will happen?

Rhonda Kae Young, a professor of civil engineering at Gonzaga University, says not much. And it’ll probably be safer.

“As long as you have a smartphone, you’re going to live,” she said, laughing.

Equity issues aside – not everyone has a smartphone – the future is connected. If you’re on two wheels with a gadget in your pocket, those computerized cars will “see” you and stop. No traffic signal needed.

It’s an exciting, complex and increasingly accepted vision of our transportation future. And Young is helping to define it, with work spanning these seemingly incompatible transportation poles: A street made specifically for bicycles and “smart” big rigs that talk to one another.

In her research, Young’s working with two groups of engineering seniors at Gonzaga. One group is working on designs for the Cincinnati Greenway, the city’s first type of street that prioritizes walkers and bicyclists over vehicles. The other is working with the Wyoming Department of Transportation in a “connected vehicles” pilot project testing short-range, vehicle-to-vehicle communication along the state’s freight-heavy I-80.

The first project envisions roads without cars. The second sees roads without traffic signals. The greenway’s trouble spots come when it crosses major roads, at Jackson Avenue, North Foothills Drive and Spokane Falls Boulevard. Young said the Wyoming project can be summed up with a question: What if you never had to wait at a red light again?

Describing her and her students’ work last week before about 50 people at the Greater Gonzaga Guild’s luncheon, Young began with her infectious enthusiasm about transportation, but soon was telling of the knotty issues surrounding her research.

“I like transportation engineering because everyone has a traffic story to tell,” she said, before talking about “advisory bike lanes,” the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum communication band and “friction” between transportation modes.

Heady stuff, but Young was able to keep it grounded.

The Cincinnati Greenway has been planned for years, and is the missing link between the Ben Burr Trail in the East Central neighborhood and the Addison-Standard bike corridor. Now, the 1.7-mile route on Cincinnati Street between Euclid Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard has nearly $1 million in funding and the power of Gonzaga engineering behind it.

The greenway, which can also be referred to as a “bicycle boulevard,” will be designed to discourage motorists while making the road safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Some of her students’ designs have never been tried in Spokane before.

One of those design elements is the “advisory bike lane,” which allows for bikeways on streets that are otherwise too narrow to accommodate a traditional bike lane. Instead of two solid white paint lines on the road, the outer paint stripe nearer the curb is solid, and the inner stripe is dotted.

The effect is a narrower street, similar to the older Spokane roads where cars are parked on either side and on-coming drivers have to negotiate who goes first.

“This gives the designated space to the bicyclists. Cars need to yield to them,” she said. “Some people say, ‘I don’t like those streets and I try to avoid them.’ And that’s what we want.”

It’s a shift from past decades of transportation planning that gave priority to cars and speed, and Young acknowledges the difficulty in getting people to see the safety benefits.

“It’s a way of defining bike space that still allows for local access by cars, but it also creates what we describe as friction,” she said. “We want people to go 15, 20 mph. It’s not a road that feels comfortable going 35 mph. Creating a little bit of friction makes people pay more attention. We don’t want people tuning out.”

Construction on the greenway is expected to begin summer of 2019, but before then city engineers will review and approve the students’ design work.

“It really is a blank slate,” Young said of the greenway. “The city is really open to new ideas and creating the type of facility that people in this region haven’t seen yet.”

Talking trucks

The Wyoming project stems from Young’s previous work in the engineering department at the University of Wyoming, where she applied to be part of a U.S. Department of Transportation pilot project testing and deploying advanced short-range communication technology.

She got it, as well as projects in New York City outfitting the city’s yellow cabs with connected technology and in Tampa, where commuting cars on expressways have been connected.

Young said freight traffic is the focus of the Wyoming work. I-80 is a 402-mile corridor that carries an average of 32 million tons of freight each year. Due to a lack of other available routes in Wyoming’s high country, about 70 percent of the traffic on the interstate during peak season is trucks.

The project has “instrumented” 400 vehicles and built 75 roadside units. The trucks will talk to each other, broadcasting basic safety messages, sharing alerts and advisories and collecting environmental data through mobile weather sensors.

The trucks aren’t driverless, but the technology could be used in a driverless future, allowing autonomous vehicles to communicate in a network. Imagine a traffic jam or collision is reported 20 miles ahead. Your car would either slow its speed to avoid the dreaded stop-and-go jam we all know so well, or avoid the route altogether. Or if there’s a particularly icy curve that a few cars ahead of felt and reported, yours would slow to avoid the slip.

Young said she’s most interested in connected vehicles, and the driverless future, because of the increased safety they’ll provide. Even in their infancy, driverless vehicles have a much better safety record than people.

“We know there are lots of reasons that humans aren’t particularly good at driving. We need to utilize the technology to make us better,” she said. “We haven’t really had our eye on the true risk. As I get older, frankly, I’m more surprised we’re not more outraged about the crashes and fatalities on our roadways. The numbers are so large that everybody is impacted.”

In 2017, there were 40,100 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council. In 2016, there were 40,327. Similar numbers have been recorded since 1946, some years reaching higher than 50,000 deaths.

Considering the safety Young says is inherent in her two projects, she sees a bright future.

“We need options, from the simplest modes to the most complex,” she said. “Right now, there’s sort of push-back against highways and interstates, that they’re negative. Yes and no. There’s a place for those kinds of facilities, but we can’t turn every road into a highway. There is such a range of things, and these two projects are on either side of it. I think we’re trying to improve everybody’s quality of life and safety. That’s good for everybody.”

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