Experiments Rarely Reset Expectations

One year from now, we will have learned what we already know.

Over the next twelve months, south Eugene commuters and merchants will live an experimental life. A five-block stretch of Willamette Street has been restriped this week to simulate what the road may look like when it’s permanently rebuilt in 2018.

For at least the next year, four lanes of traffic will be reduced to two, making room for a left-turn center lane, bike lanes on both sides, and eventually, more generous sidewalks.

Supporters of the design envision a “complete street” that feels safe and welcoming to multiple modes of transportation. Detractors fear that fewer car lanes will mean longer travel times, fewer customers for shopkeepers, and another sore thumb from the misdirected hammer of government innovation.

Much will happen before it’s all said and done. More is usually said than done, which is why I believe the city is smart to invest $150,000 to run this year-long trial. Predictive modeling indicates the new street configuration will best match Eugene City Council’s stated goals for road safety, energy use, and urban planning. But no model can consider the infinitude of variables of people living their lives.

The trial makes us — our habits, our expectations, our experiences — part of the experiment. I only wish those expectations could be more clearly stated at the outset, regardless of whether the goal is to persuade citizens that this design will or won’t work.

Salespeople call this technique “moving past the sale.” On a car lot, it sounds like this: “If I can get you that price, would you like this baby in silver or blue?” Capturing what will be accepted is easiest before the time comes to do the accepting. Expectations are framed now, and the experiences for the next year will naturally fill that frame.

For example, bicyclists promise to frequent merchants more to show their support. How many bicyclists will do this, and their support will be measured how? Traffic engineers believe some slowing of traffic is desirable, but how slow would be too slow?

Some businesses fear that reduced traffic counts will lead to fewer sales. Slower and single-file traffic may have the opposite effect. We can be certain of only one thing. Gross receipts for the next year will not be identical to the last year, because that’s not what happens in the real world.

Here’s what we’ll likely be hearing a year from now.

  • People don’t like diets, even for their roads.
  • Retail sales will have been impacted more by weather and external events than by any street configuration.
  • Bicyclists and pedestrians will be more common on the street. They’ll buy more stuff, but not enough more to satisfy skeptics.
  • Traffic engineers will report that average travel times are only slightly longer, but math professors from Corvallis will have to be called in to explain exactly how “average” was calculated.
  • Police will report more minor collisions, but fewer major ones. Vision Zero road safety advocates will insist that only zeroes will be tolerated.
  • Busses will block traffic flow and driver satisfaction. It will happen only occasionally, but when it does, it will be complete. These complaints will be remembered for longer than anyone considers reasonable, including the complainants. We’re not rational creatures.
  • Except for two weeks in early November when Americans “took to the streets” in an unprecedented display of panic and unity, the road itself will have generated less controversy than all the ideas we had about the road.
  • Adaptability will be strong, even when acceptance is not. Most people will have moved on to other concerns by the time the trial period is halfway finished.
  • Both sides of the controversy will insist that the test was unfair and that their best/worst expectations were confirmed.

If this is an issue you care about, scribble down the results you expect. Be as concrete as possible. Stick that folded note in the bottom of your underwear drawer, to be forgotten until mid-2017. But first, do one more thing. Pledge to your future self a willingness to be surprised.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.