A transportation engineer on what convinced him to use a Complete Streets approach

west-jefferson“Crazy ideas” in action: Complete Streets features in downtown West Jefferson, NC.

On Tuesday we hosted a panel discussion about Safer Streets, Stronger Economies, new research from the National Complete Streets Coalition on the outcomes of Complete Streets projects across the country. If you missed the event, read our full recap and watch the recorded webinar.

Dean Ledbetter, a Senior Engineer at the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), joined the panel to discuss the Complete Streets project in downtown West Jefferson, NC. There were so many questions about working with transportation engineers, and for Dean specifically, that we said down with him for a follow-up conversation.

Alex Dodds: You mentioned that you initially thought that Complete Streets was a “crazy idea,” but that eventually you changed your mind. What convinced you?
Dean Ledbetter: I don’t know if there was one specific thing. I think I had to go through the [Federal Highway Administration’s] training several times for the reality of something new to overpower the existing “knowledge” I had about what my job was supposed to be. And I have to admit that we only went to those classes to get the free Professional Development Hours not because we really expected to learn anything useful.

For most people, whatever we learn first (whether correct or incorrect) is hard to displace. Since I took my traffic engineering courses in the late 1980’s, I learned all about the Highway Capacity Manual and the importance of moving cars through street and intersection networks. When I went to work for NCDOT, intersection capacity was the big issue. When I left the signal design job for a field job, all of the calls I took from the public (and the towns) were about reducing delay and moving cars faster.

I do specifically remember driving back from our first pedestrian safety class in Raleigh and asking my Assistant Traffic Engineer if he had ever seen anything so crazy. After our second class, I remember saying something to the effect of, “That makes sense, but it would never work in our area.” After our third class, I said that we would have to find a place to try some of those things.

And in the mean time, traffic counts were going down. We had lost some manufacturing jobs where hundreds of people went to work at the same place at the same time. I was no longer getting calls about wait times at traffic signals—all of a sudden I was getting more requests for pedestrian signals than for left-turn phases. So the training came at an opportune time.

When we started doing some of the pedestrian projects, we realized how much difference we were making and it felt pretty good. I discovered that I was part of making our communities better places for the people who live in them.

AD: Was is a challenge to get other transportation engineering folks on board?
DL: YES! It has been a challenge. Many people would say it was a challenge to get me on board, but I hope they would also say it was worth the trouble. My experience is that traffic engineers are pretty stubborn, but that’s a good thing when they are on your side.

AD: How did you wind up convincing your colleagues to try it?
DL: The 14 field Divisions of NCDOT are pretty autonomous. This can be good and bad, but it always means that getting to know individuals within the organization is crucial. Some of our folks got it right away. For some, it took a lot of one-on-one conversations. And some will never get it. In all it takes time and requires us to give people room to grow. The person who told you “no” last year may be ready to reconsider now, but you’ve got to give them a graceful way to change their mind.

AD: What advice would you give to someone in a similar position at a different department of transportation?
DL: Ask questions. Engineers like to solve problems, so take advantage of that! Bring me a problem (“Traffic is too fast in my downtown”) instead of a solution (“We need speed bumps”). When you challenge a traffic engineer with a problem and they come up with a solution, they have the buy-in and they are on your side. If you get an answer you don’t like, respond by asking for an explanation (“Help me understand…” or “If that doesn’t work, what else could we try?”). Again, traffic engineers like explaining things and this can create a dialogue. The all-way stops that work well in West Jefferson might not work in your town, but when we discuss it, some other idea might come up that does work.

Also, show people some nearby examples (not pictures from the internet). Find out how another town in your area got something done. Who did they talk to? What data did they have? It’s really hard to argue with success.

AD: Someone asked which classes you took, specifically.
DL: The courses were provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to NCDOT because we were a target state for pedestrian crashes (i.e., we had way too many). One course was solely on pedestrian safety, one was on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and one was on bicycle facility design. There’s more information on the pedestrian and bicycle safety section of FHWA’s website. People can also contact their regional FHWA field offices to inquire about training opportunities (and to thank them for their good work).

AD: Who were your most valuable allies outside the Department?
DL: It always helps to have 21 business owners show up with “Vote Yes to DOT” stickers. That wouldn’t have happened in West Jefferson without the Chamber of Commerce Director, the Town Manager, and the Town Planner going into every business on Jefferson Avenue to explain why the traffic signals were hurting their business and how the all-way stops would help.

I have been pretty much run out of several towns (including the one I live in) after suggesting Complete Streets changes. What I realized is that it took three week-long training classes for me to see it, but I thought I could give a five-minute presentation to a town council and expect them to be on my side. It takes ongoing education. It helps if there is a local group (with a good reputation) that is pushing an idea from within the town. Sometimes an idea just has to sit around for a few months before it sinks in. We were humiliated at a public meeting over a proposal once only to be asked later by the town council when they were getting their project!

The strategy that works best is relationships, trust, and consistency. There is no tool in my toolbox that is more important than the reputation I have with the towns in my Division. They often don’t like what I have to say and may doubt my correctness, but they never doubt my truthfulness or my motives.

AD: What’s next for Complete Streets in North Carolina?
DL: The adoption of the Complete Streets Policy and the training NCDOT provided afterward was very helpful. Hopefully, we won’t lose that momentum moving forward. As people are involved in true Complete Streets projects, I believe they will see the value and it will become second nature. Influencing policy-makers is probably still the most important thing we can do.

Complete Streets