Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Please Move My DOT Building

PPS recently posted an excellent blog story (here) discussing the location of state DOT buildings and speculating what effect those locations might have in shaping how DOT engineers think about transportation problems.  They used the Walkscore methodology to rank all 50 buildings.
As it turned out, many state DOTs ranked badly in walkability.  Each building has its own history, but I suspect many of the poor locational decisions were a result of state highway engineers (at that time) wanting to be adjacent to a state highway and to have a big footprint, in order to accommodate maintenance facilities as well as offices.  Other state DOTs ended up in downtown state capital complexes and have high scores.
The honor of worst walkability score goes to the Maryland DOT, at 5.  This is more than a little ironic, because MDOT is one of the very best DOTs in terms of promoting transit, bike/ped programs, multimodal planning, and linking transportation and land use.  And I can confirm from my own experience that their headquarters is definitely isolated. 
The best score goes to Massachusetts DOT (100!) for its headquarters building in central Boston.  Their building not only has a terrific location for access to services (which gets it the high score), it was specifically designed for neighborhood revitalization, transit accessibility, mix of uses, and urban scale (see architect Goody Clancy’s project summary here).  Interestingly, the Massachusetts Transportation Building was in place well before there was a Massachusetts Department of Transportation!  I’m told that one of the purposes of the building was in fact to encourage greater coordination among the various transportation agencies in the state’s byzantine governmental structure, which actually preceded statutory reorganization.
Anyone who has used the Walkscore methodology knows that it gives only approximations of walkability and doesn’t tell the whole story.  Two examples that I happen to know well illustrate this point.
Connecticut DOT is scored as the 20th worst (63, “somewhat walkable”) but is actually in a dreadful location.  There are some shops within a half-mile radius, but it would be a bold pedestrian from ConnDOT who would brave a walk across the parking lots or landscaping (no sidewalks) and high-speed highways (with no crosswalks) to get there.  (More on ConnDOT shortly.)
New Jersey DOT ranks lower than Connecticut (score 52) but is actually much friendlier to pedestrians.  The location is definitely suburban (therefore discouraging collaboration with other agencies and contact with a broader array of stakeholders) but the building is surrounded by a traditional neighborhood mix of housing, shops, and offices on a decent grid of local streets.
Now I do support the author’s contention that building design and location can affect how people think about the world (despite some examples, like Maryland, that don’t work very well).  As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”  I also believe that states can and should use their real estate muscle to leverage growth in desired locations and to model “good behavior.”

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