This amazing 3-D tool might transform street planning

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November 26, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Video by Strong Towns: full interview here.

For street projects across the country, one of the enduring obstacles to change is simple: decision-makers and community members just aren't able to imagine what a dramatically better street would look like.

And when people can't understand something, the status quo usually wins.

A Portland-based video designer with a yen for better streets is setting out to solve this problem. He thinks it'll take the tools he learned in another industry: video game design.

The result is a three-dimensional, pannable, zoomable, animated customizable simulation of how a street would look and feel it were laid out differently. If you're on a desktop browser, take a moment to download and install the Unity Web Player plugin required to explore the visualization below. It's worth it.

Click below to explore the interactive visualization


(Click image for interactive Unity3D Web Player demo.)

The simulation linked above offers a few fixed vantage points. To see a different one that lets you pan and scroll around a street, see this one.

If you can't activate the tool, here are some screen captures that give a sense for what Boomhower's tools offer. They can place users in the perspective of a bike rider being passed by faster-moving cars:

They can zoom to a driver's perspective, to see what it feels like to steer around bikes in traffic:

They can flip the perspective over to the sidewalk to see what it feels like to walk in the neighborhood before or after a road diet…

…or with trees:

They can add a curb-protected bike lane:

They can adjust the width of the lanes, Streetmix style:

Boomhower says the service can be pre-loaded to include various intersection treatments, too.

It's a remarkable set of tools that got a gape-jawed review last week from urban planning guru Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns.

"Just that notion of widening the street, narrowing the street at just a whim – what a powerful device," Marohn said in a video interview with Boomhower. "I can see planners all over salivating at that kind of a visualization."

Boomhower, who continues to work mostly as a freelance game designer, estimated to Marohn that he can probably create a simple visualization of a streetscape with fairly generic elements "within a week" of his production time. After that initial work, it takes just seconds to modify a street for different alignments.

"Some ideas — the ones that might have you waving your arms around in an attempt to get across the dynamics of a situation involving objects moving through space — can only really come across through fully 3D animated graphics, and interactive 3D graphics if you want to engage the audience in a way no other presentation can," Boomhower writes on his website.

Boomhower's work is an interactive version of a tool that's already proved useful to cities, architects and other designers: customized 3-D video visualizations. Last year, The City of Portland finally sold stakeholders on a parking-protected bike lane for North Williams Avenue, a project that was sidelined for much of a year amid charges of racism in city planning, by using just such a video, by Portland architect Joshua Cohen of Fat Pencil Studio. Project manager Ellen Vanderslice said in an interview last winter that Cohen's visualization was a key tool in reaching consensus. "He was able to show them the different layouts and then make the changes to it the way they asked," she said. "That is when they began to think about this in the way they did."

Boomhower's new tool could be a low-cost way for cities to quickly tweak and iterate similar visualizations.

In his interview last week, Marohn compared Boomhower's visualization to traffic engineering studies, saying the two tools answer different questions — how traffic works, and how streets feel — but serve a similar purpose.

"We literally spend millions and millions of dollars doing these traffic simulations," Marohn said. "The value that those have from a public discourse standpoint is that they show people how things wil work. I'm looking at this thinking, we can show people in much more vivid detail how these things will work and look and actually give them some parameters they can tweak."

In an interview Monday, Boomhower said his goal is to capitalize on one of the key strengths of protected bike lanes: once people see them in action, they like and want them.

"That's kind of the theory behind the bike lanes in New York," he said. "Once people get a chance to see it in motion, functioning, they're won over. They can have that experience without the whole trials and tribulations of having these things built for real."

The Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for weekly emails of our latest news here.

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