Planning and building new bike lanes and pedestrian projects usually goes something like this: The city allocates money, meets with people in the community to get feedback and develop a list of projects, and then begins construction.
The process can take years to finish.
Vignesh Swaminathan, the CEO and president of Crossroad Lab, works with cities in California to speed up that timetable. His firm helps build interim designs using paint, plastic and temporary, movable materials to open bike lanes faster and allow for changes to the final product. Essentially, a temporary bike lane can be created while planning for the permanent project is still underway.
Swaminathan has also gained notice online through his popular TikTok videos, where he’s taken on the nickname “Mr. Barricade.” In his videos, he talks about urban planning, road design and engineering principles. (Swaminathan was removed from the platform over the weekend through TikTok’s automatic banning system. The Seattle Times has reached out to TikTok for an explanation.)
In our latest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A, we spoke with Swaminathan about his approach to street design and his TikTok videos.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is the quick-build process for bike lanes?
Cities regularly do pavement maintenance on their streets. With a quick-build process for bike lanes, they can add in modifications that include temporary posts or other reflective units. By using this method, we get good feedback and give roadway infrastructure a more localized approach, rather than pushing federal standards onto the community. This process has a little more back and forth and alleviates some animosity.
What is your firm’s role in transportation projects?
We take on design, planning and construction. We work with the city on purchasing materials, having them ready for construction day and talking with city officials about how to maintain and keep these features up after we leave.
How did you get into TikTok?
I joined TikTok to make fun videos. As I started learning about the app, I jumped on trends and got popular without showing my business. With TikTok, I’m able to explain complex intersections or engineering principles in a short form.
TikTok has also helped me in my day job practice how to communicate with communities who may have animosity toward projects. Being able to handle criticism online has helped me feel more confident being able to talk about more controversial things regarding infrastructure.
How did you get the name Mr. Barricade?
I used to be the traffic control person for the city of San Jose. I managed cones and barricades, and I shut down the streets for different events, festivals and marathons. I saw how the culture of a street can change in a matter of hours, from being a busy roadway to a block party or a concert. That’s when some people started calling me Mr. Barricade.
What challenges have you seen with community outreach?
Typically, projects have a few community meetings at 3 p.m., and the city sends out mailers. We’ve done that for years, and we’ve found that we get the same type of people coming to the same community meetings and pushing the same agendas. People with other issues, such as minority communities who were upset about loss of parking, were not being heard. These are things that actually can affect communities quite adversely and create animosity.
How has your approach to community outreach changed?
Now, we have meetings in the evening, like at 6 p.m. We have day care at the meetings. Our conversations are translated into multiple languages, and we allow people to access the meetings remotely. I found success in putting a lawn sign in the street with a cellphone number that people can text us questions. That way you get a lot of good feedback from all different types of people.
Have you received any critiques about the quick-build method?
It’s a struggle for cities to wrap their head around these quicker processes. With permanent, concrete structures, you work with the community and go through environmental processes and get a biking facility that’s going to last 10 or 15 years and can be maintained easily.
With this, you’re doing a similar process and you’re ending up with a facility that requires more maintenance and outreach and coordination and data collection, because it’s not the final facility. I think it’s important for cities to do projects this way, especially when they have complex corridors where they don’t know the answers.
What could Seattle be doing better?
In general, I always think diversion is a great solution for encouraging biking. With diversion, cities shut down the street from car traffic but still allow for bicycle, pedestrian and emergency vehicles to pass through. It makes everything into a simulated cul-de-sac while still being walkable.
How do you respond to people who think diversion leads to traffic on side streets?
The city plans for arterial roads to take vehicle traffic. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to plan for spillover traffic to be making its way through the grid neighborhood. The solution has always been speed humps, but it’s still letting people go through the residential streets and they can be loud. Diversion would help people in that community take ownership of their streets and have the ability for children to play in the street rather than it being a cut-through for drivers.
What’s next for you?
I hope in the future to use TikTok to teach more people. I have a couple of videos planned where I’m going to teach people about how to attend a community meeting, how to join a commission, how to give your opinion about something, whatever it is. I want to explain how to speak on a topic to get your point across.