The (re-)allocation of roadspace

Minneapolis Map

Minneapolis Map

The urban public right-of-way (roadspace) is a scarce resource that is now publicly allocated.

Typically at the outside is a sidewalk (this might actually be on private property, but there is a right-of-passage there). Between the sidewalk and the street there is often a “boulevard”, a planted strip with occasional street trees and the frequent sign. There there is a curb and gutter. Next to this is the “street” on which may be on-street parking, followed by movement lanes. The on-street parking may be free or metered. In some places there are designated bike lanes, or even bus lanes. In some places the lanes are reversible in direction, in others they are one-way. There may be bus-stops. Underneath the road are public utilities (water, sewer, natural gas), above or below are cabled utilities (phone, electricity, television). There may be street-lighting. There may be wi-fi antennas on the street-lights. Some blocks are bisected by alleys, others see neighbors abut.

If there is no alley, Garbage, recycling, and reuse trucks ply the roads, and the material for pickup is placed on the boulevard. Driveways may cut into the street.

People may wait on the boulevard for buses (school buses or public transit). There may be a shelter, or a sign. The buses may stop on the right-of-way to board and alight passengers.

We need to be more creative about how we allocate this space. In the US, most cities west of the Appalachians arrange the streets in a grid. This regular, monotonous, grid has many features, but one that is often not used to its fullest is the ability to differentiate.

Presently the links on the grid are largely equivalent, except that some links are collectors and distributors, and serve residential land uses, while others are arterials and serve commercial land uses, and have transit running on them.

Let’s imagine we have a significant commercial arterial every tenth east-west street (10th, 20th , 30th, and so on) (approximately every mile). How do we allocate the road space on the 9 blocks between them? Are they all the same (serving moving and stored cars), or can they be differentiated.

Suppose instead of assuming all modes should mix (and therefore give dominance to the private automobile on all blocks since it has greater number, speed and mass and will win every conflict), let’s take one of those streets (say the Nines: 9th, 19th, 29th, 39th, etc.) and say it is for bicycles only. People who live on the Nines would have to park their cars on another block or in the alley behind, or maybe some off-street parking can be found. This bicycle-only street would only stop when crossing a major north-south arterial (and a yield at transit routes) or other specialize route below (i.e. on only half the blocks they would have a 50 percent chance of having a red light, and on the remaining blocks they would have unchallenged right-of-way).

These are what are called “Class I” bikeways in the jargon, as they are exclusive for bikes. (Other routes that are not otherwise allocated would implicitly be Class III bikeways, a distinction without a difference)

Suppose we dedicate the Fives (5th, 15th, 25th, 35th, etc.) exclusively to public transit and taxis. This route would be about one-half mile from the transit-served arterials, and thus would ensure all travelers are within a one-quarter mile route from a transit service (though perhaps a longer distance to a stop). The frequency here would be fairly high, and stops would be every 2.5 blocks, so the Manhattan (network) distance for the farthest passenger would be one-half mile. This route would be exclusively for transit (and taxi) movement and stops, and transit vehicles would not have to stop except at the arterials and other transit routes, where there would be stops and transfer points anyway. The Transit service would be laid out in a near perfect grid.

Suppose we dedicate the Ones (1st, 11th, 21st, …) to truck movement. Trucks still need to move through the city, but the arterials are already congested with transit and private car traffic. Freight could use other links for access and egress to particular buildings, but use only the Ones for longer distance movements within the city. The roads would be rebuilt with much stronger pavements to withstand the greater use and abuse. Other vehicles could use the Ones, for movement but there would be no on-street parking here either.

Suppose we dedicate the Threes and Sevens to one-way (west-bound and east-bound respectively) vehicular movements. These routes would move a bit faster than the two-way links, would not have to compete with stopping vehicles as much, and would draw longer distance traffic. They would be given a green wave at a socially desirable travel speed.

We would do the same thing on north-south arterials, so that 29th Avenue (N-S) meeting 29th Street (E-W) would be a bicycle-only intersection.

Some of this is familiar to Minneapolitans: 20th is Franklin Avenue, 30th is Lake Street. The Midtown Greenway is roughly 29th St (though of course it is better since it is an exclusive right-of-way). 26th St and 28th St are a one-way pair. But we have not done this strategically or fully. We mix transit and private cars on arterials. Transit buses run on 26th and 28th, not on 25th. We certainly mix trucks with cars excessively.

I am not making a specific recommendation for specific routes, I am suggesting we systematically and multi-modally reconsider roadspace allocation in order to better facilitate the movement of multiple modes in a complex environment and develop a strategy for this. Clearly specific routes will need to be bent to fit the local landscape and built environment.

5 thoughts on “The (re-)allocation of roadspace

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    The street behind my house (alley-sharing neighbors) is slated to become a bicycle boulevard. Elsewhere I've seen that long-term plans are to replace the street for non-vehicular uses only. I can't see how this is politically feasible. I'd rather see it as a one-lane one way with a parking lane and bumpouts, then a planted curb/median and then a wide two-way bike corridor.

  2. Alex BaumanAlex

    I agree with this approach – while it might be ideal to have quality access for all modes on every street, as you note the practical effect of "complete" streets is continued dominance for cars. A few comments:

    1. Actually in the Twin Cities the commercial corridors are typical 8 blocks apart – the one-mile section is divided into 8 e-w streets and 16 n-s streets in Mpls and vice-versa in St Paul. The mile between Franklin and Lake is mostly missing a 21st and a 23rd so it appears to be 10 blocks but is really 8. This shouldn't be a problem because I believe your typology differentiates into 5 different types.

    2. Why not a pedestrian-only street type?

    3. The problem with a truck-only street type is that it tends to be used for cars as well. There may be a way to discourage cars and encourage trucks, but maybe the one-way types could used for trucks, too (this would reduce your specialized types to a total of 4, which would work neatly for the 8-based local grid).

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I'm not sure this would work very well because most destinations want to remain accessible to all people regardless of mode, and most people want to be able to easily access all destinations regardless of mode. Designating a parallel route for a particular mode doesn't help the users of that mode access destinations on routes designated for other modes.

    In other words, the Midtown Greenway is great, but it's really not that useful if I'm trying to access Taco Taxi on Lake Street. At some point, I'm still going to have to ride my bike on or across Lake Street.

    Traffic engineers have been promoting the use of parallel routes to accommodate different modes (especially bikes) for decades, but it has never been embraced by cyclists because the separate-but-equal facilities usually turn out to be not very equal.

    We're trying this to a certain degree already with bike boulevards – and I think the jury is still out on how useful they will be. We'll see.

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  5. Ian Bicking

    You can't really remove vehicle access to *any* street, though you don't have to make it particularly easy. Every building needs access by utility trucks, by emergency services, by moving and delivery trucks, and some kind of access for the elderly and disabled. There doesn't have to be through traffic, it can be regulated, but you still need some access. That said, this isn't particularly incompatible with even bike traffic. A Bike Boulevard takes this general idea, but without any regulation and without really trying to discourage very local traffic – making it much easier to retrofit (physically and politically).

    Another aspect is what land use supports these different kinds of roads. It's already pretty eclectic in most places, but there is an attempt to keep residents away from very busy roads, and to some degree to keep nearly everyone away from truck traffic. To the degree that most roads are multi-use this gets spread out, but if you make the roads very specialized (like a truck-only route) then you're putting a substantial burden on very specific properties. It's fine for non-retail commercial or light industrial, but not that great for anyone else.

    Bus and taxi access is just a bit weird. It's great they get dedicated access, but buses use roads very lightly most of the time (because there won't be any bus at all), then suddenly there's heavy usage. A nice placid street that has a bus barreling down it every 10 or 15 minutes? And if the bus isn't riding fast, then what's the point? At least now there's signaling technology so it could get through intersections quickly while usually letting through cross-traffic. And there's policy reasons to help taxis, but the actual nature of their travel is exactly like cars so the infrastructure needs of taxis and buses aren't particularly compatible. If you are in an area that supports enough taxis to make it possible to just find passengers then taxis will prefer the places that have passengers, regardless of whether its a taxi zone.

    Overall this partitioned plan reminds me of the partitioning done in the suburbs, with a variety of feeders and arteries. Of course that prioritizes personal car transport everywhere, but many of its dysfunctions are due to the partitioning more than the specific motivation. Regulated or restricted systems aren't very responsive to change, or to the simple changes in use throughout the day.

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