Road Re-Purposing’s Political Spectrum

repurpose2In 2012, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis re-striped Park and Portland Avenues, thereby reducing automobile capacity on two thirds of the corridor (from three lanes to two). These stretches were considered to be at ‘overcapacity,’ making them low hanging fruit for repurposing.

But complimented with stretches of Lyndale Avenue South and other areas around town, the decision to cut back on auto capacity was one of semi-historic proportions. It helped signal a threshold that was broken through in the spectrum of where, how, and why to repurpose streets. It helped set the stage for the future Washington Avenue repurpose downtown, where traffic lanes will be reduced to add bicycle lanes.

Transport systems in communities worldwide slowly evolve. The next evolution will likely respond to technological innovations (e.g., driverless cars) and environmental or other pressures (e.g., cars, in their current form, are largely demonized). Critical questions moving forward revolve around what areas of what streets should serve what purpose. Areas in the right-of-way, most of which are currently devoted to moving cars, will likely be repurposed (not all, but some, if not most). This means changing the proportions and purpose for how this space is used, broadly speaking.

Repurposing can take many forms. It can mean taking away a shoulder and installing a bus rapid transit system. It can mean replacing a vacant 12 foot median with a light rail route. But these are examples with excess space that might be empty in the right of way. What happens when all space in the right-of-way is spoken for? What happens when people say all of that is needed for cars? In these cases space needs to come at the expense of automobile capacity; in most communities, this proves a difficult sell.

Places across the globe are at different points on the spectrum for accepting repurposing arguments. Narrowing the discussion to just the role of automobility and streets, what does this spectrum look like? Where is your community? I offer five tiers.

  1. Stage 1 applies to most communities across the U.S. as there is little acknowledgement that street space will be or needs to be changing. In fact, there might be efforts to find additional space for auto capacity (e.g., more roads, more lanes, wider lanes, more parking). To the degree that non-auto-based infrastructure is discussed or desired, it centers on finding empty space within existing rights of way (e.g., excessively wide shoulders).
  2. Stage 2 is exemplified by efforts to retard expanding the two dimensional capacity of auto-based infrastructure. This might be an explicit commitment to not build more roads (such as in Boulder, Colorado), expand lanes, or increase the level of service of intersections. Given that potholes are often thought of as the original form of traffic calming, Stage 2.5 might involve considering auto capacity in three-dimensional space. Select stretches of roads might be left to wither, while other stretches might be better maintained to support increased variety of use.
  3. Stage 3 might be exemplified by a widespread willingness to re-design select sections to reduce vehicular presence. Such areas, historically, have been recipients of traffic calming techniques. But the reach of these areas is increasing.
  4. Stage 4 might build on Stage 3 by thinking in terms of full corridors. Efforts might be centered on longer stretches of road where there is a willingness to reduce lane capacity.
  5. Stage 5 would be represented by evidence of aggressive attempts to reduce vehicular space in a community. This might be in the form of removing parking overall, installing parking in former vehicular lanes, or any of a series of other treatments (e.g., buffered bicycle lanes, bulb-outs). In this stage, precedents and protocol are more established, thereby easing the path by which the public, engineering or public works offices (in snow country) might more willingly accept such projects.
  6. Future stages would be added as the evolution continues…

Simply applying this spectrum to capture broad-based transport and corridor discussions is too crude. There is inevitably variation in the needs across an entire jurisdiction. An isolated traffic calming treatment does not catapult a community forward.

Some communities have swallowed the “auto-repurposing pill” more quickly and swiftly than others. Several indications suggest that Minneapolis might be ahead of the curve in this respect. Because of such, it helps lays the foundation for future conversations to be more progressive. There is precedent to which one can turn.

Changing the purpose of auto lanes which have largely existed in their current form for over a half-century is difficult but likely inevitable. The sooner such conversations start to happen in communities, the more nimble they will be when more monumental transport changes start coming.

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6 Responses to Road Re-Purposing’s Political Spectrum

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 24, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    Excellent article.

    Favorite statement: “An isolated traffic calming treatment does not catapult a community forward.”

    There are still a couple of chickens and a few eggs to struggle with as we move forward. Can we take space away from cars for bicycle, disabled, and pedestrian facilities when that causes increased traffic problems with the hope that it will allow more of those people driving to use alternatives and thus reduce motor vehicle congestion long-term? Is that realistic given MN winters?

  2. Janne Flisrand
    Janne October 24, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    It seems that nearly every street in downtown (especially downtown east) has had a continuously closed lane all summer and fall for a variety of construction projects. That includes Park and Portland — which didn’t get the benefit of lane reductions with the restriping you mention in your lede. (Hennepin County engineers insisted that there was demand for all three lanes from Washington to Franklin on both streets, at the time of restriping.)

    I’ve observed that there has been NO increase in congestion during rush hour on any of these streets, and am wondering when someone with decision-making authority will notice this, as well, and begin the conversation you name in Stage 3.

  3. Colin October 25, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    One way to cut through this is to recognise that “traffic” includes bicycle traffic, and that repurposing a “car” lane into a bike lane increases the traffic capacity of the road. How? Because a bike lane has greater traffic capacity than a car lane.

    When people resist this repurposing it’s appropriate to ask them why they insist on artificially restricting the traffic capacity of the road.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig October 26, 2014 at 8:51 am #

      I don’t think they’re complaining about capacity as much as they’re complaining about usage…

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