Getting even a modest pedestrian improvements can be an uphill battle. We have a design bias and process that is inherently unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles. While we’ve made great strides in the last decade, it’s still a constant (and frustrating) battle.
Take a recent incident in Minneapolis as an example; a simple concrete median that protects pedestrians and bicycles is about to be removed. The median was added after a dozen communities meetings, a lengthy engagement process, broad-based community support, and the backing of local City Council members.
Why is it being removed? Because a guy in Public Works doesn’t like it. Apparently cars keep hitting it. And therefore, it must be removed? This may seem like a small deal, but it’s not. It’s an example of the uphill battle that bike and pedestrians advocates are up against.
The system – as it is currently structured – it designed at every corner to favor the automobile.
It’s so omnipresent that we often forget it exists. I was walking back from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market in walkable Lowertown this last weekend and I was stopped in my tracks at the corner of 6th & Sibley Streets as a car whizzed by.
For those unfamiliar, this is great neighborhood that most any urbanist would love. It’s mixed-use, dense, has wide sidewalks, on-street parking, outdoor cafe seating, good public spaces, and plenty of eyes on the street. Yet, despite all these gains, there are still plenty of anti-urban transportation hold-outs present in the design.
Problem 1: The Corner
This corner radius was designed not to improve the safety of pedestrians, but to help cars make a right turn without having to slow down. This is a classic example of highway design being imposed on our downtowns and it’s omnipresent across America. The goal of a city street should not be to maximize traffic flow.
This is Traffic Calming 101.
When a street has a wider curve, vehicles can move around it much faster. When coupled with one-way streets, this can be even more dangerous. Simply reducing corner radius can have a huge impact. This (cheap) design element improves pedestrian safety.
This is a very simple, cost-effect way to improve walkability downtown. We need to start designing our downtowns for people, and not a thoroughfare for commuter traffic.
Problem 2: One-way Streets
The verdict is in, and it’s been in for a long time. Yet, these multi-lane one-way couplings still exist in most of our downtowns.
I don’t like writing about this because it’s so obvious. One way streets are bad for everyone except speeding cars. The struggle is that most our American downtowns are held hostage by a commuter culture. Politicians and traffic engineers are hesitant to disrupt that culture. It’s a shame, because they should.
Eric Jaffe at CityLab lists the most obvious reasons:
- Livability: vehicles stop less on one-way streets, which is hard for bikers and pedestrians.
- Navigation: one-way street networks are confusing for drivers, which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
- Safety: speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there’s no conflicting traffic flow.
- Economics: local businesses believe that two-way streets increase visibility.
One-way streets are a transportation relic that need to be expelled in almost all cases. We need to value livability, navigation, safety, and economics above the desire to travel fast in an automobile.
Problem 3: Unneeded Turn Lanes
Every turn lane imposed on the urban environment where it is not needed does three things:
- Increased crossing distance: pedestrians are in the intersection, where they’re most likely to be injured, for 10 to 13 more feet.
- Reduced size of sidewalk: creates less space for people to walk or a business to have outdoor seating
- Eliminates on-street parking: removes an important safety buffer, and each on-street parking space is one that doesn’t need to be expensively built off-street.
Again, this is difficult to write about because it’s so obvious. The dynamic needs to shift, and it needs to shift quickly.
The intersection I’m describing is actually okay for walkability – when compared to what most American intersections looks like. The fact that only three problems exist makes it one of the better one. This is a problem. And, we shouldn’t have a system where these auto-biases are built so ubiquitously. We shouldn’t have system where – after lots of effort and community support – an infrastructure improvement can be overruled because a person at Public Works doesn’t like it.
The American transportation system is designed at every corner to favor the automobile, and it’s a system that needs to end.