Great Streets and Human Enjoyment

My goodness but people certainly drive fast in the United States; it sure makes streets unpleasant. That was my first impression upon returning home from a recent trip to Paris and London, and I was only crossing 38th Street, hardly the biggest or fastest street around! Then, just this past week, two non-urbanists in my life had negative comments about street speed in Minneapolis. My mother indicated how she’s uncomfortable sitting at a sidewalk table along Lake Street in Uptown because of the proximity to and speed of passing traffic. A friend of mine who lives downtown is happy about all the development but really despises the wide one-way streets where speeds of 45 miles per hour is not uncommon.

So do it like Europe, right? This isn’t as clear-cut a case as you might think. Paris isn’t without wide streets and traffic that moves at a pretty good clip. Take the Avenue de Champs-Elysees, for example. I couldn’t help but notice that the cafes on that street are buffered by parked cars, a row of trees, a section of sidewalk, but in fact don’t even face the traffic. Wide boulevards allow enough space for human enjoyment to occur by more or less ignoring the passing traffic. In other words, people and moving traffic really don’t share the same space. In this context, Lake Street would be palatable if sidewalks were significantly wider and farther from all that fast traffic. It is notable that the recent car-free day in Paris was a wild success, and more notable that plans are being discussed to rebuild the Champs-Elysees with fewer traffic lanes.

Champs-Elysees Paris

Café George V on Champs-Elysees is Set Far Away From, and Ignores, Traffic

Sidewalk tables on a narrower but still notably busy Paris street like Rue Soufflot face the street. They are buffered by a row of parked cars as well as street trees and a sidewalk that is perhaps 15 feet wide. For those at the café, this setback is more than enough, and the people watching far outweighs any negative aspects of traffic speed and noise. It is also important to note that passing traffic rarely exceeds 30 miles per hour, and much of it is around 20 (plenty!).

Paris Sidewalk

At Le Comptoir on Rue Soufflot in Paris, People-Watching is the Focus, and the Busy, Slow-Moving Street Fades in to the Background

Rue Tournefort provides an extreme example of the innate human pleasure only possible by slow-moving traffic. Here, café dwellers are less than five feet from the adjacent street, with no buffer, no trees, minimal bollards, and barely a curb. How is this possible? Easy. The street is only 18 feet wide, including a parking lane and contraflow bike lane! Posted speed limits are 30 kilometers per hour (about 18 miles per hour), and few vehicles reach this speed. Rue Tournefort is far from the only example I found.

Paris Cafe

Sidewalk Café Seating at La Montagne is Right Next to Slow-Moving Rue Tournefort

When it comes to Minneapolis, Nicollet Mall is instructive in this discussion. Not everyone is happy that buses operate on the street, but the sidewalk seating at Brits Pub, for example, is an interesting case. The key isn’t that buses pass just feet from people sitting at tables, but their speeds are less than 20 miles per hour. Even if cars were allowed on Nicollet, its design speed is slow, allowing for significant human enjoyment. On Lake Street in Uptown it’s no wonder outdoor tables at restaurants like Barbette are located not facing Lake but along slow-moving Irving Avenue! A wide one-way street with three lanes of fast-moving traffic doesn’t equate to the human enjoyment of a meal.

In London, I couldn’t help but notice the relatively narrow streets, even the non-medieval alleyways, and proliferation of 20 mile-per-hour speed limit signs. Graham Road in Hackney, for example, is a basic busy street in London, a “High Street,” if you will. There is nothing special about this street in terms of landscaping or design; there is a street, a sidewalk, a few bollards and several storefronts. Graham Road succeeds at being comfortable for humans due primarily to low traffic speeds.

London Hackney

Graham Road in London Manages to be a Good Street Primarily Because of Slow Speeds

Of course, my favorite London example of “shared space” is the Seven Dials the West End. Seven slow-moving streets converge at this tiny roundabout, and pedestrians and cars more or less take turns. Traffic moves slowly enough that people not only feel comfortable crossing anywhere, but actually sitting under the dial in the middle of the intersection. I grabbed lunch from a nearby food truck and joined them. It was indeed very pleasant – excellent people watching! In one of his presentations, Ben Hamilton-Baillie shows a video of the beautiful dance of pedestrians and slow-moving traffic negotiating the Seven Dials, so I took a video of my own.

Seven Dials London

Seven Dials in London is an Excellent Example of “Shared Space”

Chuck Marohn at Strongtowns points out that streets are typically designed by prioritizing speed and volume first, then cost, then safety, but if streets were designed for human enjoyment, they’d prioritize safety and cost before volume and speed. It is perhaps an oversimplification, but these examples in Paris and London (and even Minneapolis) provide glaring proof, in my opinion, that streets can actually be pleasant places when traffic speeds are 25 miles per hour or less. We need to seriously re-prioritize design speed if we really intend to improve safety and human enjoyment of our cities.

Paris Cafe

Go Enjoy Your City

But lest I complain too much at this time. While it is imperative that we continue to improve our cities, given the attacks in Paris last week, the important thing right now is to experience what they have to offer. After all, no city is perfect. No matter the traffic speeds or street width, walk down the sidewalk and visit your favorite café or pub. Go to a show or game. Whether it is an act of defiance or simply a routine outing, sit at a sidewalk table and share a meal with a friend or family member. Go enjoy your city.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

18 thoughts on “Great Streets and Human Enjoyment

  1. Casey

    One thing could help with actually having boulevards would be the city denying variances for set backs. If you look at a lot of new construction has been build as close to the street as possible. As a pedestrian I prefer to walk along residential street that have a boulevard sidewalk and a yard before a building. Trees, gardens and grass areas are much more pleasant the busy streets like Lake Street.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Ack! No. Buildings and their uses should meet the street/sidewalk, not be segregated from it by empty space.

      Wider sidewalk and/or boulevard between the sidewalk and the street, sure, but pulling buildings away from the sidewalk is going in exactly the wrong direction (note all of Sam’s pictures above, for example).

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Right, Sam’s photos have buildings right up to the sidewalk and things in the buildings that people want to interact with.

          People will walk where there is stuff to see and do.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              These are a bit over the top, but I think you’d enjoy the discussion of place v non-place, and what makes a good park or square.


              Generally I agree that the city shouldn’t require setbacks for mostly under-utilized green space. If a wider sidewalk is desired to get space for more pedestrian space, seating, or an active use, great. If not, it’s mostly vacant space. This holds true moreso in commercial and dense pedestrian places in my opinion, as areas with single family homes, duplexes, small apartments, etc may have some value in a buffer between them and the sidewalk (a place for more trees, a transition from public to private where people can sit and play – similar to a porch, etc).

              Anyway. Food for thought.

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

            This issue is worthy of a separate post. Streets don’t necessarily need green space. The examples I show had few if any trees. But it all depends.

    2. Wayne

      I think the problem is more that too much of the public ROW is dedicated to cars. We need wider sidewalks and narrower (and fewer!) traffic lanes, not buildings set way back from the street.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Casey is right – of course we want more street trees if possible. And so it Wayne – too much ROW is dedicated to cars.

        What I hope this post will highlight is streets need very little amenity in order to be pleasant places – they just need slow speeds. But also, if our bigger streets are to be fast, then in order to make them pleasant a significant amount of ROW does need to be amenity, like trees, buffer, etc.

        There is an appropriate ratio of traffic speed per total ROW, and amount of sidewalk width per total ROW, etc, and streets like Lake are out of balance. Nicollet Mall is in pretty good balance. Redesigning Nicollet Mall over and over, testing fancy new amenities, doesn’t change that balance.

  2. Matthew

    There is a typo in the summary… all the examples of pleasant places have traffic speeds at or under 20 mph (not 25):

    “…these examples in Paris and London (and even Minneapolis) provide glaring proof, in my opinion, that streets can actually be pleasant places when traffic speeds are 25 miles per hour or less.”

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Typo or not, I chose 25 MPH because I’d like to see that as a speed limit on many busy city streets, especially near commercial nodes. The reality of 20 MPH on Chicago Avenue at 48th Street, for example, may be asking too much, whereas I think 25 MPH is totally realistic and should be seriously considered (and designed for, and enforced).

  3. Paul Strebe

    OK, I just came back from Warsaw and I have to disagree with any generalization about Europeans driving slow. I mean, the French and Italians pretty much invented the concept. My friend (who’s lived in both the Twin Cities and Poland for many years) said drivers were much worse there in his experience. Sure, Warsaw’s Old Town is pleasant enough, but many of the new sections are pretty unwalkable. My point is: Don’t romanticize the Old Country too much. I think we might eventually be able to beat them at their own game.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Good point, Paul. I’m trying to avoid romanticizing. And yet, my experience was one of streets with slower traffic. It was pretty lopsided and hard to ignore.

      I think we are making a lot of progress here, especially with regard to cycling, and I love it. However, for the most part, streets that have been made better for cycling haven’t necessarily resulted in slower traffic. There is a lot of work to do for our streets to really be better for pedestrians.

      I don’t see up beating them at their own game yet – I saw bike lanes all over London and Paris, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t exist a decade ago. London has bicycle “superhighways.” Paris is considering removing traffic lanes from the Champs-Elysees. In many ways, we may have to try harder just to stay caught up.

  4. Scott

    Good post, Sam. Minneapolis is far too focused on moving cars efficiently and the result is commercial corridors that are disconnected and unpleasant to walk down. I cannotthink of too many streets in the City that are comparable to the places in your post. Perhaps Hennepin Ave between Lake & 31st, part of Eat Street, Nicollet Mall, and Main St. along the river? Lake, Lyndale, Central, Broadway, Franklin, Cedar, University, Chicago, & Washington Ave are all pretty wide, noisy, & unpleasant. We seem to do so many things well here, but good urban/ street design isn’t one of them.

  5. BarbaraW

    Much as I agree with the sentiment, I live in a city where people manifestly do NOT value this. They want to get from defined point A to defined point B in the fastest manner possible, and are not remotely interested in discoveries along the way. It’s not happy, and there is little sense of community if you don’t happen to be part of whatever is at A or B, but that’s just the way it is.

    So, we have to deal with the cities as they are first — wide lanes, fast traffic and all. Create spaces within *that*, so that people come to appreciate it, and then they might be more amenable later on to changing the street-design culture. It’s more helpful if we can start small there… maybe some suggestions of what to do in the world that exists?

    1. Monte Castleman

      That’s really the urbanist / suburbanist divide too in how streets are viewed. American is to get to Home Depot and back as fast as possible to pick up a part to fix your grill before it’s time for your backyard barbecue, not a place to be in and of itself. It doesn’t matter to surbubanists that urbanists don’t like that it’s not lined with cute sidewalk cafes with a 20 mph speed limit.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        It all depends on what Point A and B are, where, and what the journey is like. When I need a part for my grill, I walk or bike the two blocks to my local hardware store. It matters a great deal how pleasant that walk is, and that vehicles aren’t moving at excessive speeds along the way.

        In a sense, you both have raised a valuable point. A lot of fancy pedestrian-oriented design seems to emphasize sidewalks as a special destination rather than a mundane part of your everyday journey. After all, life’s about the journey.

        As for working within the context of what is there, take Penn and American in Bloomington, for example. The new infill development has improved walking conditions for a select few, provided nobody has to actually cross Penn or American. So, improvement? Yes. Satisfactory solution? I’d say no.

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