For years I’ve been asked by clients and conference attendees ‘what’s the one thing we can do to create a more sustainable community’. While I’ve never been a big fan of singular approaches, I have seen time and time again that one gateway issue for achieving sustainability is the design of a community’s streets.
While this sounds like a simple answer, it has been excruciatingly difficult in practice. Layers of conflicting agency jurisdiction, entrenched attitudes, and real concerns about safety – with unbalanced views of ‘safety for whom’ (read: motorists over pedestrians) – have resulted in decades of street designs that are unnecessarily wide, singularly focused, and damaging to the character and livability of communities. These street designs also create an unnecessary tax on developers and the public due to the added costs of pavement, loss of land, increased impervious surfaces, and urban heat retention.
After watching the art and science of street design evolve, it seems we have crossed a tipping point. Over the past two decades, while public and private money has been squandered on ill conceived roadway designs, a handful of thoughtful and tenacious designers, engineers and public officials have continued to fight the good fight. Facing what at one time seemed indomitable adversaries, they have persevered, carrying the message to whomever would listen.
During recent work in Hawai’i , I was pleasantly surprised to see grass root efforts to create an intelligent conversation on street design. And who was leading the charge? Was it public works? Was it the DOT? Was it the politicians? While they were all in the mix somewhere (presumably), the most visible advocate was AARP. While this may seem odd, its not such a stretch when you consider Hawai’I has the dubious rank of being #1 in pedestrian fatalities for senior citizens.
Acting as provocateur, AARP along with other local groups sponsored Dan Burden, Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute to visit multiple counties and towns, walk important streets and share with residents, staff planners and public works officials how things might be done differently, all in the interest of better safety and livability. This practical, tactical approach has led to minor interventions, but has also helped educate and make everyone aware of the complex relationship between street design, vehicle speed, pedestrian safety and community health.
The benefits of more thoughtful street design is coming to fruition within communities across the country. I’ve remained steadfast in my work to cajole clients that streets are worth taking the time to ‘go to the mat’ to obtain a better solution, against the odds. And to my clients’ credit they have taken up the challenge. When you enter into such a complex issue, there is no silver bullet and no single source for answers. But what I’ve seen first hand is the increasing depth of countervailing information and tools available to designers. An alphabet soup of NGO’s – ITE, CNU, TRB, AIA, ASLA, FHWA, AASHTO, DOT – have all been working hard to change decades of thinking about the key metrics and performance measures that inform street design.
As with all things associated with sustainability, what is common is the need to consider the whole range of impacts as an outcome of these decisions:
- safety and modal choice as a gateway to better community health;
- economic vitality of adjoining businesses and resulting land values;
- ease of movement and character of surrounding context informs overall livability.
It makes no sense to create a great urban framework of fine grained, active edged buildings, only to divide it with an arterial complete with free right turn or wide travel lanes, with no parking on the edges to buffer pedestrians, calm traffic and increase economic activity. All of these interconnected decisions require time, great thinking and patience to optimize the solution, and there is no single reference source for the answers.
No longer can agencies simply default to saying ‘no, that’s not what the book says’, because there is now more than one book. As we are learning in the daily pursuit of a more sustainable built environment, formulae and checklists will not get us there. Real enduring solutions lie in bringing smart, experienced individuals together to create ‘bespoke’ solutions that solve the challenge with locally responsive answers. With the increasing knowledge that has been gained in the past 20 years, combined with on the ground examples that are showing success in terms of safety and economic vitality, there are new winners emerging in the continuing fight for designing pedestrian friendly streets.
Another sign of progress is that city planners, politicians, urban designers and even citizens are asking who should get priority within the street hierarchy? The default answer was always about vehicle ‘level of service’ – minimizing wait times and increasing ‘throughput’. As my colleague Jeff Tumlin of Nelson Nygaard once advised, ‘congestion may be our friend’ because if we stop making cars the priority, at some point people will see transit, pedestrian and bicycle options as a better way to get around (but only if they work well).
To demonstrate the importance of how streets transform context, Kamehameha Schools, as a major transitional urban neighborhood in Honolulu, worked with a group of talented planners and engineers to build a ‘mock up’ street, in order to give people the chance to experience what a ‘complete street’ really feels like. The images below show some of the resulting transformation. While some may see this as as lipstick on the pig – painting buildings to give some life and interest to banal warehouses – what about functionality?
Where the real work got done was in building a ‘full scale model’ While a bit rough around the edges, temporary markings, make shift traffic calming devices and ‘bulb outs’ start to give people a sense of the scale and character of a complete vs. traditional street, and how it would really function.
While we’re not there yet, I feel that we have turned the corner, and the next few years will bring major transformation in how we build streets – finally. Lower capital budgets will require more efficient use of limited funds (think less pavement and more beneficiaries); emerging discussion on health and physical design will more explicitly link street network and form; and a new generation of planners and engineers are coming into their own as designers or public employees who will demand better results. Great cities like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C. have all been working on this topic for years, but they are the exception rather than the rule. What I look forward to is when small towns and cities are actively embracing these ideas as well, making sustainable community mobility networks a nationwide reality.
Institute of Transportation Engineers, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach: An ITE Recommended Practice – 2010
Transportation Research Board: NCHRP Multimodal Level of Service Analysis for Urban Streets: Users Guide, Richard Dowling
Transportation Research Board: Local Policies and Practices that Support Safe Pedestrian Environments
Complete Streets Demonstration, Kamehameha Schools, HI