Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Eight: Retasking Streets

Continuing with my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism” (previous posts were one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven), today, I’ll offer a few words about how streets should function in urbanist places.

Roads were never fully egalitarian places.  We’ve read too many accounts of peasants being splashed by mud thrown up by the passing carriage of nobility to believe that.  (Yes, most of the accounts are fictionalized, but the fiction was surely based on real incidents.)

But with the mass production of the automobile, the roles of streets moved even further from equal access.

Goaded by the American Automobile Association and other pro-automobile groups, the design function of streets changed to make cars the primary users.  More lanes were added, often consuming places were bikes previously traveled.  Sidewalks were narrowed.  Speeds were increased.  Routes of pedestrian travel were limited.

Under the encouragement of the AAA, jaywalking was specifically made a crime.  (A former North Bay Planning Commissioner recently asked me about the etymology of “jaywalking”.  In the early 20th century, “jay” was a synonym for “rube”, an unsophisticated person from the country.  The original coinage was “jaydriver” for someone who was unfamiliar with cars and therefore drove poorly.  “Jaywalker” followed shortly and was the coinage that stayed with us.)

The result of the changing philosophy was that streets became places, not for living, but solely for traveling quickly between destinations.  Streets were created where bicyclists were threatened by traffic and pedestrians, even if safe, felt uncomfortable and out of place.  And few found streets reasonable places to chat with neighbors.

Jeff Speck, the author of “Walkable City” calls one-way streets, designed to deliver commuters to and from places of business with little opportunity for personal interaction or local commerce, “sewer streets”.

Urbanism argues for a reversal of that philosophical direction.  The suggested changes can take many forms, from fewer lanes (“road diets”) to better delineated bike lanes to changed sidewalk configurations, such as intersection bulb-outs, to improve the pedestrian experience.  There are even more esoteric ideas such as “woonerfs”, local streets where cars and pedestrians has equivalent status, forcing the cars to travel at pedestrian speeds.

There are groups that advocate for specific goals and street changes.  The Vision Zero program in New York City, recently implemented by Mayor De Blasio, argues that pedestrian deaths should be eliminated, with one step toward that goal being a 25 mph speed limit in much of the city.  Twenty is Plenty, mostly in Europe, but also with proponents in the U.S., argues that the general speed limit should be 20 mph.  The Twenty is Plenty program incorporates the desire for fewer pedestrian deaths, but seeks the broader social goal of turning streets back into public places.

This de-emphasizing of cars, often described by urbanists as making cities less “auto-centric”, is a point on which supporters of suburbia often attack urbanism.  In the classic strawman approach, they take the proposed reduced emphasis on cars, suggest that urbanists prefer to eliminate cars, and then ridicule urbanism on that basis.

But it is truly a strawman argument.  Even while acknowledging that current model for car use is unsustainable on financial and environmental grounds, urbanists don’t expect personal transportation systems to go away.  That would be a lifestyle that would work neither for me nor for most of my urbanist acquaintances.  Instead, it’s a matter of making places where cars serve us, rather than building cities that serve cars.

And changing the emphasis of streets is an essential part of that transition. 

Next up, I’ll take a break from the “Intro”, which is soon winding to a conclusion anyway, and offer a recent set of overlapping anecdotes that show the social need for non-automobile options.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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