Good cities need more streets that “fail”

How do we measure a successful street?

Well, traditionally we’ve allowed traffic engineers, focused on moving cars, to create that measure. They’ve developed a grading system for streets called “Level of Service” or LOS.

But here’s the problem. If you look at a LOS map of many of the downtowns and neighborhoods that we love the best you’ll see almost nothing but level of service “D” and “F”. In other words, by the measure of moving cars our streets are failing or nearly failing. And if you ranked streets by friendliness to bicyclists and pedestrians the maps would look very different.

Buffered bike lane in Cambridge, MA Photo by Boston Biker

At the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference in Pittsburgh last week I heard a compelling argument to forget about LOS in most urban environments altogether. After all, a city is not a place for cars to move efficiently. And if you make it that you’ve almost certainly lost all the things that make your city a good place to be. You’ve destroyed your city in order to save it.

We need to start thinking of cities as something more than impediments to the smooth movement of traffic. MIT engineer Jeff Rosenblum presented a study of one street in Cambridge, which was treated with a road diet – fewer lanes, broader sidewalks, bump-outs at pedestrian crossings, wider terraces. That street moved 20,000 cars a day before this treatment. And afterwards? It still moves 20,000 vehicles a day. By restricting turns and timing stop and go lights the street was made more efficient for cars just as it was made more welcoming for biking, walking, hanging out and just living.

Jeff was followed by Scott Hamlow, who is heading up a group within the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that is developing a new way of evaluating how successful a street is. Rather than just moving cars, his groups is developing goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing physical activity, supporting sustainable development, reducing noise, air and water pollution and moving people along and across a street on all modes.

Finally, I don’t want to be too hard on traffic engineers. They’re professionals who can design whatever the public wants. Up until recently it has been a given that what the public wants is the easier flow of cars and trucks. What we’re starting to understand is that streets have multiple users including not just cars but bikes and pedestrians. Streets are used not just to move along them, but across them. Streets are part of neighborhoods where people live.

If the public and the policy makers who represent them call for streets that serve multiple users — and not just cars — the professionals will figure out how to give them what they want.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

One thought on “Good cities need more streets that “fail”

  1. Pingback: Why Cities Should Strive for Streets That “Fail” | Streetsblog.net

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