Monday, May 16, 2016

The Importance of Road Width, in Three Pictures

Biking home this weekend, I was struck yet again by how critical roadway width is to creating a walkable (and bikeable) environment. Here are some Google Streetview shots of the route we took down Jewel Street in Pacific Beach, one of my favorite (read: I don't feel like I'm about to be driven off the road) north-south rides through PB.

Here's what Jewel Street looks like when it's 30 feet wide, with parallel parking on both sides and a parkway between the sidewalk and street.

Notice that even with only a few scrawny palm streets and for shade and relatively narrow sidewalks, the street still feels comfortable and "human-scaled." (It also feels safe to bike on, even without fancy bike infrastructure, because the narrow travel way forces cars to slow down.) I regularly see kids playing in the street here, using the roadway as an extension of their yard.

Here's Jewel Street a few blocks further down, with a 40-foot width. This would be considered the pretty much the minimum width for a street built today.

Even though nothing else has changed besides the width (arguably the parkway and street trees are a even little nicer), the street feels more "auto-oriented" and the neighborhood seems less inviting for walking or biking.

Then we arrive at this monstrosity, a few blocks further north. At a width of about 46 feet, the street allows for diagonal parking on one side--but the awful design of the multi-family housing to the east precludes parallel parking on the other side of the street, making for an exceptional wide travel way:

Here all semblance of walkability has been sacrificed in the name of driving and parking. The parkway is gone, the sidewalk slopes awkwardly to allow cars to drive over it at any point, and there's not a street tree in sight. And then of course, there's the hideous design of the multi-family housing that lines this block. Particularly on the right, this street says to me,  "Here is a place where cars live. If you're lucky, we might let some people squeeze in, too."

We need to be sure our roadway standards result in more of the first picture and less of the last. Narrow streets are great streets, for everyone.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Walking in Slovakia

John Westmore has posted a new episode in his great Perils for Pedestrians series, this time focusing on walking and biking in the City of Bratislava, Slovakia.

While pedestrian and bicycle advocacy is relatively new to Slovakia, there seems to be a strong and growing group of advocates who are working to make public spaces more accessible on foot and by bike. They've created some ad-hoc sharrows and DIY crossings to help provide safer and more direct routes to people using active transportation in the city.

I actually spent a day in Bratislava several years ago, and found it to be fairly walkable (as compared to most cities in the US, that is).  You can see that there are many spaces in the central part of the city where pedestrians have full reign in the street space.

There's also a nice pedestrian path along the waterfront, where you'll also find restaurants and shops below (undoubtedly expensive) residential development that takes advantage of the riverfront views.

Of course, there are also the same problems that plague many older (and not so old) cities that were designed prior to the automobile. Sidewalks have been squeezed to the edge of the street and narrowed to unreasonable widths to make room for vehicle traffic, and parked cars block the pedestrian travel way to the extent that people are forced to walk in the street itself.

Given this, it's encouraging to hear local advocates talking about creating more walkable and bikeable streets. I was especially struck by one of the first people interviewed in the segment, who described public space as, "A space where you can see democracy on the sidewalk." I've written before about the idea of sidewalks as democratic spaces, but I think that view is especially poignant when you're talking about sidewalks in a country where most people still remember a time when no place in the country--certainly not the sidewalks--was democratic.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is the street Open or Half-Open?

Cruising down the street at a CicloSDias event in Pacific Beach
I have a confession to make: sometimes I have a problem fully embracing Ciclovia events. Turns out I might not be alone, although the reasons outlined in this post from LA Streetsblog might be a little different from mine.

As Joe Linton writes, there were two Open Streets events this Saturday in the LA area. One, in Lawndale, opens a two-mile route from 8 am to 10 am. The second, in Burbank, allows cyclists who pre-register to ride a one-mile parade ride (the streets were already closed) for an hour and a half before the parade starts.

In both cases, Linton questions the short duration, minimal length of the route, early hours (too early for many adjacent businesses to be open), and (in the case of Burbank) pre-registration requirement. I'd add the requirement (in Lawndale) that kids under 13 be accompanied by an adult to the list of concerns. I was well under 13 when I rode my bike unaccompanied to school, piano lessons, and who knows where else--certainly more dangerous places than a car-free public street full of vigilant adult eyes.

Linton suggests that events like these, with their many restrictions and short duration, don't really demonstrate the benefits of a "true" Open Street event, where long routes full of engaging activities help the public imagine different (and maybe even better!) ways of using street space than just for moving cars. He points out that these lackluster "ciclovia-itas" might even backfire, giving critics an easy example to point to when they complain that it isn't worth the trouble to close streets to traffic.

To these criticisms I'd also add my own, which I think can be a problem with many ciclovia events: they're too bike-centric. As a cyclist I love biking and enjoy the ability to zip down a street unencumbered by pesky automobiles. As a pedestrian, I feel nervous about wandering a street filled with less-than-expert cyclists pedaling in every direction--and I definitely wouldn't turn my unpredictable two-year-old loose in that sort of environment.

Open streets events are often sold as a way to highlight and encourage visitors to local businesses that line the route. But it's pedestrians who visit those businesses, not cyclists (unless they're riding their bikes into the business, a cyclist becomes a pedestrian once they dismount). I'm not saying that who can't open streets to both modes at the same time, but if you look at the Burbank and Lawndale events (as an example), they're billed as primarily biking events. The "ticket" to the Burbank event is even a bike-shaped pin.

If we want to have successful Open Streets events that fulfill the true intent of the Ciclovia movement, we do need to make sure the routes and hours are long enough to provide value to participants. But we also have to make sure that all users feel safe and welcome along the Open Street route. Otherwise, the street is only "half-open" to pedestrians. 

Friday, October 30, 2015


photo courtesy of WalkArlington

A quick reminder that the most fun night of the year is also one of the most dangerous for pedestrians--especially short ones who have a tendency to be more focused on the next sugar handout than the cars on the street (that's me I'm describing). 

If you're looking for a neighborhood that with give you the most treat for your trick, check out Zillow's Trick or Treat Index for 2015, which ranks cities and neighborhoods based on factors such as crime rates and housing density. 

Have fun!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Walking Comes First in European Transportation Policy

It seems like we're always looking to Europe as we try to improve pedestrian safety here in the US. Are they really doing things so much better over there? Short answer: yes.

You can see why by taking a look at this one simple chart from the European Transport and Safety Council's new report Making Walking and Cycling on Europe's Roads Safer. It illustrates one of the report's key recommended policies:  

"Further develop a policy of modal priority for road users, particularly in urban areas, the hierarchy being based on safety, vulnerability and sustainability. Walking should be at the top of the hierarchy, followed by cycling and use of public transport."

That's pretty wonky policy language to wade through, so let me put it more simply: Walking comes first.

Let me translate a few more of those wonky policies for you.

"Give priority in road maintenance to the quality of surfaces on footways, cycle paths and the parts of carriageways most used by crossing pedestrians and by cyclists."

Walking comes first when maintaining roads.

"Provide shorter and safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists by ensuring that routes are direct and that the quickest routes are also the safest. Travel time should be increased on unsafe routes and decreased on safe routes."

Walking comes first when designating travel routes.

"Prioritise the safety of cyclists and pedestrians when developing sustainable urban mobility plans."

Walking comes first when drafting transportation plans.

You get the idea.

It's worth noting that the report also devotes a considerable amount of space to promoting low speed limits in urban areas, particularly those with lots of bike and ped traffic:

"Encourage local authorities to adopt zones with a speed limit of 30km/h in residential areas and areas used by many pedestrians and cyclist."

"Introduce lower speed limits for junctions and intersections."

"Prepare national enforcement plans with yearly targets for compliance in the areas of speeding, especially in urban areas, where there are high numbers of pedestrians and cyclists."

I'll do the math for you--that's 18 mph. Most of the roads in my neighborhood are designed for speeds at least twice that high, and that's just the residential roads. I'd love to see a state law lowering the default speed on residential roads to 18 mph, but I doubt that's happening any time soon. Until then, maybe Pacific Beach can be the test case?