Media Enviroment
Thu 8 Aug 2019

Streets of old, streets of the future

Consider the two-lane road. They are everywhere, crisscrossing our countries, connecting cities, neighbourhoods, and towns. Paved roads are more often than not the lines that we use to organize spaces, the one thing that we see on the maps app on our cell phones. They define our urban landscapes, setting how and where we travel. 

After World War II, roads and streets have been largely built around the car. Urban planners and traffic engineers have largely focused on building a street network geared to move as many motor vehicles as possible as fast as possible. Traffic jams and congestion are largely seen as a sign of high travel demand and insufficient road capacity; the policy response always is adding more travel lanes. Cars get more space because we need them to go to places. 

High-capacity roads, however, are single-use spaces. Any street geared towards moving as many cars as possible quickly becomes unhospitable for other uses. Pedestrians avoid them, as overpasses make crossing them a hassle. Storefronts become vacant as foot traffic dwindles. Housing withers away, haunted by constant road noise and empty sidewalks. Business and office space become inward-looking, surrounded by parking lots and acres of asphalt. 

These urban landscapes are immensely wasteful. Cars require a lot of space and can cover long distances quickly. Car-centric cities sprawl endlessly, as that what cars demand. Density dwindles, making effective mass transit difficult. Basic service delivery becomes more expensive and energy-intensive; infrastructure costs soar. As motor vehicles take over and drive farther and farther, the carbon footprint of urban areas skyrocket. 

Streets and roads define our cities. Handing them to cars creates urban areas built for motor vehicles; not designed not on a human scale, but on a machine scale. The car-centric urban design relies on impossible wide roads, vast intersections, and vast, empty lots and building to store them. Everything is far apart to accommodate the two-ton monsters roaming our streets.

To reverse these trends, many urban planners are looking back to the pre-car era, before SUVs, sedans, and trucks came to define how cities look like. Instead of looking at streets and roads as purely tools to move people from A to B, cities are increasingly approaching them as destinations, places to be. A street is a tool, sure, but it is not just a tool; is a place where we might want to spend time on. Instead of a single-use space, planners aim to create complete streets based around multiple uses and modes of transportation.

A complete street, in the broadest definition of the term, is a street that is designed to accommodate multiple modes of transportation on an equal footing. Cars remain part of the equation, but they are not the sole tenants of the space. They share it with bicycles, buses, trams, and pedestrians. Speed is no longer the priority but ensuring that everyone feels equally safe. Streets have wide, well-paved sidewalks, marked, often raised, pedestrian crossings, dedicated bicycle lanes physically separated from car traffic, and public transportation with either signal priority or a dedicated right of way. 

The impact is often immediate. Once the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is available, people walk more. Close to 40 percent of trips in urban areas are under three miles; with adequate infrastructure, cycling quickly becomes a popular mode of transportation. Mass transit becomes more attractive once bus or tram stops are placed on lively, pleasant streets with foot traffic, not on vast concrete wastelands. Pedestrian traffic makes sidewalk cafes and stores viable, attracting further traffic. Instead of having a road full of fast-moving cars, a complete street can quickly become a place where things happen and residents want to be, not just traverse. 

Urban design matters. Streetscapes matters. When a city builds its street grid with a focus on reducing congestion and enhancing the flow of traffic, residents increasingly prefer using their cars, so they drive more often. Adding travel lanes does not ease congestion but brings more cars out on the roads. Building city grids on a human scale instead of a car-scale, however, produces the opposite effect. When given good alternatives to driving, many people choose not to. The effect is fewer cars on the roads, more pedestrians on sidewalks, and less congestion, not more. 

Reducing carbon emissions is often discussed as a technological problem, something that requires a technical fix. Engineers must develop new products that allow us to do the same using less energy or devise a way to produce energy using less carbon. Although these fixes are important, we can also reduce emissions by going back to technologies we already have at hand, or more precisely, on our feet. Walkable neighborhoods, dense mixed-use development, effective bus and light rail services, or bicycle lanes might be less fanciful or trendy than electric cars and solar panels but are cheap to implement, readily available, and incredibly energy efficient.

Not only that: these technologies, although old-fashioned, help us create cities that are cleaner, more pleasant, more welcoming, and more beautiful than what we would build otherwise. The street design of old, crowded, dense, vibrant, is also the street design we need for a low-emissions, low-carbon future.  

 

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