Back in my city planning days, the two requests I heard most often from neighborhoods were 1) traffic calming to lower speeds and 2) sidewalks to give pedestrians a safe place to walk apart from the cars. Modern planners today satisfy these requests with what are called “complete streets”, in which each mode of transportation has its own separate lane – the street for cars, bike lanes for bikers, sidewalks for pedestrians. While the design makes a lot of sense at first glance, it’s actually a far cry from what we used to consider a complete street. Check out this amazing video filmed in San Francisco in 1906 and you’ll see what I’m talking about:
Just look at how the street is freely shared by such a wide variety of people and transportation modes. Here the street is alive in a beautiful chaotic symphony of streetcars, pedestrians, bicycles, horse and carts, and the fledgling automobile. Amazingly, there are no designated markings saying who belongs in what lane, no million dollar engineering designs, and yet everyone seems to feel and be perfectly safe in the chaos. How? (Update October 2016: See note below)
The key is apparent – the overall speed is slow and everyone is more or less at the same speed. So as city planners and engineers argue about how much space between buildings should be designated for which mode of transportation, perhaps we’re neglecting the real issue. Maybe it’s not about segregating modes or even drawing lines at all. Perhaps the real question is how to bring all those pieces together by bringing speeds down so that someday the street really is a safe place for everyone. But is it possible in this fast-paced day and age? Take a look at this beautiful engineering work completed in England and see for yourself:
It’s easy to take the street for granted. There it is wherever we go, just as mundane today as streets have ever been. We forget that streets have a history all their own, that they weren’t always like the streets we see today. Perhaps by diving back into that history and applying some modern know-how we can make our cities more dynamic places, reclaiming the street as the lively meeting place of our human interactions, just as it once was.
Note (October 23, 2016): Since writing this post a year and a half ago, I’ve since read Peter Norton’s book Fighting Traffic, and have come to find out that the mixture of modes with the automobile was anything but safe. The number of people, and particularly children that died in these early days was nothing short of tragic. This bloodshed set up a battle for control of the street between “progressives” (those who believe that change is necessary for a better future) that believed the car was the future of transportation, and “conservatives” (those who believe the past is worth preserving) that wanted to keep the street predominantly for pedestrians. Today, we know who won this battle – and ironically, have flipped roles with “progressives” wanting to transform the street to be more pedestrian friendly, and “conservatives” wanting to keep the street auto-oriented. I do think the point about slowing down cars is still a valid point, but I admit that implying the past was safer is simply not accurate.
As for Poynton – it appears that the debate about whether this is safer and an improvement is still very much up to debate. Very interesting!