With fewer cars on streets, now’s the time to rein­vent road­ways

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY KEVIN J. KRIZEK Kevin J. Krizek is a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign at the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der. This ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally was pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

Stick­ing closer to home be­cause of COVID-19 has shown many peo­ple what cities can be like with less traf­fic, noise, con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion.

Roads and park­ing lots de­voted to cars take up a lot of land. For ex­am­ple, in Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York City these spa­ces ac­count for over one-third of each city’s to­tal area.

When stay-at-home or­ders went into ef­fect in many parts of the U.S. in March, streets and park­ing lots went dor­mant seem­ingly overnight. Within days, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties across the U.S. started shift­ing these spa­ces to other uses that bet­ter suit peo­ple.

As a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign and trans­port, I’ve worked for decades to un­ravel the many fac­tors that keep peo­ple re­liant on cars, SUVs and trucks. Weather, time con­straints, chil­dren — there are many rea­sons that pre­vent peo­ple from us­ing trans­porta­tion modes like bi­cy­cles. Yet with a sim­ple first step — start­ing to re­con­fig­ure city streets — mean­ing­ful change can be­gin to break down tra­di­tional trans­porta­tion bar­ri­ers and usher in a new cul­ture of get­ting around town by means other than cars.

The dan­ger­ous, ex­pen­sive au­to­mo­bile

In large U.S. cities, nearly half of all car trips are less than four miles. Us­ing cars to travel such short dis­tances has many costs.

For ex­am­ple, con­sider traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties. Two pedes­tri­ans or cy­clists die ev­ery hour on U.S. city streets, a na­tional trend that’s been wors­en­ing in re­cent years, even though cy­cling and walk­ing rates are steady or de­clin­ing. Pol­lu­tion from cars con­trib­utes to cli­mate change and wors­ens air qual­ity. De­sign­ing cities around cars marginal­izes in­di­vid­u­als who don’t have them.

The COVID-19 pan­demic offers an op­por­tu­nity to rad­i­cally change how cities world­wide use their streets.

In my view, this is the time to move be­yond the “grab the keys” men­tal­ity on the way out the door, as mil­len­ni­als and GenXers al­ready are do­ing. New vi­sions for streets, where cars use less space and are re­placed by smaller ve­hi­cles built for in­di­vid­ual rid­ers, are gain­ing cur­rency.

These modes of trans­port might be new forms of e-bikes, e-scooters or hov­er­boards. These novel ve­hi­cles, which were al­ready at­tract­ing at­ten­tion be­fore COVID-19, com­ple­ment con­ven­tional bi­cy­cles, whose sales have boomed dur­ing the pan­demic.

New think­ing, dif­fer­ent re­sults

In­creas­ingly, think­ing about the fu­ture of cities sug­gests that chiefly re­ly­ing on cars as a form of trans­port has run its course. By min­i­mally mod­i­fy­ing the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, it is pos­si­ble for city lead­ers to re­pur­pose roads and park­ing spa­ces while en­sur­ing the same ease of be­ing able to reach daily ser­vices.

Emerg­ing forms of mo­bil­ity and chang­ing mind­sets can help de­liver these op­por­tu­ni­ties. Bi­cy­cles and bi­cy­cle-like ve­hi­cles pro­vide a cat­a­lyst to shift how city streets are used.

Re­search demon­strates that peo­ple will adopt new ways of get­ting around town when they are con­fi­dent that an en­tire route, in­clud­ing in­ter­sec­tions and park­ing lots, is safe for travel. Some COVID-19-in­duced street changes that have emerged re­cently, such as re­duc­ing the num­ber of traf­fic lanes and clos­ing streets to traf­fic, are a good first step. But they lack the net­work com­po­nent.

Net­works quickly de­velop the more peo­ple use them. The quick­est way to build one that is scaled and pur­posed for peo­ple be­gins by iden­ti­fy­ing streets used to make short trips. These are places near neigh­bor­hood re­tail dis­tricts, schools and other ac­tiv­ity cen­ters.

In­formed by lo­cal data, lead­ers can make de­ci­sions about which streets should give pri­or­ity to ve­hi­cles such as bi­cy­cles, not cars. Changes might in­clude phys­i­cally de­mar­cated lanes and signs mak­ing state­ments like “Cars are guests.” Ini­tially, these changes might re­quire waivers to ex­empt them from ad­her­ing to cur­rent en­gi­neer­ing guide­lines and stan­dards — re­stric­tions that sti­fle in­no­va­tion.

Now, large and small U.S. cities are ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent strate­gies and con­tend­ing with long-stand­ing equity con­cerns about which streets to change. For ex­am­ple, Min­neapo­lis has closed a num­ber of park­ways to cars, re­serv­ing them ex­clu­sively for cy­clists and walk­ers.

Pi­o­neer­ing cities like Port­land, Ore­gon, Seat­tle and Oakland are us­ing this time to test ways of shar­ing a broader ar­ray of streets among cy­clists, walk­ers and car users. Re­searchers are pro­vid­ing tools to iden­tify the most promis­ing places to re­al­lo­cate space for pop-up cy­cle ways.

En­act­ing change now — in a strate­gic man­ner and while travel lev­els are down — may be an op­por­tu­nity to reap quick gains with high im­pact. I be­lieve that a bet­ter trans­port fu­ture is within reach by tak­ing ad­van­tage of the space dom­i­nated by au­to­mo­biles.

This is the time to lever­age cur­rent low­traf­fic con­di­tions so that streets and roads can be con­verted to ac­com­mo­date new tech­nol­ogy and trans­port.


Fully a third of the sur­face space in many big cities is used for park­ing, writes Kevin Krizek of the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der.

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