Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bicycling as traffic calming

Washington Examiner cover, 9/13/2012According to Thursday's Examiner cover story "Cyclists, drivers wary of each other as bikes and crashes multiply," as rendered by the cover page headline, the city is overwhelmed by crazy-ass bicycle sharing riders doing all kinds of crazy things and making it hardto drive motor vehicles. 

The GGW post on this topic, "Examiner prints incendiary anti-bike cover," makes a good point that the article is pretty judicious while the cover is not.

And while my travel patterns aren't conducive to seeing lots of bicycle sharing users (I live in the outer part of the city where bike sharing stations aren't yet present, and when I am in the core of the city mostly I am inside buildings), from what I've seen, bicycle sharing users don't stand out as particularly egregious violators of traffic laws. Basically, they do the right things while they are on the road.

I do think that there are continued issues when it comes to "sharing" space between modes and users, and this is especially contentious because for 100 years, traffic management and transportation policy has for the most part, privileged automobile traffic at the expense of other users, even in cities, where walking, biking, and transit may serve a majority of trips, as it does in DC.

A family using bicycle sharing bikes in WashingtonThe two children in the bicycle sharing family on the right are younger than 16, which is the minimum age for (because of insurance) being able to use the system. 

Interestingly, while there is no question that as a bicyclist, "defensive riding" occupies an inordinate amount of my time while riding, at the same time, I have experienced a significant decrease in the number of verbal assaults and other incidents while riding, and more instances of motor vehicles deferring to bicyclists even when the bicyclist doesn't have the right of way, and generally friendly interaction.

On the other hand, when I do experience problems with motor vehicles, a preponderance of the incidents appear to involve cars with license plates not from DC, but from Maryland, Virginia and other places (a guy from Massachusetts once told me I should be riding on the sidewalk, on Massachusetts Avenue in DC as it happens).

Note that today's Post surprisingly has an article, "What drivers should know about sharing the road with bicyclists (and vice versa)," with tips for sharing the roads, and "advice" for bicyclists and motor vehicle operators.  Also see "More bicyclists means fewer accidents,Phila. finds" from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

And it does raise the issue of who has more "privilege" (although motor vehicle users tend to believe that their privilege to drive is in fact a "right") when it comes to use of precious and scarce roadway space in the city, should it be the pedestrian, bicyclist, and transit using majority, or should it be the motor vehicle using minority?

Plus, it isn't really a matter of us or them--most bicyclists also drive.  I myself drive rental cars or car sharing vehicles (last weekend, I just joined Car2Go because I think it's a cheaper alternative to one-way taxi rides) or friends' cars from time to time--even though I cycle most of the time, walk some, and use transit some.

Now in true tabloid fashion, the Examiner cover is designed to stir things up and since I have been so stirred here's my (judicious) response.

1.  Interestingly, I believe that bicycle infrastructure and accommodation is a form of traffic calming practice

If you look at best and better practices in traffic calming, at least beyond speed bumps, towards other treatments focused more on quality of life and placemaking characteristics, such as the kinds of treatments specified in the Tempe  Streetscape and Transportation Enhancement Program Manual or the Baltimore County Maryland Neighborhood Traffic Management Program Manual, I think that the treatments for bicycling are just a different form or extension of regular traffic calming practices.

Berkeley Bike BoulevardBike boulevard in Berkeley, California.  Flickr photo by Artbandito.

Bike boulevard treatments for example are just another dimension of basic traffic calming, although there is no question that they prioritize biking and streetscape and walking over accommodating motor vehicles.

2.  So the point becomes, what is the point of the road/place, what is it trying to accomplish? 

Where people live, the priority ought to be improving the quality of life and physical environment in favor of walking, biking, and transit. 

I usually recommend a couple pioneering resources on this topic.

reclaiming-our-cities-towns-better-living-with-less-david-engwicht-paperback-cover-artFirst, David Engwicht's book Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns: Better Living Through Less Traffic which laid out the principles for what became transportation demand management as well as traffic calming, but his basic point is that the best trip is the one that doesn't require a car, and that if we make places so that we don't have to drive, that's half the battle.

Second, although I think it's already in need of a revision, the State of Pennsylvania's Smart Transportation Guidebook is very important in how it defines roadway characteristics, roadside characteristics, and desired operating speed for traffic in terms of land use context, so that a regionally serving arterial is different than an urban commercial district street anchoring a walkable neighborhood.

3.  Although I just came across a new publication, the North Carolina Complete Streets Planning and Design Guidelines, and that looks to be an important resource as well, especially in terms of outlining in Chapter 3 level of service characteristics for walking, biking, and transit, not just for motor vehicles, in terms of amenities and facilities.  I don't think it provides a complete framework, but I think it is an important step forward nonetheless.
 North Carolina Complete Streets Planning and Design Guidelines, front cover
Just like the STG, this manual uses a similar concept of land use context as a defining element of how various types of modes and treatments are to be integrated into the mobility network, listing 8 types of places: Central Business District; Urban Center; Urban Residential; Suburban Center;  Suburban Residential; Rural Developed; Rural Village; and Countryside.

(I think that the Nashville Community Character Manual is also a resource for defining land use more granularly, in terms of the New Urbanist transect.)
Yarn bombing a bicycle rack in Boise, Idaho
The yarn bombing of a bicycle rack in Boise, Idaho isn't the kind of bicycle facilities accommodation covered in the North Carolina bicycle level of service measurement framework.

4.  In the city, especially the core of the city, especially a city that was designed during the Walking and Streetcar City eras (1800-1920), walking, biking, and transit are the optimal modes for getting around

Back then, the city was not designed to optimize the movement of motor vehicles, and no matter what people try to do or advocate today (e.g., "the streetcar is a 19th century technology" and note that technically, so is the car, what people are really talking about is mass transit vs. personal transit), that can't change--fitting cars into the Walking City era city is hard, and speedy mobility on the part of cars--unless you build a massive freeway network which mostly destroys the quality of place and also induces driving and capacity strains and congestion (as Jane Jacobs once said to someone who asked a question about roads and cars... "you're asking the wrong question.  The right question isn't why aren't there enough roads, but why are there so many cars?").
Southfield & Jeffries interchange
Southfield and Jeffries Freeway interchange, Detroit. Flickr photo by Bing Gregory.

Silver Spring Business District Street Sign, Wayne Avenue
Silver Spring Business District Street Sign emphasizes pedestrian movement, Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland.

5.  We need to move from having signs that say pedestrians are important to making pedestrians important.  That requires more definite physical and urban design changes, along with changes in laws making motor vehicle operators more responsible for their actions (e.g., "In the Bump and Jostle of the Street, Who Bears the Burden for Safety?" from Citistates).
Couch as placemaking, 9th Street NE, Brookland
One way to balance pedestrian and motor vehicle use of public space typically devoted to on street car storage (9th Street NE, Brookland).

6.  Because the core of the city is dominated by pedestrians, the physical environment in the heart of center cities, including Washington, DC, should be managed to prioritize pedestrians and transit, as well as bicycling, and to de-emphasize motor vehicle priority.

The biggest initiatives with regard to this are the 30/50 kph zones in Europe and Montreal, and in the 20 (mph) is plenty campaign in the UK and the concept of shared spaces as outlined by the late Hans Monderman.  See the past blog entry "Pedestrian safety and the proposed 15mph residential speed limit in DC: Part One."

Kids_cross, Oakland Barnes Dance Intersection
Barnes "Dance" intersection treatment, Oakland, California, from the Streetsblog entry "Eyes on the Street: History of Oakland Chinatown's Barnes Dance Intersection." The entry has some great photos.

There needs to be more "Barnes Dance" pedestrian scramble intersections, where pedestrian movement is prioritized over cars and the pavement treatment needs to emphasize this, like in Pasadena or Oakland, California--DC has such an intersection, but there is no special treatment of the crosswalks, in particular the diagonal crosswalks.  If there were, it would emphasize the importance of pedestrians.

There needs to be a set of transitways for bus (and eventually streetcar) service in key downtown corridors.  We need a branded set of bikeways including more cycletracks, etc.

12 steps to a great public space by Jan Gehl & Lars Gemzoe

  1. Protection from traffic
  2. Protection from crime
  3. Protection from the elements
  4. A place to walk
  5. A place to stop and stand
  6. A place to sit
  7. Things to see
  8. Opportunities for conversations
  9. Opportunities for play
  10. Human-scale
  11. Opportunities to enjoy good weather
  12. Aesthetic quality

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