The One Tool You Need to Design the Street of the Future

Photo by Brodie Vissers

To understand what the street of the future will be, you have to take a step back and think about what a street is. A street is part of the public space between private properties. It’s sometimes called the “public right-of-way”. All that means is that this is square footage that the public owns. (We are not talking here about freeways, which are usually owned and operated by a state-level government and are sort of a different animal.)

Speaking in broad strokes: if it’s in a city, the city owns and controls the public right-of-way. If it’s in the countryside, it’s most likely a county, town, borough, duchy, or other local government that owns and controls that space. In general, this means that this is square footage that’s open to the general public, but of course there are exceptions and regulations. A one-way street, for example, is public space that’s regulated: you can only drive your car in one direction.

How do we sort out what pieces of public space are used for which purposes? Why can I not ride a dirt bike down the sidewalk? Why do we not have monkey bars we can use to swing across streets, rather than boring old crosswalks? Is there a cabal of experts controlling all of this? Yes and no.

In the United States, how the public right-of-way gets carved up is ultimately a political decision. Yes, there are engineers who (basically) control how roads get built, but in the context of a city, the civil engineers design the street that the city council approves.

The reason the public right-of-way is more or less synonymous with “the street” is that cars and trucks are just so gosh darn convenient and efficient. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, city streets were a mish-mash of trolleys, people on foot, trains, horses and carts (of various kinds), with the odd early automobile here and there.

Then, as we all know from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, the Model-T Ford made the people want to go, want to go, want to get up and go. Cars were this amazing, liberating thing. Best of all, unlike horses, they didn’t leave piles of poop in the street. By the post-World War II building boom of the 1950s, it was just logical to dedicate the bulk of the public right-of-way to moving vehicles. The new suburbs were built around this function, and city streets were retrofitted for cars. In some places, you can still see the outlines of trolley tracks that have been paved over to make a smooth surface for cars.

But when the first officially-designated bike lane on a public road was opened in Davis, California in the late 1960s, it was like the first crack in a huge dam — in this metaphor, a dam holding back pent-up demand for other modes of transportation. Over subsequent decades, bike advocates and other groups have been putting pressure on this opening, and more ways of using the public right-of-way have been getting out into the world.

In 2019, the City of San Francisco’s City Council unanimously approved a measure to exclude private vehicles from a section of Market Street. New York City has been pulling huge swaths of Times Square out from under cars and taxis and giving it to pedestrians. More and more cities are using innovative approaches to divvy up the public right-of-way to make more space for bikes, pedestrians, scooters, and whatever the next shared form of mobility will be.

So if you want to design the street of the future, you don’t need LIDAR or radio transmitters attached to traffic signals. These things are almost certainly coming, sooner or later. But in the near term, the question is not what technology will be embedded in our infrastructure, it is: who is going to be in the public right-of-way?

If you want to redesign your street, all you need is a tape measure.

Once you measure the street you can start talking about how to reallocate the public right-of-way. (Okay, technically you’d want to know how much total space is public, beyond the existing curb and sidewalk lines, and for that you might need detailed property records and a survey. For practical purposes, measuring between curbs can take you a long way.)

How much space are lanes for cars taking up? If it’s more than ten or eleven feet, it can probably be trimmed down. A bike lane needs at least five feet and, really, you want to have a buffer between bikes and traffic. Is there room for another 16 inches for some kind of buffer? Can you use on-street parking to create that buffer? And what about transit? Where will buses go? Is there room for bus-only lanes?

These are the conversations that are rewriting, a few feet at a time, how city streets are used, and local decision-makers are taking these things seriously. At a recent Oakland City Council meeting, one council member referred to the question of where bike lanes should be, not whether or not they should exist, but where they should be located (protected by on-street parking or not), as “the” item of the evening — and this was a small part of an eight-hour meeting!

If you’ve been paying attention to any one such conversation, you will be familiar with the broad contours of all such conversations. Taking space away from cars — whether it is fewer lanes or narrower lanes or less on-street parking — consistently alarms business interests and large numbers of commuters. This seems to be true across the board, in spite of the many studies that show that making streets safer for cyclists is, on balance, better for businesses, not worse.

In Oakland, a small section of Telegraph Avenue has had protected bike lanes for several years: on-street parking is set away from the curb by about five or six feet and the space between parked cars and the curb is designated as a bike lane. A pretty elegant solution, but one that gives business owners indigestion. Nevertheless, in spite of a spirited debate, the city council recently voted unanimously to keep the lanes where they are, largely because bike advocates in the East Bay have developed a large network and have some political clout.

Meanwhile, in D.C. there is a similar debate going on over bike lanes that can only fit on the street if large numbers of on-street parking spaces are removed from a residential neighborhood: some consternation in the face of a trade-off like that is only to be expected. In Brooklyn, a plan to free up some space for bikes by turning a two-way street into a one-way street kicked the hornet’s nest of business opposition: the lawsuit is pending in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

All of this is not to say that “cars have had their day”. Far from it. If that were the case, you wouldn’t even need a tape measure to re-imagine your streets: with no cars, the most dangerous and unpredictable piece would be removed from the equation. You could provide some space for transit and be done. And truly autonomous vehicles may have a similar effect on roadway design in the future, freeing up possibilities by ensuring that people and vehicles can safely coexist. The challenge that currently faces our streets is how to safely blend the movement of error-prone humans in huge, heavy cars and trucks with those of error-prone humans on foot, on bikes, and on scooters. This has to be done carefully.

Already in the late 1910s pioneering planner and sociologist Patrick Geddes was commenting on the engineer’s tendency to want to make wide, straight roads. At that point, he thought he was looking at a temporary “intoxication” with the automobile, and he looked forward to a time when the general public would re-discover the virtues of the “homely village lane”. It took the better part of a century, but the battles being fought in city halls around the country all point to a larger reconsideration of how to balance the uses of the public right-of-way.

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Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.

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Aaron McKeon

Aaron McKeon

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.

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