City of Madison Traffic Engineering
What we're starting to understand is that streets have multiple users.
How do we measure a successful street?
Well, traditionally we've allowed traffic engineers, focused on moving cars, to create that measure. They've developed a grading system for streets called "Level of Service" or LOS.
But here's the problem. If you look at LOS grades for downtown Madison -- or most other healthy cities -- you'll see almost nothing but "D" and "F" levels. In other words, by the measure of moving cars around, our streets are failing or nearly failing.
The Project for Public Spaces hosted its Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place 2014 conference in Pittsburgh this week, where I heard a compelling argument to forget about LOS in most urban environments altogether. After all, a city is not a place for cars to move efficiently. But if you make it that, you've almost certainly lost all the things that make your city a good place to be in the first place. You've destroyed your city in order to save it.
We need to start thinking of cities as something more than impediments to the smooth movement of traffic. MIT engineer Jeff Rosenblum presented a study of one street in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was treated with a road diet: fewer lanes, broader sidewalks, bump-outs at pedestrian crossings, and wider terraces. That street moved 20,000 cars a day before this treatment. And afterwards? It still moves 20,000 vehicles a day. By restricting turns and timing stop and go lights, the street was made more efficient for cars at the same time it was made more welcoming for biking, walking, hanging out and just living.
Jeff was followed by Scott Hamlow, who is heading up a group within the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that is developing a new way of evaluating how successful a street is. Rather than just moving cars, his group is developing goals that include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting sustainable development, reducing various forms of pollution, and moving people along and across a street on all modes.
Finally, I don't want to be too hard on traffic engineers. They're professionals who can design whatever the public wants. (Among many other responsibilities, the Madison Traffic Engineering division prepares and publishes traffic flow maps for the entire city.)
Up until recently, it has been a given that what the public wants is the easier flow of cars and trucks. What we're starting to understand is that streets have multiple users, including both bikes and pedestrians. Streets are used not just to move people along them, but across them too. Streets are part of neighborhoods where people live.
If the public and the policy makers who represent them call for streets that serve multiple users -- not just cars -- the professionals will figure out how to give them what they want.