It’s Time City Streets Match Our Societal Values

By Erica Klampfl, Greenfield Labs Director, Ford Smart Mobility, and Ruth McLachlin, Design Researcher, Greenfield Labs, Ford Smart Mobility

Make your way down a city street in various parts of the world and you will undoubtedly experience something different from one to the next. Some might have four lanes for traffic; some might be lined with high-rises. Others might be gravel or have traffic flowing in only one direction.

While no two streets are the same, almost all share the same simple purpose: to support the movement and storage of vehicles.

Mulberry Street, New York City, circa 1900.

Look at photographs from the early 1900s and you’ll see people using multiple forms of transportation — horse, car, bike or walking — on the same street. There are open air cafes and street vendors. Fast-forward 50 years and cars had overtaken streets, forcing pedestrians and bikers to the sides. And today, even as more city residents opt not to drive for their daily trips, it’s clearer than ever that our streets are mainly for cars — not people.

Second Avenue, Detroit, 1954.

But America’s streets are where life happens. In urban communities, streets comprise 30 percent of all space. They are an economic generator, an area for social activity and a conduit for everything that moves. Shouldn’t we design and manage our streets with these values in mind?

This is one of the many questions we set out to answer when we created Greenfield Labs last year. At Greenfield Labs — a Ford Smart Mobility research and innovation team in partnership with IDEO — we don’t take streets at their face value. We are questioning everything that is considered “fact” when it comes to what streets are able to become in the future.

We believe cities need to balance public good and business needs — making people feel happy, safe, and connected, while enabling the efficient flow of business. We are looking at how streets could be designed so that they serve a variety of functions and needs for all: people walking, people biking, people who own and use businesses, private and public vehicle usage, relaxation, exercise, connecting with others, and of course, the commerce and services that underpin their economies.

For example, people who bike — like all human beings — value feeling safe, which for many requires some separation between the roadway and bike path, so what if we took parking spaces and transformed them into bike lanes? Green spaces in many cities are relegated to parks, but what if we created micro forests alongside bus lanes to help clean the air?

We believe there are certain facets of human and city life that most of us hold in high esteem and want to bring with us into the future. These facets include taking time to notice the people, life, the unexpected and serene in our environment; the ability to slow down, change our mind, try something new or even make mistakes, particularly when it comes to transportation (after all, who doesn’t like to occasionally explore the road less traveled?); and the thoughtful inclusion of all perspectives when it comes to the never-ending creative process of building a city. These facets are reflected in some of our work, which is now coming to life.

Greenfield Labs, in conjunction with Gehl, a company that focuses on people-centered urban design, came together earlier this year to start a project called National Street Service. The project’s mission is to preserve and enhance the life, economy and mobility of the American street.

One of the project’s early initiatives centered on finding the value of current street space. The team looked at the cost to maintain the street and enforce rules for the space — for example parking enforcement — to see if it outweighed the potential benefits of using that space for something else. Examples include using the space to put in a bike path or even a garden for fresh fruits or vegetables.

What did we find? In San Francisco, the cost to maintain one metered parking space — some $729 annually — could pay for 291 residents to use the city’s Muni metro system. And if one parking lane was transformed into a sidewalk, 7,200 more people could move by walking every hour; if it was transformed into a moving traffic lane, 1,600 more people could move via car every hour.

We know it’s a radical to suggest that what is a parking space today could be a garden tomorrow, but we need to be provocative to start to change the mindset around what a street could and should be. Let’s face it, anyone who has spent time in any city around the world knows just how horrific traffic can be, whether in their car or trying to enjoy a night out on the town by foot, and probably believes there’s little to nothing to be done about it. But at Greenfield Labs, we believe we can help facilitate change for the better.

After all, in cities like San Francisco or New York, where a large percentage of households don’t even own cars, why should one-third of a city street be dedicated to parked vehicles?

As we think about the future in large, thriving cities and how we can reimagine our streets, we need to realize that municipalities have finite resources and finite space. These are precious resources that need to be carefully allocated to deliver the highest good. So we need to consider all the tradeoffs we make when we dedicate space for parking instead of more sidewalk space or public parks.

Only then can we imagine a world where our streets reflect our values.