Designing Streets for People

By John Massengale

Vision Zero has unanticipated benefits. Making safe streets for cities goes hand in hand with making places where people want to get out of their cars and walk. Vision Zero helps us to stop killing people with cars and enables the use of placemaking and urban design tools that planners and engineers have prohibited for the last 50 years in the name of safety.

Advent of Traffic Flow

Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl talks about the importance of “the space between the buildings” for public life and city life. And in my book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, I wrote that a space is not a place unless people want to be there. But more than a century ago, “organized motordom” (car manufacturers, oil companies, road builders and the like) began an effective campaign to kick the pedestrian to the side of the road, out of the way of the car, in order to sell more cars.

A new profession was born — Traffic Engineer — whose purpose was to make traffic flow as smoothly and easily as water in a pipe. Trees that were slowing down or damaging cars were labeled FHOs, Fixed Hazardous Objects. People on foot became MHOs, Moving Hazardous Objects. The concept of “jaywalking” was invented, and laws were passed to keep jaywalkers out of the street except at the new “crosswalks” at intersections. Eventually, new types of roads were invented, as part of a Functional Classification System that ranked them according to how well traffic flowed.

Thanks to historian Peter Norton, who tells this story in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, and advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives, the rise of organized motordom became well known. But it is worth summarizing a little of this history to draw attention to an important point: departments of transportation control the design of our streets, and their historical purpose has been to make traffic flow, not to make better cities or places. In the past, when they talked about making streets “safer,” transportation engineers meant “safer for cars to go faster, in greater numbers” — and that system brought with it 30,000 to 40,000 traffic deaths every year.

Access to the Public Realm

Today, there is a revolution going on: a majority of Americans want to drive less and walk or bike more; a majority want access to public life in the space between the buildings, which urban designers call “the public realm.” We know now that our cars contribute to climate change, unhealthy air, and even unhealthy water, more than any other single factor. We see clearly that driving everywhere means we get less exercise, and that diabetes, heart attacks, and other health problems result.

Vision Zero states that the way to get to zero traffic deaths on streets where drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians come into close contact is to slow motor vehicles down to 20 miles per hour or less. “Or less” is crucial, and that’s happening in many places in Europe. In the U.S., however, speed limits are set at 25 or 30 miles per hour, but police don’t give tickets until a driver goes more than 10 miles per hour faster. Combine that with design speeds for the roads that are at least 10 mph over the posted speed limit and the result is that drivers consistently go 30 to 40 miles per hour on “slow streets.” The evolution of the American transportation revolution is slow.

In Amsterdam and many parts of the Netherlands, the speed limit on 85% of streets is 30 kph (18.6 mph). People are permitted to be anywhere on those streets at any time — pedestrians may cross the street anywhere they want, and cyclists and pedestrians may travel down the center of the street. Factors like human reaction times and the human cone of vision mean that slower drivers hit far fewer objects, stationary or moving, and in those rare instances when they do, there is less damage and far fewer deaths.

Designing Shared Spaces

With the help of traffic engineers like the great Hans Monderman, the Dutch discovered that the best way to make those “shared spaces” work well and be safe was to do exactly the opposite of what they had been doing. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman said. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman said. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

In other words, all the techniques developed over time to make drivers comfortable going faster — separation of lanes, colored lanes, bold striping, signs legible at high speed, even stop lights, and stop signs — could be removed, if the goal was to slow cars down. Today, those 30 kph streets in Amsterdam have no stop lights, no yield signs and no bold graphics. Cars go slowly, and the streets are safer than the expensive over-designed streets of the U.S.

Over-designing is also bad for placemaking. New studies in neuroscience and cognitive testing have found that the best public realm is a single, harmonious space between the buildings. Cutting it into pieces and giving most of the space to automobiles reduces our sense of wellbeing. Take the time to look at American streets and you will see that all the machine-scale detritus of traffic engineering sends a clear message: People keep out, this is a place for cars and trucks!

Streets for People

After World War II, cities around the country rebuilt their streets according to the principles of Functional Classification. Making traffic flow like water in a pipe made it easier to drive to and from the suburbs, but many city streets began to feel like auto sewers. Planners called this “urban renewal,” but Jane Jacobs called it “urban removal.” It made city life less attractive, and encouraged people to get in their cars and move to the suburbs.

By the 1990s, there was a lot of disenchantment with auto-centric suburban streets. The federal government mandated that states hire pedestrian and cycling advocates to make suburban streets safer and more convenient for walking and biking. Working with departments of transportation, the advocates developed concepts of traffic calming that evolved into road diets and complete streets.

Today, departments of transportation are bringing road diet and traffic calming techniques developed to tame big, ugly, auto-centric suburban streets back into the cities. Urban designers call these design and engineering techniques, and the streets they produce, “sub-urban.” Traffic flow is still the priority, and the emphasis is still on making transportation corridors to get suburbanites in and out of the city.

Vision Zero opens the door to once again making streets for people. To reduce traffic deaths to zero in places where cars and people come into close contact, traffic must be slowed down to 20 mph or less. After that, all the placemaking ideas that traffic engineers rejected in recent decades — majestic tree-lined streets, civic monuments at intersections, narrow roadbeds — become not only possible but desirable.

In other words, the design priorities for city streets, streets in town centers, and streets in walkable neighborhoods should be to make safe, slow streets, not just calming traffic. Calming traffic still favors the car over the pedestrian

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

John Massengale, AIA, is internationally recognized as an expert on the connections between urban design, architecture, placemaking, and walkability. Co-author with Victor Dover FAICP of Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, he has won awards for architecture, urbanism, historic preservation and architectural history. Massengale is a former board member of both the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), as well as the founding chair of CNU NYC. With Robert A. M. Stern, he was co-author of The Anglo-American Suburb, and of New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915, the first architectural history book to win a National Book Award.

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Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.