One of the most interesting books I have read this year was Street Fight by Janette Sadik-Khan. The title may be misleading for those in the planning profession, but it truly is the story of a fight over space in the streets. Space for not only cars, but pedestrians and bicyclists too. So many years were devoted to building six lane in town "highways" that our cities have become inhospitable places for individuals that either have to or choose to walk or bike to get around. While working as the Transportation Commissioner in New York City, Janette changed the way not only New Yorkers, but cities across the U.S. thought about who our streets should be designed for.
There is a simple fact that I keep coming across with each book on transportation that I read--more roads creates more congestion. Lewis Mumford in 1955 said "trying to fix congestion by adding lanes is like trying to prevent obesity by loosening your belt." It's the "if you build it they will come" mentality, except with roads that is the opposite of what you want.
Getting beyond the problem of traffic, Sadik-Khan demonstrated how NYC completely retooled the way their transportation department operated. By looking at who was using a space, they could plan for not just cars, but pedestrians and bicyclists too. Desire lines, worn paths that show where people actually walk, were useful tools in building paths that would actually be used. In one example, the paths cars left in the snow showed a small rectangular space untouched by vehicles that could be turned into a pedestrian island, increasing safety at the intersection.
Creating these changes was not easy. The department saw incredible backlash and opposition to many of their changes, something every city faces. But instead of cowing to the vocal minority, the department after plenty of public engagement moved forward with their plans which had the backing of significant amounts of data on the benefits that would result from the projects. If they had tried to get unanimous support it would have taken almost twice as long and thousands of dollars more.
One of the biggest take away's from the book was that no matter what city you live in, someone will always try to argue that your idea is bad because your are not [insert bigger city here]. People were against bike lanes because NYC is not Copenhagen, and apparently Minneapolis should not create more density because we are not NYC.
Like any public project, street debates are rooted in emotional assumptions about how change will affect a persons commute, ability to park, perception of safety, and the bottom line of local businesses. Rarely do residents care about the data, which is what matters when making educated decisions about the future of our cities. Even in Minneapolis business owners are outraged at bike lanes in front of their stores replacing parking, but as Sadik-Khan demonstrated in her book, businesses in this situation were actually performing better with more pedestrian and bike amenities in front of their spaces.
I found this book to be incredibly inspiring and it has changed the way I look at streets in my city. I look at the extra wide lanes of East Hennepin Avenue and think about how a simple restructuring of the the currently dangerous street would provide plenty of space for two lanes of cars with the addition of a separate bike path. After all, why does something we spend an hour of our day in take up so much space in our cities?