Daily Archives: October 22, 2009

Are “Living Streets” bad for cars?

The term “Living Streets” is just one of a plethora of words being used to describe a design and implementation strategy of humanizing our transportation corridors. In more simpler terms it means having streets focused more on people and not solely having them promote vehicular flow.

At some point during the modernization of America (after World War II) more people became enamored with living away from the typical city neighborhoods. There were many factors that made suburban development a reality including changes with financing a home, job growth for returning soldiers, the US having one of the only economies not severely hampered by the WWII, new highway construction making it easier to live outside of the city boundaries, and probably to a certain degree people making a quick buck on land speculation. (I don’t mean to sound cynical, but if you ever wonder why a capitalistic society follows a certain path there’s a good chance that someone is telling us that we absolutely need what they’re selling.)

I live in a neighborhood that was first built in the early 1960’s. Besides noticing the obvious suburban development patterns such as single-zoned uses (no integration between the residential and the few commercial developments on “the block”) and the winding streets that make it difficult to navigate through the neighborhood (most likely an attempt to reduce the amount of non-resident traffic through the neighborhood), I was amazed at how wide certain neighborhood streets were. I swear there’s one street that if lanes were painted on it you could have street parking on each side of the street and still have room for four more lanes.

So why are neighborhood streets that rarely ever provide a short cut to people who don’t live in the neighborhood so wide? The one reason I can think of is that in most jurisdictions the local fire department requires a certain width for streets to allow them easy access to homes. So as the fire trucks have become larger the streets became larger to accommodate them. Of course the byproduct of this is that streets create an environment more accommodating to cars than people, which if you ever watch the few cars traveling on the “multi-lane” neighborhood street you’ll notice these streets allow cars to travel much faster.

But then there are suburban traffic corridors (i.e. the primary streets for getting around suburbia). These streets, with their many lanes, multiple access points onto side streets and parking lots, and fast speed limits are incredibly unfriendly for pedestrians. Here in Colorado there is an organization called Denver Living Streets that is trying to provide solutions for turning major urban corridors into a more pedestrianized environment.

Of course there is concern that turning some of the larger traffic arteries into a more pedestrian friendly environment will create more traffic on these streets. One of the streets aimed at for creating a “Living Street” is Colorado Boulevard. I’m sure you know of a street like it where it’s 3-lanes in each direction with a continuous middle left turn lane in the middle. It lacks right turn lanes at certain major intersections, and it’s most usually a pain in the butt to turn left onto any street or parking lot where there’s no traffic light. And because of the suburban development where the major traffic arteries are spaced apart from each other by at least a mile, Colorado Boulevard is usually the only street you can take when you want to go from one certain place to another.

So if Colorado Boulevard isn’t designed for pedestrians, does that automatically imply that it’s designed for automobiles? After years of driving on Colorado Boulevard, and being dumb enough to try to make a left turn where there wasn’t a traffic light, I would answer with a resounding no. As far as providing access to automobiles Colorado Boulevard’s purpose is to be a thoroughfare for people traveling from one part of town to another, and to provide people who are driving access to the businesses, residences, and offices along the street. When you combine these two purposes together (at the same time) this seems to create the traffic jams that are prevalent with most streets like Colorado Boulevard.

When I read the “Living Street” initiative (especially in reference to Colorado Boulevard) I imagined something like this, where the lanes dedicated for the thoroughfare traffic was separated from the lane dedicated for access to the buildings along the street. The byproduct of this is a more pedestrian environment where buildings can be closer to the street edge because of the slower traffic in the “access” driving lane, and people crossing the street no longer have to cross the equivalent of eight or nine traffic lanes at once.

We will always need streets that provide vehicular access where one can travel from one part of town to another in a timely manner. For me “Living Streets” promotes this idea by separating this vehicular access from a part of the street that is a more pedestrian oriented environment. I believe this strategy will work (and has worked), because the currently streets like Colorado Boulevard are really good for nothing.