Transportation is a fundamental aspect of community cohesion, and should be considered a synonym for togetherness.
Planners, engineers, and policy makers commonly talk about quantitative data when they talk about making roads more livable and sustainable; yet rarely do they talk about streets bringing people together. The primary dialogue about street design usually focuses on quantitative transportation indicators, such as: collisions and safety infrastructure; separation of different kinds of road users; trip generation and intersection level of service (LOS); the total amount of induced vehicle miles traveled (VMT); and related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Rarely do public authorities address the idea of a diverse “togetherness” in street design—despite that being the root goal most policies and plans set out to achieve.
Architect and urban designer Jan Gehl refers to this idea by referencing how cities can support the “human condition.” His idea of the “Soft City,” as described in a 2019 book by David Sims, integrates the natural environment with built form designed to encourage social interactions outside of buildings—the idea of designing roadways for people not cars. While many Slow Streets efforts during the pandemic illustrated how streets can support the social fabric of cities, most of the pandemic-era priority on pedestrian space is not being retained. While some of these temporary interventions suffered from less-than-adequate community input, in general, human-centered design that brings people together is not common in the transportation profession. In that light, it is time that planners, engineers, designers, and policy makers integrate this idea of togetherness to bring new life to streets by ending simplistic, constrained ideas of “the road” as places for cars alone.
What do I mean in using the word togetherness? I mean cross-cultural connectivity through shared experience of place. Most of the time urban planners, engineers, and policy makers talk about connectivity in terms of grid networks and the arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, referring to the configuration of streets and networks or connectivity between jobs and housing. While this approach could relate to the idea of togetherness, it lacks a sensitivity to human values, nor does it reference the vulnerabilities (physical, emotional, cultural) that people bring to their roadway interaction. Urban networks can focus not only on highly quantitative intersection node connectivity, but also on bringing people together and providing the framework for our public lives—a true foundation for public and civic engagement.
Streets can be more than roads. They can be places that help support human systems alongside environmental and natural systems. They can be beautiful, permeable, and can facilitate many forms of activity—including many forms of transport. They can be designed to fit the character of the city and its land use patterns, all while promoting income accessibility and social mobility through climate-responsive, multimodal travel. Well planned street networks can help create sustainable cities that support the environmental, social, and economic needs of their residents—but streets need to be lively and inviting to attract people for reasons other than driving.
I understand if this idea of bringing people on to the street sounds somewhat radical—particularly in the context of how western engineering has prioritized cars in road design and how law enforcement has continued to adversely target communities of color exercising their right to use the street. Cars have long dominated urban streets. Separating and prioritizing cars over other modes creates a hierarchy and a form of tyranny. What do I mean? Take the example of a striped bike lane that creates a separate space for cycling. A separate bike lane might create a safer cycling environment on a high-speed street, yet the math of how much space is given to the car show that the car is dominant and has more “rights” to the road than softer forms of travel. If a car is double parked slightly in a bike lane or creates a door collision, the question of fault usually rests first on the cyclist based on the prioritization of space: Why couldn’t the cyclist have veered into the roadway to avoid the vehicle?
Conversely, a mixed flow environment brings traffic together and forces it to interact—as shown through Slow Street initiatives. In Chicago, planners documented a 350% increase in foot traffic on one corridor along with an 85% increase in bike traffic and a 50% decrease in local traffic. Streets can be shared spaces that are safe, slow, and sustainable. Done right, shared spaces can exist and, just like the vision of naked street that Hans Monderman discussed, people can walk, bike, and just “be” in the street—without delineation or roadway separation. The uncertainty creates safety; the chaos creates awareness and forces people to begin to engage in a form of interaction and togetherness.
Moreover, we can do what scholars like myself, Borja Ruiz, and Vikas Mehta have suggested and provide seating, infrastructure, and amenities that continue the use of the street as was established during the pandemic (and brought us together). Planners, engineers, and policy makers can make permanent the infrastructure of togetherness, going beyond pop-up safe streets efforts to thoughtfully including features like signals or signage, varied surfaces, level curbs, and street demarcations that invite use from non-automotive traffic. Creating streets for togetherness also involves the integration of benches, gardens, landscaping, art, play areas, and other infrastructure to support social gathering. These elements embrace the communal spirit of Dutch woonerfs, which invite person-to-person interaction between transportation modes.
Additionally, public authorities can prioritize amenities that give street frontages more visual interest, including artistic signage and personalized street fronts, opportunities for permanent curbside dining or parklet conversion, and incentives to active neighborhood-serving commercial uses along the streetscape. Most importantly, planners and engineers should begin to depict cities that are lively and show people together. They can show plans and graphics that show diverse communities walking, bicycling, talking, playing, dining, protesting, and bringing life to the heart of cities.
These kinds of actions may sound simple, but as we emerge from the pandemic and a new sense of normalcy begins to settle in, these ideas are important to keep in mind. In places ranging from San Francisco and San Diego to Miami and Chicago, Slow Streets program have begun to wind down, despite calls from prominent news outlets like the Los Angeles Times to maintain them. The lessons from these experiments can be learned and harnessed even at the micro-block level. While there are formal and informal ways of slowing traffic, painting bike lanes, and planting trees, citizens have the power to advocate, take action, and “own” their own blocks. Increasingly, city officials are receptive to this kind of local advocacy.
In sum, streets that help to reintegrate togetherness need to be a core of future cities—for environmental and social justice reasons. Whoever you are, wherever you are, however rich or poor you might be, transport is about dignity, self-respect, and the community we each hold in our hearts. Transportation is a fundamental aspect of our community cohesion, bringing us together as one—togetherness as a synonym for transportation.
Dr. William (Billy) Riggs, Ph.D., AICP, LEED AP, is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Management, and a global thought leader in the areas of future mobility and smart transportation, housing, economics, and urban development. He is the author of the book End of the Road: Reimagining the Street as the Heart of the City. He can be found on Twitter at @billyriggs.
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