Many of our streets haven’t changed in decades, even when they’ve proven dangerous, or the surrounding communities’ needs have changed. When the roads have been altered, they have often been made wider, straighter, and faster, rather than more livable.
Our Rightsizing Streets Guide aims to help planners and community members update their streets to make them ‘right’ for their context. The centerpiece of the guide is a set of ten rightsizing case studies that highlight impressive outcomes using before and after data on mobility, crashes, and other parameters. These are just a few of the projects that have been built and many more are being planned all over the country. Our glossary of common rightsizing techniques and our best practices guide to street selection criteria and before and after measurements can help facilitate similar changes in your community.
Rightsizing in Context
Rightsizing’s approach is not new to PPS or the larger transportation community. The emergence of the Context Sensitive Solutions movement in 1998 accelerated transportation professionals’ reevaluation of the presumption that wider, straighter, and faster roads are universally better. This paradigm shift has been glacially slow, but as with the glaciers, this movement has reshaped the landscape of transportation. The fact that wider, straighter, and faster isn’t always better has been the topic of several PPS articles.
This approach has momentum. Context Sensitive Solutions opened the door in ‘98; a few years later, the Complete Streets movement swept through it. These approaches emphasize that streets are not solely for moving cars at high speeds, to the detriment of other possibilities and the physical health of community members.
But these approaches created a new problem. As more and more people began to realize that streets don’t always have to be designed exclusively for high speed travel by cars, the public clamor for streets designed for people intensified. This clamor, rooted in years of frustration, was vented at professionals with little or no experience or any sound engineering practice on how to design streets for all users. If anything, awareness amongst the public that their streets don’t have to be just for cars increased the communication gap between engineers, planners, and community members.
New knowledge is needed about how to design roadways differently, and also the ramifications of doing so. This information is important both to stakeholders and transportation professionals, which is why I wrote the Citizens Guide for Better Streets several years ago. Professionals need to be comforted with data demonstrating that new approaches work within their transportation metrics, and stakeholders need to see case studies describing how and where innovative street designs have been launched.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of communities undertaking projects that reverse the trend of wider, straighter, and faster streets. I collected a number of these case studies during presentations by transportation professionals around the U.S. Thanks to a grant from the Anne T & Robert M Bass Foundation, PPS went further and spoke with folks who have championed rightsizing. The first results of our research are presented in our Rightsizing Streets Guide on the PPS web site.
It has become fashionable to call projects that reallocate street space to accommodate bikes, pedestrians and transit, “Road Diets.” This term resonates with advocates who have been frustrated with bloated overdesigned roads for years; I share their frustration.
But after working inside the transportation establishment for 34 years, I believe that Road Diet is often a polarizing term. When citizens walk into the City Engineer’s office and ask for a road diet, the outcome they have in mind is already clear, before any conversation takes place, and before any analysis of the problem and data takes place. This can put professionals on the defensive and drive them deeper into the comfort of their automobile-centric training. It is like having the message delivered on a note wrapped around a rock that hits them in the head.
Rightsizing, on the other hand, opens, rather than narrows, the conversation. It avoids putting the transportation professional on the defensive and shifts the conversation from debating the solution to working together to define and then solve the problem. The decades of experience vested in our professionals can then be applied to solving a different problem: creating a road that serves all users, not just cars.
Much of the time, this will mean shrinking the road (aka putting it on a diet). Almost all of the time, it will involve reallocating existing space between the modes. Sometimes, we might all come to agree that the ‘right’ size could actually be an expanded roadway. In some circumstances, more cars, trucks, transit, or pedestrians may demand more space. Hey—if we are going to demand that our engineers have an open mind, then so should we, right? After all, isn’t the ultimate goal to accommodate all users adequately and safely, rather than to just shrink roads indiscriminately? If the preferred solution is sensitive to all contexts and modes, and is not smaller, that should be okay.
In accordance with this philosophy, what you will find in our new Rightsizing guide is a depiction of all sorts of projects that recast roads in order to accommodate all users. Changes described in the case studies include not only vehicle lanes converted to bike lanes, sidewalks, and medians, but also the creation of public spaces, and roundabouts in place of traffic lights.