Complete Residential Streets

October 22, 2012 at 8:48 pm

I recently wrote a brief post about “Shared Lanes” and how they are redundant and useless to a city’s bike infrastructure. I’ve also been reading Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking [Amazon], which has been on my reading list for a while and I’m finally getting around to. About 800 pages of research about, well, the high cost of free parking has been interesting and piqued my curiosity about just how much all the parking that is given out free to drivers actually affects all modes of transportation. So much curb parking in almost every city is free on residential streets – at least in Chicago, you’ll only find meters on busier streets, but local streets are fee-free (some require permits at certain times).

Thinking about how almost half the width of a street is dedicated to free parking in many places and my afternoon ride to Evanston this weekend got me thinking about a more equitable street design, one that might make cycling feel safe enough to get the average person to bike more often.

The Door Zone

Bike Lane Un-maintenance

A bike lane in serious need of repair. Credit: Let’s Go Ride a Bike.

One of the most dangerous aspects of biking on an urban street is the parked cars between the cyclist and traffic on the road. On one hand, you want to be as far away from moving traffic as possible, but it’s difficult to see into each parked car to make sure nobody in front of you is about to open their door directly in your path. There are two dangers here and the cyclist has to strike a perfect balance between both to avoid being in too much danger. I believe this is a large enough danger to dissuade some from using a bike as a regular mode of transportation.

Painted lines or symbols on the street don’t do much to prevent danger, except they denote a portion of the street exclusively for cyclist use. This works in theory but is not so perfect in practice. Taxis use the lane to pick up/drop off passengers, pedestrians crossing the street away from a marked crosswalk use it as a refuge, and delivery and personal vehicles use it as a temporary parking space (hazard lights don’t make your vehicle disappear!)

These lines also don’t maintain the surface of the lane – many bike lanes are on stretches of road that are not well maintained. In a vehicle, small rocks, cracks, and holes aren’t a big deal, but on a bike they can be destabilizing and damaging to the cyclist and the bike.

High-Speed Vehicles

Further complicating the problem of biking in cities is the fact that many streets with painted bike lanes are major arterial streets with wide lanes and fast-moving traffic. These streets often don’t have many entrances/exits (less friction), or they have too many entrances/exits (too much to look out for). They aren’t only wide physically, but they feel wider due to lack of tall buildings, street furniture, or trees to narrow the field of vision, which makes drivers drive faster.

Western and Southport

Above: Western Ave. just north of Addison St.
Below: Southport Ave. just south of Grace St.
Credit: Google Maps.

The buildings on Southport Ave. are closer to the street (visual) and the bike lane reduces the (physical) width of the traffic lanes, which makes drivers drive slower. Western Ave.’s buildings are set back, short, and the lanes are wide.

While Southport Ave. is a good street to bike on, many streets with bike lanes are arterial streets with fast-moving traffic. Streets aren’t solely for cars, so why do we build them like they are? Some argue that cars should be given more room because more people drive but this is a catch-22: People don’t bike, because it’s dangerous, because there’s too many people driving, because streets are designed primarily for cars. We know that dedicated cycle facilities cut cycling injuries in half, which means they make biking safer, which makes biking more attractive.

If it’s too much initially to remove entire lanes of arterial streets to make biking more safe, we should at least start somewhere to make biking more ubiquitous in American cities, increasing cycling rates, which would then make a stronger case for more cycling infrastructre. I suggest giving local, residential streets back to uses for all people. To make a succinct point, parking spaces on residential streets are often free to anyone lucky enough to snag one. These spaces are built and maintained at the expense of every taxpayer in the city, even though not everyone in a city drives a car. So what do we do to give back some of this land for all people to use?

Remove the free parking on some residential streets and install cycling facilities instead!

A ‘Complete’ Residential Street

Complete Residential Street

A “complete” local/residential street. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Above is a diagram I made in Adobe Illustrator. At the top is a typical residential street in Chicago today (the widths are based on this document, which is 5 years old). Free parking spaces are on each side of the street.

The middle diagram is a modified residential street. I added a driveway/alleyway to show how it could fit. On the left side of the street is a two-way cycle track separated by a 4-foot barrier from a two-way street. The bottom diagram is a one-way street with one side dedicated to parking (I added a standing zone for delivery vehicles which would otherwise block the road; I chose the color blue because I was unsure of what color it would be). Narrowed lanes and trees – which reduce the physical and visual width of the street – would make drivers drive slower. The entire cycle track would be made of permeable pavement and would be raised a few inches above the street so that vehicles at intersections would not stop on it. While not pictured above, (LED) streetlights would illuminate both the street and the cycle track for safety.

Bike parking stations could be incorporated into this design by narrowing the driving lane width of the middle diagram by 2′ and placing the station in the middle divider. In the third diagram, a portion of parking could be removed and the one-way traffic lane could curve around (like a chicane) a widened median divider with a station. This would work well on the lowest-trafficked residential streets and provide a great connection in residential areas that aren’t well-served by existing public transportation. A bike sharing station in these areas could provide a “last-mile” solution for getting from the public transportation stop (which would have a bike sharing station) to a location nearer to home.

I envision that a street like this would be parallel to major arterial streets, allowing easy access to the destinations the arterials serve without the noise and the traffic. Intersections might even prioritize bicycles by placing the burden of stopping on motor-driven vehicles and allowing people-driven bicycles to coast through intersections, like a 2-way stop for bicycles but a 4-way stop for vehicles. The lack of parked cars to the left means that left-turning vehicles can see far enough down the lane so as not to hit oncoming cyclists. Where visibility is limited, sensors in the pavement could detect oncoming bicycles and warn drivers with a light or flashing bicycle symbol.

I believe that cycle tracks work well on busier streets but they would also work on smaller residential streets. Drivers will cry foul at the removal of so many free parking spaces, but the simple fact is that these spaces are given out for free. They have to be maintained, they have to be plowed after snow, and they have to be patrolled by the Department of Revenue for violations – at the expense of everyone, not just those who get to use the space. And in order to use this street space, you need a car. Many people in large cities don’t need cars, and those who have them might find giving driving up more attractive if the right opportunity comes across – like safer, more accessible cycling. We could save money on all of this and make cycling safer and more prominent in our cities.

My point is that a half of so many streets in our cities is given to vehicles that aren’t even moving, and this space could be better used for other means of transportation. Cycling is much more attainable to a wider portion of residents in a city – the expense of owning a vehicle is much higher than owning a bicycle. Why not dedicate the entire street or at least a greater portion of it to moving vehicles instead of occasionally giving cyclists badly designed painted strips, more often “Shared lane” markings, and most often nothing at all. Biking can be an amazing tool for our society – it makes us healthier, it is far less expensive than owning a car, and the affordability of a bike as well as bike-sharing networks popping up everywhere makes it accessible to everyone.

Why not take away a small amount of parking for the massive benefits bicycling can provide?