Residential streets as places to be

February 1, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Overnight we got a few inches of snow in Chicago. In December I recommended taking post-snow photos to prove that there are many cases where street space for cars could be turned over for other uses that make streets safer. I looked outside today and watched the traffic on my street for a while, noting that no matter which direction drivers were going, they usually drove on one side of the street. A photo shows this too:

It isn’t perfect, and a few people did drive on the “correct” side of the street (tire tracks prove it), but many seem to have moved to and driven on the side where there’s the least snow.

This is a residential street that is sometimes used as a shortcut. This is especially true when traffic on the nearby higher-volume streets is heavy. Unlike parallel streets, there are no speed bumps (allegedly because a neighbor complained about them and they were removed years ago). I don’t advocate for speed bumps though, because they’re unpleasant to bike on and make it harder to carry cargo (in my experience). There are better traffic calming tools out there.

In this case certain measures could be employed on the low-volume street to narrow the width for cars and make the street more of a “home zone,” or a woonerf. Although this street isn’t a one-way it could still be bi-directional, with wider points to allow two cars to pass each other as well as one or two dedicated spaces for delivery vehicles only. Narrowing the street and making it more difficult to navigate would discourage drivers from speeding down it without also making it less enjoyable to ride a bicycle (as speed bumps do). At the corners, bumpouts and a raised crosswalk could elevate pedestrians and may prevent drivers from speeding into the crosswalk, ignorant of pedestrians about to cross. Anecdotally this happens often, likely because the design of the street makes it easy to drive down without much thought. Think about driving in a place where the street is narrow and unfamiliar – do you slow down, maybe turn down the radio and peer carefully out the windshield to see what’s going on? Just a few changes to the street can change driver behavior just like that, without impeding the little existing car traffic. After all, trips on residential streets shouldn’t be long ones, and making it just a little slower to drive should hardly impact a driver’s total trip time.

This may not be the best example (from Trondheim) for my specific Chicago example, but if some streets are to be places for everyone again, we need to rethink where everything goes and what residential streets are really for. Image vagod/Panoramio.

What’s more, it will feed into a future greenway. As more greenways are planned around the city, we should also start to look at the residential streets that feed into them. It would improve pedestrian safety by slowing down traffic and making drivers more vigilant (especially if intersection enhancements are included), and improve bicycle safety by creating safer neighborhood routes to bike on.

The Comox-Helmcken greenway in Vancouver goes through a residential neighborhood and is curb-separated at parts.

Since this street has many old apartment buildings with little green space, we could go even further and suggest very small “pocket parks,” where people could sit, relax, and see their neighbors. It could be as simple as a bench on a plot of grass where a parking space used to be, or some space for children to play. The possibilities are numerous.

Every block is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making the streets better places to walk and bike. Look at how people use the streets as they are and imagine how we want people to use them in the future, perhaps as social spaces and not just storage for private vehicles.