Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 3

Every good story needs a Denouement.  We’ve gone through the exposition (Part 1), the Crisis (Part 2) and now, dear readers, I present to you the final part of my “Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis” series.  This post focuses on solutions – ways that communities are reclaiming their public spaces, and the incredible things that can result when we think about our streets as more than simply a space for moving cars.

While visiting Toronto late in 2015, I stumbled across this sign:

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And it struck me: if we have to remind people to slow down when they’re driving immediately beside a public park that children play in, we may have created a problem.

This isn’t a street that’s particularly easy to speed on. It’s relatively narrow, there’s vehicles parked on the side basically at all times during the day, and there’s stop signs all along the length, yet speeding is still a problem. This is a case of the overarching condition of our infrastructure contributing to a cultural problem – one where the speed of those traveling through our communities takes precedence over the safety of those who live, work and play there. Streets like this one, which happen to be a linear, parallel route a couple of blocks away from a major thoroughfare, become used as shortcuts.  It’s commonly known as “rat-running“, and it usually results in a particular set of impatient, frustrated, high-speed people driving through residential communities.

When people treat residential streets as a shortcut, bypassing routes that are designed to accommodate higher volumes of traffic and have adjacent land uses that are more conducive to higher volumes and higher speeds, it creates friction – friction between the people who live on those streets and the people who are driving through them. The problem is that the people driving through those neighbourhoods don’t linger long enough to engage in a meaningful conversation – they’re gone in a flash, leaving the residents there to cope with the increased danger and decreased quality of life for their families and friends.

But all across North America, neighbourhoods are fighting back. From Speed Humps to area-wide traffic calming to turn restrictions on residential streets, communities are getting creative about how to slow traffic down.

In communities like Portland and Vancouver, Neighbourhood Greenways are making walking, cycling and playing in the street more comfortable by restricting access, ensuring that automotive traffic cannot move straight through an area using residential streets and installing significant traffic calming features.

On-street parking is maintained for those who live there, cut-through traffic is reduced and these streets become major thoroughfares for people cycling and walking. It’s really a win-win for everyone. Just look how beautiful they are:

Here in Ontario, Hamilton has done some great things with their North End Traffic Management Plan.  An entire community stood up and said “no more” to vehicles traveling at speeds in excess of 65km/h though their neighbourhood, and the results so far have been impressive, to say the least. Average speeds have gone down anywhere from 5-25%, bringing speeds down closer to 30km/h, and much more in-line with those compatible with a “life sized city”

 

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Photo via Copenhagenize

Where traffic moves slower, people are more comfortable walking or biking. They know their neighbours across the street as well as next door. Kids play ball hockey, basketball and street soccer, front yards are used as social space, and you see more people moving around their community, making connections with the people around them. I’ve been fortunate to live in areas like that, and I can assure you that it’s a wonderful way to live.

If this all sounds kind of utopian, I would suggest that it really wasn’t that long ago that the kind of traffic flow that we experience now was viewed as a dangerous, dystopian future. In 1923, over 40,000 residents of Cincinnati signed a petition demanding that cars be mechanically limited to 40km/h. The auto industry responded by blaming pedestrians, launching the great Jaywalking campaign to assert that roads were the exclusive domain of cars. For hundreds of years of civilization, streets were places for people. And in the span of a generation, the expectations had been switched.

I assert that the pendulum has swung too far. We’ve given up too much of our public space, our safety and our quality of life in our own neighbourhoods to facilitate the rapid movement of people driving through the places we live. It’s time to stop treating every strip of asphalt as a highway, and time to start thinking of our streets as a public space for everyone again.

 

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