There’s a story in Bicycling magazine that’s getting some play this morning on my network. It’s about Janette Sadik-Khan and how she turned New York into America’s most bicycle friendly city. It’s worth reading.
Sadik-Khan follows in the footsteps of a lot of other really talented people who have recognized that the all-car, all-the-time model no longer serves us as it once did, or maybe I should say if it ever did. She views a street as a puzzle. You have space. You have users. There is an optimal way to share that space so that everybody gets what they need. Sadik-Khan’s job is to figure out what that optimal use is.
That’s our job, too. In fact, it’s something that I spend more and more time thinking about. What is the optimal use of a street? Is it better to separate users and allocate dedicated space to motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians or does it make more sense to let everyone use the same space? If you let everyone share, how do you keep the more vulnerable users safe?
Increasingly, at least in urban areas with significant population density, the answer is to share just like we learned when we were children. This fundamentally makes sense. When you start carving space up, you’re creating a situation where utilization of that space drops. Motorists like to grumble that dedicated bike lanes are never used, and to an extent they are correct.
But their argument rings hollow because the utilization of traffic lanes for automobiles is also low in many locations, at least at certain times of the day. Here in Indianapolis it’s common to see major arterials totally abandoned in the middle of the day. Non-arterial streets can go hours without seeing a single car pass by.
Here’s another thing to consider. Traffic is fluid, not static. Conventional wisdom says that if you eliminate lanes or lower speed limits that traffic will back up. Conventional wisdom is wrong because there is so much unused road capacity in the system that motorists have the ability to choose an alternative route and that’s exactly what they do. The non-conventional reality is that bigger roads actually create their own traffic.
And so the challenge is to figure out how to use the space we’ve already built a little more wisely, particularly on secondary streets. The solution is remarkably simple. Lower the speed limit. Eliminate dedicated space and turn the whole road over to all users whether they are motorized or not. When you do this, you move more traffic more efficiently and with less stress.
You also create more connected communities. This is the biggest prize of all. This changes the very fabric of place. It makes it safer, more alive. It makes it desirable as a place to live, work and play. When you change a street you change a neighborhood. You create community and connect people instead of isolating them behind a barrier of high speed traffic.
When you bring people together, you change the world. This matters. We are closing in on a global population of 7.5 billion people. There are more of us and we are living closer together than ever before. We will live closer together tomorrow than we do today. We have a choice. We can be proactive and build better, or we can be reactive and accept the mess that results.
Let’s build better. If you’re not sure where or how to start, contact me. One thing I’ve discovered I do really well is reach out to people in high places whom I’ve never met. I like the challenge, so I’ll be more than happy to put you in touch with people where you live who can help you create positive change in your community. Most of the leaders and government officials I’ve talked with over the last year want to do the right thing. They want to make their places better. Sometimes they just need a little push. The prize is worth the push. Let’s push. Together.