Turning streets into living laboratories

The form and feel of a city is determined in a large part by the layout of its roads and the design of streetscapes to facilitate both the movement and sojourning of people. Anytime I visit a city for the first time, I closely observe how locals cross the street to determine where and how to safely cross the street. Whether you are driving, walking or biking a certain level of consistency in the roadway design is necessary for the safe operations for all users.

Each of the three countries I’ve visited this month has a national authority that publishes engineering specifications and design guidelines for streets – in Germany it is the FGSV, in the Netherlands it is CROW, and in Denmark it is the Danish Road Directorate. One distinction from our federal manuals, is that their guidelines take the placemaking functions of streets (not purely traffic functions) into account making them more suitable for an urban context.

Generally the standard designs for streets are adequate, but cases always emerge in growing urban areas where the tools available are simply insufficient. In Portland, the unprecedented volumes of bicycle traffic have necessitated innovations, such as the bike box or the colored bike lanes, to ensure safe traffic conditions. Copenhagen street designers have also been compelled to innovate to address swelling bike numbers on city streets. The municipality has found success in advancing novel solutions by initially implementing projects on a temporary basis.

One of the most notable examples is a trial project that was conducted to reconfigure Nørrebrogade (one of the busiest bike and bus streets on the planet) which comprised two test phases over roughly a two year period – not including the one-year planning phase and the one-year construction phase.  Not only did Nørrebrogade serve more than 30,000 bicycle trips, 65,000 bus riders and 17,000 cars each day, it also is a popular commercial corridor with more than 300 shops. The mix of traffic and other activities on the street led to serious conflicts between users and generally lousy conditions for the people who travel, live and do business on the street.

The space on the street was too constrained to simply widen the roadway to accommodate the demands of all users. So the municipality decided to reduce car traffic on the street by 40% to create more space for people on foot, bikes and transit. Low cost measures such as paint, benches and asphalt bus platforms made the improvements affordable and easy to remove if necessary. The cycle tracks width was doubled (to 4 meters), sidewalks were widened and bus refuges were built to reduce passenger-bicycle conflicts. One of my favorite features is the benches arranged facing one another to foster interaction, or form “talk”-scapes.  There is a wealth of info about this project online (here’s a link to one summary), so I will not recount all the nitty gritty details.

This plan presented countless technical challenges, and it also was intensely debated by the public. Throughout the course of the trial projects the municipality observed traffic issues and gathered feedback from users. They watched to see if the skinnier bus platforms were adequate to accommodate the number of passengers boarding at each individual stop. They observed whether the traffic that was displaced found its way onto the parallel arterials as intended. Some adjustments were made along the way, but today, as the project nears completion, the primary test features were in essence retained for the permanent full rebuild of the roadway. And, Nørrebrogade is now a more attractive, less noisy and polluted, and a more civil and lively street that better suits its urban setting.

As I was led along the corridor by the lead planner on the project, Klaus Grimar, marveling at the transformation which occurred, I wondered what made the experiment successful.  I figured the reasons would have something to do with the low cost, thoughtful planning, and the ability to remove features that don’t work. But, Klaus mentioned one thing that I hadn’t considered. A test is an effective way to have a dialog with more residents and stakeholders about their vision for the street. Once you start limiting auto access and on-street parking, and changing bus stops, people start getting engaged. Gaining more feedback from a wider range of perspectives contributes to a better permanent street being built.

Along our tour, we stopped by another traffic experiment that was under way on Elmegade, a Nørrebrogade side street. Buses were re-routed a block away, the street was converted to one-way street, and a contra-flow bike lane was striped to allow bicycles to travel in both directions. All in all, the improvements amount to mostly paint and a few grouped bike racks. The most striking feature was the way the lanes weave around bike parking corrals and cafe seating like a slalom course. Initially they thought it would be an interesting technique to use temporarily to slow down traffic during the testing phase. But now, it appears the permanent project will keep the chicane design once it is constructed.


About Denver Igarta

This blog was established to document my search for streets that my 5-year old can play near without my constant supervision. Where kids can live active lives and learn independence. My quest began when I was selected as an Urban and Regional Policy Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, for info: gmfus.org/cdp/fellowships. I am a multi-modal transportation planner for the City of Portland (OR), America's sustainable transportation capital. SHORT BIO/PROJECT DESCRIPTION Denver Igarta (October-November 2011), Urban Planner, City of Portland Bureau of Transportation Project: Livable Streets Where People Live: Fostering People-Friendly Streets by De-emphasizing Automobile Traffic in Residential Areas Cities: Munich, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Malmö Denver Igarta is an urban planner with the Transportation Bureau of the City of Portland. He works on a broad range of transportation policy, street design initiatives and pedestrian, bicycle and freight planning efforts. He recently served as one of the principal authors of Portland's new bicycle plan. He is currently staffing two “active transportation” projects: a rails-with-trails project along the Banfield Freeway and a local street system plan for one of the state's most diverse neighborhoods. He performed his graduate studies at the University of Dortmund, Germany and the University of the Philippines and holds a Master of Science in Regional Development Planning. Portland is struggling to reverse generations of auto-oriented development patterns and make neighborhood streets more “livable” (people-friendly) by restoring their multimodal and placemaking functions. Mr. Igarta's research will evaluate how cities in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden have enacted policies to restore the multiple functions of public streets through traffic management, green infrastructure and giving priority to sustainable travel modes. He will meet with local practitioners, policymakers and civic leaders involved in transportation planning, traffic safety and neighborhood livability projects, street design, and implementation of multi-modal traffic policies. The ultimate aim of the study is to compile a set of best practices and policies implemented in European cities that have broadened the role of residential streets beyond automobile mobility. Additional focus will be given to understanding how acceptable policy tradeoffs are determined within city agencies and the level of public support for measures that restrict car movements, such as reduced speed zones, bicycle streets, shared spaces, residents-only streets and residential parking restrictions.
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One Response to Turning streets into living laboratories

  1. Bill Cunningham says:

    Denver – It has been great reading your posts and I look forward to your taking lessons back to Portland. Has the topic of motorist liability come up in any discussion about issues related to shared street facilities? My understanding is that European countries tend to be much stronger than American jurisdications about assigning legal liability to motorists regarding accidents with pedestrians and cyclists, providing more incentive to be watchful and thus making shared street facilities more viable than in the US where the “I didn’t see the them” defence tends to carry more weight.

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