21 March 2013

The Arrogance of Space

The Arrogance of Space
We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It's a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with it's distribution of space.

I've been working a lot in North America the past year and I've become quite obsessed with the obscenely unbalanced distribution of space. I see this arrogance everywhere I go. I see the insanely wide car lanes and the vehicles sailing back and forth in them like inebriated hippopotami. I was just in Calgary for five days and from my balcony at the hotel I watched the traffic below on 12th Ave. A one-way street that was never really busy at all.

From above, the arrogance of space was very apparent. Even more so than in a car driving down the lanes. The photo, above, is the car lines divided up with their actual width. Watching for five days - okay, not 24/7 ... I have a life after all - I didn't really see  any vehicles that filled out the whole lane with their girth.

So, in a very unscientific way, I decided to take a bit of each lane away.

The Arrogance of Space
Narrowing the lanes slightly, space was created. Obviously. Duh. And there was still ample space for the vehicles - including the big trucks and SUVs.

We know that narrowing lane width improves safety. Just like tree-lined streets - or streets with utility poles, etc - make drivers slow down and concentrate, narrower travel lanes have the same positive effect. There were posters all around Calgary with the catchy headline "Crotches Kill". I can understand why texting is deemed easy when motorists are given so much space.

So, narrowing lane widths is safer. But what to do with that extra space?
The Arrogance of Space
On so many streets I've looked at in North American cities, even a two-lane street can cough up enough space for a Copenhagen-style cycle track.

Addendum: It's not possible to see it on these photos but the car parking at the bottom is an indentation in the curb in front of the hotel, so the cycle track runs along the curb, as it should.

I tire of hearing the incessant "we don't have space for bicycles" whine, especially in North American cities. The space is right there if you want it to be there. Removing car lanes to create cycle tracks is, of course, doable. So many cities are doing it. Not making cycle tracks for those who cycle now, but for the many who COULD be cycling if it was made safe.

However, when you live in an arrogant city, space is readily available. Often not even involving removing lanes or parking. It's right there. If you want it.
The Arrogance of Space
Another example from Calgary. Memorial Drive. A cyclist off to the right on this 60 km/h stretch. The motorist gave him a wide berth, exposing the arrogance of space for us.
The Arrogance of Space
Here's what could be possible.

I can hear the traffic engineers complaining already. This, of course, messes with every computer model they have. It's not, however, about them anymore. They've had their century of trial and error - mostly error. We're moving on now. We'll redesign our cities and tell them what to do and how to help us - based on human observation, rationality and logic. They're brilliant problem solvers. We'll just be telling them what problems to solve.

This quote by Andres Duany is appropriate:
"The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models - traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation."

Ironically, I was reading a copy of The New Republic - found a copy at an airport - and saw the above snippet. The writer, one Tim Wu, clearly has time to ponder when he's sitting in traffic. He noticed the wide car lanes as well. His solution, however, was to promote narrower cars and increase the number of lanes - thereby creating "the first real drop in traffic congestion in decades", he claims. Note the tagline at the top right: "A more perfect world". This company is even producing narrower cars and their website makes the same claim: "This doubling of lane capacity can solve traffic congestion.

Unfortunately, the myth persists. The sum of our knowledge after 100 years of traffic engineering is that if you create more space for cars, more cars will come. Period. Again, time to move on. A more perfect world is within our reach, once we get a flock of misconception monkeys off our backs.

Montrealer Music
Another street, this one in Montreal. Wasted space on the right, arrogance of space on the left.

Take a look at the streets around you. This all applies to a great many of them. The space is right there for the taking.


Kenneth said...

surprised you choose to paint Copenhagen-style bike lanes on the outside when we all know the best solution is (raised/segregated) bike lanes on the inside of parked cars. Assume the photoshop'ing was easier that way

Alexa said...

I saw this vividly in my own little old city a couple of years ago when we had long-lived snow banks lining the wider streets. Clearly there is enough room for a bike lane when you can give up 2m on each side to snow banks for 2 months straight. But no, they went with sharrows (ptooey!) on the winding side streets that flank the main one.

Salem, MA does actually have a couple of streets that are too narrow for bike lanes, but most of the streets are wide enough for separated lanes or quiet enough not to need them.

Robert Prinz said...

Here in Oakland, California, I don't hear any blowback from planners about installing bike lanes on streets with overly wide lanes, which they often refer to as the "low hanging fruit". For the purposes of installing at least a 5 foot bike lane while keeping a 10 foot travel lane means that the existing space would have to be 15 feet wide of more, which does exist but is not terribly common.

A lot of streets in this city are so wide because there used to be trolleys or trains running down them which have since been removed. However, when that happened in the 50s and 60s instead of narrowing the roads and expanding the pedestrian space they just put planted medians in the middle of the street where the tracks used to be. This means the streets are plenty wide to accommodate cycletracks, but only after the medians have been demolished, which is a rather expensive and sometimes controversial process, as the neighbors are often the ones that have been maintaining the plantings or trees there for years or even decades.

I will continue to advocate for the narrowing of travel lanes to allow for bicycle facilities, but in this city at least a lot of the "low hanging fruit" has already been taken care of, leaving only streets with medians, or ones that would literally require removal of lanes or parking to facilitate good bike infrastructure (still acceptable, but a harder sell).

Pradyuman said...

Nice thought! But I think bigger trucks will not be able to pass then!

Mike@TheBandTruck said...

The thing I hate most about 12th Ave is that angle parking fiasco in front of Hotel Arts. Its the lousiest stretch of that road to ride.

Brent said...

The problem in North America has never been space. The problem has been political will. Please tell us how to generate political will.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

Kenneth: I understand your point, although I suppose I forgot to mention that the parking at the bottom of the photo is an indented area in front of the hotel. The cycle track runs along the curb.

KoGlu said...

I live in DC, where they have implemented some of the streets you described. There are driving lanes>parked cars>bike lane>curb (sorry, I hope that was clear enough without a picture).

I actually prefer riding on streets without this arrangement. I find that cars have a hard time seeing me through the parked cars while turning across my lane. I have noticed pedestrians use it as an extension as a sidewalk, and I have also had people walk out quickly from between two parked cars into the bike lane without looking. The issue is that there is that with this setup there is nowhere to maneuver when you are sandwiched between cars and a curb.

I believe the way you depicted it is the best way to arrange the lanes: Cars>Bikes>Parking>sidewalk. This way people are careful before entering the bike lane , and when they are not careful there is still somewhere to maneuver your bike. I am interested to hear If people in other cities/countries experience the same thing.

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Cartographic license said...

To think that drivers of vehicles wider than that allowed would actually pay attention to such signs is ignoring the evidence from parking lots where SUVs and large pickup trucks routinely park in spaces designated for compact cars only.

Franja said...

Urban planning and Street Design is closely related with the foundation of the city. Old european cities are totally different than new american cities. Most european cities had a medieval past that dictated the "design" of such. Defense from invaders was the primordial goal for urban designers back then, thats why you see narrow meandering streets, heavy walls, and other defenses, all that was oriented for the military defense against barbarians. American (north and south) cities are totally different from the europeans, designed and founded after 1500, all have street grid and no defense walls.
Now in our new cities we have another "invader" big cars, trucks and buses... what an irony... but those invaders run straight and pollute..

Francisco J. Serrano

Franja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glog said...

Here in Moscow, Id, our downtown is separated from the university and all the surrounding neighborhoods by huge one way roads. These roads are so huge, that I have always been convinced you could easily fit another downtown block in the space they take up and still have space for a small street. Meanwhile, the sidewalks on these roads are so narrow that two people going opposite directions can sometimes have trouble passing each other. And, of course, there are no bike lanes. Admittedly, these are extensions of the highways through town, but I still don't think that justifies the amount of space given to cars. Most of the rush hour traffic is from the residents of the town. The rest of the day, the streets have very little traffic.

idontwantagoogleaccount said...

Yet again - where are the trees?
If you have room for bikes there must be room for trees. Otherwise, that is real arrogance.

Nate said...

This reminds me so much of the avenues in Oklahoma City. Even the big trucks and SUVs (and there are plenty of them) do not fill up the lanes entirely. I remember 4-lane streets, one left-turn lane for both directions to use, and parking on both sides of the street, and STILL, people did not have the decency to pass you at a reasonable speed or distance and of course the city does not have the vision to put a Copenhagen style bike lane there.

DS said...

You can go back to loving Montreal. The very intersection you picture (Laurier and Henri-Julien) has had a two-way bike path (heavily used) and a one-way street for cars for at least 2 years now. Google maps link below.


Steven H said...

perhaps the real issue in these oddly chosen "cities" is their density, or lack of.

Steven H said...

Copenhagen is 5x more dense than Calgary

Riddley Walker said...

I love your phrase "The Arrogance of Space" - sums it up very nicely.

Here in Melbourne, we are trickling away at fixing wasted space. Princes Bridge takes a huge number of pedestrians, tram riders and cyclists, as well as being a major crossing point for people going to and from Flinders Street Station.

To date it has very slow moving car traffic, usually single occupants, taking up most of the public space. That's about to change.