LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice

I’m glad that more people are using the phrase “livable streets” these days.  But other than being derived from the title of a book by Donald Appleyard, what does it mean?  And even though livability is about more than transportation, a livable streets approach also requires us to structure our streets to maximize safety when on the move – which recent developments seem to indicate is most attainable by getting away from the mixed-mode muddle that concurrently characterizes our roads.  As it turns out, other than mass transit, cycling is the most efficient method of getting around urban areas – as I recently relearned.   Bicycling is also one of the best methods to integrate physical activity into our daily lives, which is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.  And the best way to make active transportation the default choice of most people is to introduce it in grade school – as the Dutch are already doing.  So….from vision to vitality, here are five short pieces:

*WHAT ARE “LIVABLE STREETS”: Towards A Deeper Understanding of the Purpose of our Transportation Systems.

*SAFETY IS FOUND AT THE EXTREMES:  Separation or Uncertainty – Rethinking Street Design

*BIKES ARE BETTER:  What is the best mode for urban travel?

*WHEN SCIENCE IS ON OUR SIDE:  “Active Transportation” and Health

*THEY’VE GOT TO BE TAUGHT:  How the Dutch Do It



WHAT ARE “LIVABLE STREETS”: Towards A Deeper Understanding of the Purpose of our Transportation Systems.

I was once asked if “livable streets” meant providing shelter for the homeless.

Not quite, but not totally wrong.

The phrase “livable streets” describes a vision of what might be found in the public space outside our homes – a sustainable and healthy environment that helps us live, work, play, shop, raise families, and grow old both as individuals and together.

Livable streets places transportation in a larger context.  It’s not simply about mobility – moving people and things from one place to another.  It’s not even about access – making sure that all people are able to get from their starting point to their destination in a manner that allows them to take full advantage of being there: to utilize the services or join the activity that the destination provides.

The specs for a livable street vary according to the “context sensitive” specifics – residential, commercial, urban, rural, local, and regional.  But, in general, a livable street is one that that facilitates social connections and builds community strengths; that protects the natural environment and our personal health; that adds to the beauty and joy of our daily routines — and that also maximizes the efficiency while minimizing the costs (direct and indirect) of moving around.


SAFETY IS FOUND AT THE EXTREMES:  Separation or Uncertainty –

Rethinking Street Design


Usually, I believe that we should stop designing streets to deal with extreme conditions – emergencies, terrorist attacks, fires.  Instead, we should design streets for “normal” use while building in flexibility to handle the infrequent crises.  For example, we don’t have to construct wide, slow turns at intersections to accommodate the occasional fire truck – a design that simply encourages car drivers to speed around the corner.  Instead, we can tighten the turn and install corner curb extensions to make it safer for pedestrians to get across – which also forces cars to park further away from the corner thereby leaving space for fire trucks to get around the corner by running over the low curb-cuts.

But for overall safety, it seems that we need to push for one of two extremes.  Either we need to divide the street into physically separate “roads” for cars, bikes, pedestrians (and maybe buses and trolleys, too) or we have to jam everyone together into a “shared space” whose anarchy forces everyone to slow down and pay increased attention to their surroundings.  We have to pull the modes apart or push them together.

SEPARATION:  The Dutch and Danes seem to think of the street as containing five distinct roadways – one for cars and trucks, one for trolleys or other light rail, one for buses, one for bikes, and one for walkers.  Many cities around the world are creating Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT) which reserve lanes, or build separate roads, for high-speed buses that operate more like trains than traditional caught-in-traffic buses.  Other cities are creating extensive off-road bike path networks or physically separating part of the street into “cycle tracks” and “buffered bike lanes.”

In reality, we already do some of this in the United States.  The Green Line runs within its own roadway along Commonwealth Ave.  And pedestrians have their own roadway along the outside edges of the street, which we call a sidewalk – although our poorly designed intersections keep unconfident walkers trapped in their homes.  But cars and trucks, buses, and bikes usually all share one road – with a painted line occasionally creating a narrow lane for bikes.  The instant-by-instant uncertainty over who gets how much space keeps traffic-intolerant cyclists off the road and leads to a steady stream of horrible headlines about fatal accidents.

In contrast, new research seems to show that separating each of the modes as north Europeans do – if supplemented by innovative designs such as bike traffic lights at the intersections where the separate roadways interact – are actually much safer than our free-for-all approach.

SHARED SPACE:  On the other hand, what if reducing uncertainty was the cause of traffic problems rather than the cure?  It’s a bit like the theory that the current rise of asthma and allergies is the result of living in a world that has become too clean to inoculate us with needed low-level exposures.   Based on the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, and known by the label invented by British engineer Ben Hamilton-Baillie, shared space proponents point out the more uncertainty that exists the more that everyone pays attention to their surroundings.  Not only does the number of accidents go down when an intersection is free of lane markings, signals, barriers, signs, or any impediments beyond a basic speed limit – it turns out that traffic flows more smoothly and overall through-put is not reduced.  And drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are also thought to be more courteous and respectful of each other!

It sounds too good to be true.  But cities around Europe, and now in the U.S. have conducted enough trials to show that it actually works in many situations.

The one thing it seems that should be avoided, that is the least safe, is the middle-ground, neither fully separated nor fully integrated – which is what most U.S. streets have.


BIKES ARE BETTER:  What is the best mode for urban travel?

I often say that in an urban area bikes are not only the healthiest, least polluting, and lowest-cost method of transportation, they are also the quickest way of getting around.  But, to be honest, I say that last part – about the speed of travel — more for the rhetorical impact than as something I really know to be true.  I know that bikes are often faster than taking the train or bus across town because of the need to wait for the next scheduled vehicle and the vehicle’s need to stop at every station.  I know that bikes can be faster than cars when you factor in congestion and the endless circling needed to find a parking space – or else the insane amount of money required to use a commercial garage.  But, to be honest, on some level I still thought that a congestion-free car trip capped by a quickly-found on-street parking spot just had to be faster than a bike.

But I was wrong.

Last week I was at the Coolidge Corner Cinema for the kick-off of a film (“The Work of 1000”) about the woman whose activism helped clean up the Nashua River.  From there, I was going to head down to the North End for the annual MassBike Benefit Night.  Because I was running late for the movie, I had driven my car – although then took forever to find a parking place.  Doug Mink, who I still think of as Boston’s Mr. Bicycle, was also at the screening, only he was on bike.  So….the race was on.

It was pretty late at night and the streets weren’t very busy.  I walked several blocks to my parking spot and quickly drove down Harvard Street towards Allston, avoiding the heaviest traffic by cutting down Linden to Cambridge and then getting only green lights on the straight shot to Storrow – along which I drove at the typical higher-than-the-legal-limit speed down to the Boston Garden area, where I almost instantly found a parking spot.  The total distance was long enough, the lack of red lights was consistent enough, and I was able to drive fast enough, so that this was as fast a car trip as I could possibly imagine doing under the best circumstances I could ask for.  So I walked to the bar absolutely confident that I had beaten Doug and preparing a funny comment with which to welcome his later arrival.

Only he was already there.  I couldn’t believe it.  I think I stammered some lame sentence like, “Oh, you’re already here.”  Duh.

I guess I should have believed my own propaganda:  Bikes really are the best way to get around the city!


WHEN SCIENCE IS ON OUR SIDE:  “Active Transportation” and Health

Those of us who regularly include walking, biking, skating, running in our daily lives – as a way to commute, run errands, visit friends, and just get around – know that it makes us feel good.  Commuting by “active transportation” is a fabulous way to start the day.  And we assume that it makes us healthier.

So it’s good to learn that scientists have found that we are right.

The latest publication analyzes the relationship of active travel with several measures of health using data from 14 countries, 50 US states, and 50 US cities.  The conclusions:

“Among the 14 countries…those with higher levels of walking and cycling tended to have lower levels of adult obesity, whether self-reported or clinically measured.  In all 50 US states and 47 of the 50 largest US cities, we found that higher rates of walking and cycling to work were associated with:

1.      a higher percentage of adults who achieved recommended levels of physical activity.

2.      a lower percentage of adults with obesity, and

3.      a lower percentage of adults with diabetes.”

This was on top of previous studies that showed that “walking and cycling for transport are directly related to improved health in older adults….Active commuting was positively associated with aerobic fitness among men and women and inversely associated with body mass index, obesity, triglyceride levels, resting blood pressure, and fasting insulin among men…..Women who walked and cycled for transport had lower rates of all-cause mortality than did those who did not…..Cycling to work decreased mortality rates by 40% among Danish men and women….and a 20% increase in cycling levels from 1996 to 2002 [was associated with] a 5-month increase in life expectancy for males.”

Move on!

From: “Walking and Cycling to Health: A Comparative Analysis of City, State, and International Data,” by J.Pucher, R.Buehler, D.Bassett, A.Dannenberg, American Journal of Public Health, Oct. 2010.


THEY’VE GOT TO BE TAUGHT:  How the Dutch Do It

From CitiWire: “Cycling to Success: Lessons from the Dutch” by Jay Walljasper / Sept. 23, 2010 <>

“Why is biking a way of life in the Netherlands and only a tiny portion of the transportation picture in U.S.?

“We uncovered a big piece of the answer that afternoon at a suburban primary school, where Principal Peter Kooy told us that 95 percent of older students — kids in the 10-12 age range — bike to school at least some of the time. Compare that to the 15 percent who either walk or bike to school in the United States, down, alarmingly, from 50 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School program.

“That statistic alone helps explain the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S., and also why so few adult Americans today ride a bike to work or to do errands — a mere one percent of daily trips.

“The success of cycling in the Netherlands can be attributed to what happens in school. A municipal program in Utrecht sends special teachers into the schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete city with roads, sidewalks and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars).

“These kinds of programs would make a huge difference in the United States, where 60 percent of people tell pollsters they would like to bike regularly if they felt safer — but only eight percent actually do.”


If you found this interesting, you might also want to read:

The Complex Ingredients of Livable Cities:  Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

What is “Healthy Transportation” – Issues for a Health Impact Assessment

When It Isn’t Healthy to Bicycle: And How to Minimize the Risks

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