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The eternal nature of transportation corridors, but reconfiguring them

This past weekend I visited the “the Eternal City,” Roma, Italy. The Romans thought that no matter what happened to the world, no matter how many other empires might rise and fall, their city would be everlasting.  Most cities have ups and downs; their transportation corridors, usually, are another story; most have eternal lives. Once a transportation corridor is cemented (pun partially intended), it has a staying power rivaled by few inventions or fabrications in the world. Some of original paths worn by the Etruscans outside my apartment in Bologna today continue to serve as main conduits of economic activity for the region. Gravity has determined the outcome of most original Roman structures, but their roads are also still widespread throughout parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Even the canals in northern Europe, built by the Roman empire for irrigation, later helped the British pioneer the industrial revolution; these canals y are still carrying barges, albeit leisure ones. The transportation function along any corridors rarely exists in its original form. Technologies change. Types of economic activities change. Fashions change. This largely explains why you don’t see many donkeys filling the streets in Israel anymore. Outside of the nostalgic horse and carriage for tourists and weddings in Paris, there are not many of them on the streets either. The streetcars employed in hundreds of cities across the US have been torn up for car only use.

The transportation future of cities will continue to be surface-based, with cars and existing roads playing prominent roles. But over time, the nature and character of select corridors change to better serve the needs and demands for other modes. More overall space will be made available for bikes—a contentious topic but one whose writing is largely on the wall. A sticking point is where to find the space for this change, a proposition that will require altering the nature of many transportation corridors in cities.

With urban areas built up, cities largely have four options before them to find more space. They can: (a) extend in another dimension, aerially or subterranean, (b) find new right-of-way space, (c) widen existing right-of-way space.  These first three options are either technologically difficult, involve displacing people (rarely a good idea) or are prohibitively expensive.

A fourth option requires cities to reconfigure existing space by altering the use patterns along it. Changing the nature of the transportation services along a corridor. In most cases, this option involves scaling back car use in one way or another. This is analogous to taking candy away from a child (taking space away from cars). And, its trouble points are primarily political (not financial or logistical as identified in the prior solutions).

Many corridors in urban areas already have initiatives that are rethinking the role that the car has played in the past half-century. These initiatives range from charging for or banning car use during certain times, reducing capacity by removing a travel lane, reducing capacity by reducing speed (via narrower travel lanes), removing on-street parking or all together, turning a street over to other modes. These are all steps in the same direction. Cycling’s ability to realize these gains rests in its ability to better leverage these types of initiatives by downsizing existing facilities and gently expanding alternative networks. But not all roads. Just select ones.

Where is the low hanging fruit and what criteria can help cities reinvent corridors for cycling?

  1. Communities first need to identify stretches of road that have “proven” themselves from a cycling perspective. These places might connect key origin-destination pairs. They might be currently serving cyclists who are experiencing hardship conditions. Then there are two synergistic interventions.
  2. The second step is scaling back car use. Addressing the fact that high vehicular speeds are the largest culprit to unfriendly bike environments is key. Harnessing cars to speeds below 40 km/h is necessary. If a community accompany such speed limits with reductions in the widths of vehicular travel lanes–or even the removal of some of them—all the better. (Pushing such a proposal through the political process likely involves a gentle nod to address how alternative corridors might be able to better absorb some mild enhancements to vehicular capacity via intersection design, signal timing, or on-street parking modifications.)
  3. Building up cycling facilities. Designated cycling corridors, at a minimum, deserve on-street delineation of cycling routes. This might start with a marked lane, a buffered lane (with paint), a raised path, or even physical barriers from adjacent traffic. Furthermore, intersection treatments go a long way.

Transportation corridors have amazing staying power. Cities can and should work with their existing bones to further cycling; they don’t necessarily need to search endlessly for new corridors. But there is nothing to suggest that the existing roads cannot be downsized for car use or more generally, have their purpose altered along select routes.

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