By Dom Nozzi
January 6, 2009
I applaud the desire to provide for all forms of travel. This is particularly important in (what should be) a low-speed town center environment.
For a town center to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a “park once” environment must be created. Here, the pedestrian, not the bicyclist or car or transit, must be the design imperative. If we “get it right” for the pedestrian in the town center, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.
However, if we suboptimize bicycling, transit or cars to the detriment of other community objectives, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses.
Too often, eager bicycling advocates loudly proclaim that a town center needs bike lanes and a removal of on-street car parking. But I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking in a town center serve to suboptimize bicycling — and I speak as a bicycle commuter.
How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative in a town center? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions (such as street widths, building setbacks and the size of parking), increasing commercial and residential compactness, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.
Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy town center retail. And such parking sometimes dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.
In a town center, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.
Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking” is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners, designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities.
However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities. Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those with too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much town center street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.
In a properly designed town center, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a town center, for those bicyclists who are uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.
Important downsides for removing town center on-street parking:
*Smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy town center retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.
*Unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel.
Again, town center designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel in the town center, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the town center design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking in a town center is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal in a town center was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase town center street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).
And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled ped-friendly town center.