Bryan Jones is a planner and engineer, and the founder of the popular Transportation Psychologist Facebook community.  At over 10,000 strong, the goal of the Transportation Psychologist Facebook community is to bring people of various interests and backgrounds together to change the conversation about the potential of our streets and help create great communities where people and businesses thrive and prosper. The following essay discusses some recent valuable discussions in the group. You're invited to join in the conversation today.


For the last few months on Transportation Psychologist, we have featured a daily picture of a street captioned with the header:

Name this street and city... What do you like and dislike?
 This photo was recently posted in the Transportation Psychologist Facebook group. Members commented that it looked fairly generic and could use wider sidewalks.

This photo was recently posted in the Transportation Psychologist Facebook group. Members commented that it looked fairly generic and could use wider sidewalks.

We started these posts in order to show that streets can look different and serve different purposes — to varying degrees of success. Sometimes the differences in these streets are what make them unique, special or recognizable, while others are ordinary streets that could be in almost any city. As part of this exercise, we also invite people to identify what ‘extra’ things could be done to make an ‘ordinary’ street extraordinary.

We’ve had people from around the world send us pictures highlighting the streets in their communities or on their travels — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we encourage you to send us pictures to highlight your streets and communities too. Some people send us images because they want others to critique their street so they can identify how to make it better. Others want to highlight their awesome street designs. By now, we have shared streets from most continents on the globe.

What People Notice Most

Often on these posts, people try to guess the location of the street and use architecture, landscaping, signage, cars, and even garbage cans as clues. Some streets are just so recognizable, like Lombard Street in San Francisco or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It becomes a game for readers to see if they can guess the location correctly and find it on Google Maps.

Many people identify what they like about the street, highlighting building proximity to the sidewalk, landscaping, tree canopies, space for people, outdoor dining, presence of people, walkways, colors, textures, art, and lighting.

 This photo posted in the Facebook group got people talking about center turn lanes and parking issues.

This photo posted in the Facebook group got people talking about center turn lanes and parking issues.

Many people identify what they dislike about the street, pointing out the width of the roadway dedicated to vehicles, amount of asphalt, separation of land uses on both sides, narrow sidewalks, fast car speeds, exposure distance to crossing a street, potholes, maintenance issues, lack of people, and more space for cars to park than people to walk.

For some people, it’s clear that their definition of a successful street is based on a personal agenda. Some commenters believe that if cars exist on the street, it is not good enough. For others, if bike lanes do or do not exist, it's a bad street.

Part of this process is not just about observing features on a given street. It’s also about how the street feels to viewers. Does it feel safe or dangerous? Is it visible or dark? Is it too fast or wide?

Many people also identify particular issues or concerns they have with the street like whether a surface may be slippery when wet, whether the color of material is too dark or light for visibility, whether art belongs in crosswalks or public spaces, or whether a curb could be a tripping hazard. (The irony is that in some cases, many of these streets have existed for hundreds of years without these issues or concerns ever being experienced or recognized as a problem.)

What We’ve Learned

One thing is clear: our cities can’t abide by “Lipstick on a Pig” street designers and our Facebook community is quick to point them out. These are the engineers and planners who add the bare minimum space for pedestrians while still maximizing the speed and space for the automobile. This is often reflected by something like a 5’ bike lane and 4’ sidewalk adjacent to high-speed (greater than 30-35 MPH) car traffic and multiple travel lanes. Rather than this check-the-box model of engineering, our communities must first be designed for people, balancing the accommodations (speed and space) for the vehicle.

All too often we are seeing roadways “sized” rather than streets “designed.” This has been especially true in the United States over the last 50-70 years, resulting in vehicle-dominated communities and a loss of any uniqueness or personality in our streets. It’s quite evident in some of the photos we share in our Facebook group. As Fred Kent from Project for Public Spaces has been quoted as saying, “If you build your communities for vehicles and traffic, you will get vehicles and traffic. If you build for people and places, your will get people and places.”

 When this photo was posted in the Facebook group, commenters discussed the merits and drawbacks of the bike lane, applauded the mid-block pedestrian crossing, and commented on the surprising lack of traffic for such a wide street.

When this photo was posted in the Facebook group, commenters discussed the merits and drawbacks of the bike lane, applauded the mid-block pedestrian crossing, and commented on the surprising lack of traffic for such a wide street.

If you’re an engineer or planner, the following criteria will help you identify if you are in the dangerous trap of sizing roadways instead of designing valuable streets. If you are:

  • utilizing travel demand forecasting models to project vehicle volumes 20-40 years into the future,
  • applying maximum “standards” for vehicles derived from highways and freeways (or worse State DOT manuals) to streets in your community,
  • utilizing a ‘one size fits all approach’,
  • utilizing the largest vehicle as your design vehicle,
  • starting with “design speed” as your first criteria, and/or
  • utilizing peak hour level of service calculations

...then you fall into the “category” of sizing your roadways. These criteria are all highway design principals mistakenly applied to streets within communities. They will disconnect your town from its true potential and prevent it from becoming a strong town.

I encourage every engineer and planner to challenge this approach. It requires leadership to transition from “doing things right” to “doing the right things”. You and your roadways have so much more potential to serve your community than you are currently giving yourself or public space credit for. And to get started in the recovery, I recommend reading Street Design: The Secret of Great Cities and Towns. It should be a part of every curriculum and professional's repertoire in the 21st century. 

In order to stop sizing roadways and start designing streets again, engineers must also partner with people who understand what human beings need and have the ability to think beyond the standards. The members of our Transportation Psychologist community are examples of these sorts of people. Rather than burying their noses in the rulebooks, equations and warrants for vehicles, engineers must bring an appreciative inquiry and open mind to conversations with real people about how they want their streets to look and feel. Instead of just being concerned with moving traffic, focus on ‘humanizing’ and ‘neighborhoodizing’ your streets to create a sense of pride, connectedness, community, safety, access and prosperity.

When we approach design from this angle, we begin to create the sorts of streets that attract people and businesses, streets that stand out, streets that might even be recognized in a photograph or used on a postcard.

What are the streets in your community that generate civic pride?

(All photos from Transportation Psychologist Facebook group.)



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan Jones, PE, AICP is a Principal with Alta Planning + Design and the Founder of Transportation Psychologist. Alta’s mission is to create Active, Healthy Communities. Transportation Psychologist is a community on facebook that highlights the good, bad and ugly so that we can change the language, conversations and hopefully the culture of transportation. The goal is create great communities through transportation for people and businesses to thrive. There is often a gap in what we want and need and what we do. And we are all part of the solution!

Bryan has also held leadership positions with the Cities of Carlsbad, Fremont and Fresno where he has inspired bold visions and big campaigns and aligned them with a strategic implementation plans that delivered numerous projects to enhance safety, livability and economy. Bryan is passionate about helping move and connect people and business so that communities can thrive. He strives to foster innovation and develop leadership so that we can move in the direction of our potential. He believes where challenges exist so do opportunities when we redefine the problem we are solving and bring a can-do approach and results-oriented focus. He also serves as a voting member of the California Traffic Control Devices Committee appointed by the State of California DOT to represent active transportation statewide as it pertains to standards, guidelines and policies in the California Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices. He received his civil engineering degree from UC Davis and his MPA from Norwich University.