A few days ago, I came across a really cool trilogy of books. Normally, when someone says they’re reading a book trilogy, it probably involves wizards, magic, or life in a post-apocalyptic dystopia of some kind. While those books can be exciting and fun, would you consider reading a book about streets? Yeah, that’s probably not sounding like much of a page turner, but the authors of the Rethinking Streets series managed to make the topic not only interesting, but relevant to everyone, including drivers!
You can’t get a print copy right now, but the PDF versions of the books are free. I do have to warn you, though, that you’ll end up wanting one for your coffee table. It’s actually a very visually rich series of books with lots of photographs, graphics of what the roads were like before and after (see the featured image above this article), and a nice-looking map that shows the context of the street. The beginning of each book also has a quick guide to how to best understand the book’s graphic format.
More importantly, the book has data from real streets that got real makeovers, and shows that the negative impacts on drivers were almost non-existent. In many cases, the situation for drivers actually improved on these revamped streets, with fewer crashes and no noticeable drop in traffic throughput. All of this important data is right there, it’s easy to read, and you don’t have to be an urbanist street geek to understand or appreciate it.
Rethinking Streets (The First Book)
Before getting to the case studies, the authors first introduce key terms, and key challenges to rethinking a street. Traffic studies, the needs of different road users, how speed limits are set, and other things we need to know all get a brief explanation. They even mention the 85th Percentile speed (something idealists aren’t aware of). You’re definitely not getting an urban planning degree from this book, nor will you become an expert, but you do get enough information to be literate in the topic and not just engage in wishful thinking like a child.
One big dose of reality they give us early on is the costs behind making different types of changes. Ideally, we’d all like to make a really cool street with plenty of room for multiple lanes each way for our EVs, a turn lane in the middle, big parking spaces, a truly protected bike path, lots of trees and planters, good sidewalks, and many other awesome features.
The problem is that buying new space for all of those things would be the most expensive thing, and would make the project too expensive to even consider seriously in most cases. Even if a city had the money for all this, what good is a street if the homes and businesses it serves must be destroyed to build the street wider? That’s putting the cart before the horse, big time. The current location of curbs is also an expensive thing to change, often because underlying infrastructure like storm drains are tied to it.
These two fundamental cost constraints tie the hands of planners trying to make positive changes, but there’s still a lot of good to be done with the relatively cheap changes that can be made within the existing street’s property and within the curbs. Changing parking, striping, and streetscape still leaves a lot of room for creative solutions.
With the basics out of the way, they dive into various street projects around the United States and show us how it worked out. I won’t go through each of them, because you should really go through the book for those, but they show us that it’s not unusual to create a space that’s better for everyone without making life harder for drivers.
One key thing that just doesn’t get communicated well (outside of this book) is how road diets don’t affect cars much. In fact, most road diets create a dedicated turn lane that makes traffic flow better and safer than on streets with four traffic lanes and no turn lane, so going from four lanes to three ends up making life easier for drivers while freeing up room for other road users to safely share the space.
If more drivers knew this, they wouldn’t show up to oppose such changes at city council and county commission meetings.
The Other Books In The Series
There are currently two other books in the series: one focused on making better streets for bikes, and another focused on the changes to streets that happened during COVID-19.
In their bike-focused book, the authors first explain how we need to change the way we look at the purpose of streets before we redesign them. Beyond thinking about things other than cars, we need to look at how many people are being moved (regardless of what they’re in/on), the desirability of hanging out on the street itself, and other factors. This shift in angle helps us to see things we didn’t see before, so we can even begin to approach better design.
One of the case studies showed a bike path added in Tampa, Florida that checked everybody’s boxes. The curbs and right-of-way stayed the same, minimizing costs. Cars went from four to three lanes to free up space for a two-way protected bike path. In the end, more people move down this stretch of road, despite each direction now only having one lane for cars.
The most recent book did case studies of the changes cities made to streets during COVID-19.
Around the world, cities made innovative temporary changes to accommodate the different things people had to do during the worst of the lockdowns and other emergency measures. Transit use plummeted both due to fewer people going in for work and because people didn’t want to be in an enclosed space with others. Restaurants and other businesses needed to have room to expand for outdoor dining and other outdoor spaces. More room than usual was needed for bikes at a time when far fewer were driving.
In that final book, they explored a number of these changes to share this information with cities who may need to make temporary changes, but they also created a laboratory of sorts for learning about how making changes to streets really works out. This experimentation could lead to permanent changes later.
Featured image: A screenshot of how Rethinking Streets lays out the changes made to a street.
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