clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Reimagining our roads

On-the-street solutions for improving five American cities, with accessibility and mobility in mind

In the quest to create more pedestrian-friendly cities, urban planners often carve out space in obvious places like parks, greenways, and waterfronts. But in many ways, the most abundant resource that municipalities can tap to shift how their cities work is their streets, which cover huge swaths of city property (in Los Angeles, 14 percent of incorporated land is dedicated to parking alone).

Roadways aren’t just the arteries of transportation and commerce, they can be the catalysts for more sustainable design, boosting economic activity, improving accessibility, and creating healthier, more resilient communities.

How can strips of asphalt become something transformative? Earlier this year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released the Global Street Design Guide, a compendium of innovative case studies from more than 70 countries across the globe, addressing everything from bus-rapid transit to bike lanes, parklets to pedestrian plazas.

Curbed applied these ideas to five different U.S. cities, using some of the concepts sketched out in the book as starting points to reimagine each intersection or street. Not every before-and-after scenario may be completely feasible, but each offers a vision of how designers can reclaim and repurpose our ever-present roadways.

Detroit: Reanimate and right-size an excessive roadway

WHERE: Like many parts of Detroit, this stretch of Michigan Avenue in Corktown, a neighborhood known for undergoing recent redevelopment, seems supersized and underutilized. It was built during a bygone era of more car traffic, which now fits current economic activity like an oversized sweater.

WHAT: Descriptions of post-industrial and Rust Belt cities often focus on things the citizenry may need or want: new amenities like, parks, grocery stores, and real estate investment. These stories often overlook what these cities want to get rid of, namely blight, vacant lots, and wide roadways built during times when the city’s population was larger. Detroit’s current fiscal reality doesn’t support the infrastructure and services of a larger city, not to mention the maintenance bills. Instead of straining to care for unneeded streets, why not make them more responsive to the city’s current needs, and turn them into engines of development instead of eyesores?

HOW: This stretch of road is far from empty, as the photo shows. But by taking back some of the unused lanes of traffic for more productive uses, redesign can encourage more walking and commercial activity, adding vibrancy without disrupting traffic flow. Filling in some of the roadways with plants and trees, including long rainwater gardens in the medians (which have special soil filters that remove the pollutants from road runoff), brings life back to the street, collects stormwater, creates protected bike lanes, and eliminates the need for repaving. Extending the sidewalks with “bulb outs,” which widen the sidewalk into the parking lanes, reclaims space for pedestrians, and shortens the walk across a relatively oversized street. Turning pavement into parks and adding street furniture offers more reasons to stick around a blossoming commercial corridor. These changes would also dovetail with a current plan to remake neighboring Roosevelt Park.

Los Angeles: Turn busy roadway into a magnet for mass transit

WHERE: This stretch of Vermont Avenue, the city’s longest north-south street, is well-served by transit but isn’t friendly to walkers because it gets so choked with cars. Bus-rapid transit could provide a faster, more direct connection between the city’s Red line, Expo line, and Green line trains, which currently requires a connection through Downtown LA.

WHAT: Despite providing access to many transit options, Vermont Avenue is so wide that it’s a bit of a dead zone. This is a huge loss, because the multilane thoroughfare could be reborn as a cross-city connector that would improve the daily rides of numerous commuters. While the city recently approved money to study ways to build such a connector, we decided to do the concepting ourselves, envisioning this roadway as both a grand multimodal boulevard and an opportunity to beautify the street. Focusing the street on the transit rider provides pedestrian improvements that make Vermont more vibrant.

HOW: Grand concourses can come in many forms. Installing a bus-rapid transit system in the center of Vermont Avenue helps concentrate and direct traffic, providing a quick and easily accessible way to make a run across town. But the benefits of adding BRT infrastructure don’t end there: The elevated structures can serve as canvases for street art or spaces for pop-up shops, markets, or cafes, with added platforms and overhangs improving the street’s safety and visual makeup. Widening sidewalks on the shoulders boosts pedestrian and commercial activity, while curb extensions shorten street crossings and steer people directly to mass transit. Shade trees and distinctive paving cool the street and add character. It’s no Champs-Elysees—yet—but it does create a more appealing avenue for LA commuters.

Chicago: Reimagine a retail street as a grand plaza

WHERE: Michigan Avenue just north of a bridge over the Chicago River links the city’s Loop central business district with its famous high-end commercial shopping street. Already a favorite among shoppers and tourists, the Mag Mile is a Chicago must-see. But it’s not always a must-stop, as crowds move quickly through the space toward landmarks like the Tribune Tower.

WHAT: While there’s no shortage of foot traffic in this area, giving walkers dedicated space would contribute much more to the overall experience in a way that benefits tourists, residents, and workers in local office buildings. To make the area even more of a destination, we expanded the pedestrian plazas and gave over even more space to visitors, building upon the magnetic draw of local greenways like the River Esplanade and the Chicago Riverwalk.

HOW: First, turning Michigan Avenue into a one-way street frees up street space for additional pedestrians. Adding a series of wider sidewalks and parklets accommodates more al fresco dining and makes room for benches, chairs, and seating that can transform a heavily trafficked walkway into a potential performance and gathering place. Turning this street into a place to rest and recreate, instead of just shop and spectate, adds another excellent public space downtown.

New York: Make a bustling roadway even more bike-friendly

WHERE: Broadway near Union Square West and 17th Street, a constantly crowded strip of Manhattan that’s always packed with traffic. With the impending shutdown of the L train for maintenance and repairs, this street is about to get much busier for those traveling into Manhattan from Williamsburg.

WHAT: Manhattan has done a commendable job expanding its biking infrastructure and setting aside space for pedestrian-friendly streets. But with foot traffic, bikers, and tourists constantly fighting for limited space, why not improve wayfinding and separation and make the street more of an artery for everyone? Providing extra-wide sidewalks and narrowing Broadway to vehicles slows traffic, providing a more pleasant experience for all.

HOW: Oftentimes the fight for more room on the road pits bikers against cars. But everyone needs to stay in their lanes, so to speak, to create more efficient, safer transport overall. This scheme divides Broadway between bikers and walkers using movable planters and street furniture, offering increased space for foot traffic while encouraging outdoor activities and engagement. (It’s similar to an existing temporary urban garden in the Garment District.) A safer roadway for bikers can lead to a more pleasant and street for everyone.

Atlanta: Turn a one-use road into a model, multimodal street

WHERE: This stretch of Peachtree Street near Third Street, in the middle of Midtown, is about as commonplace a roadway as you’ll find in Atlanta: Designed to move lots of cars. But the city is making great strides to expand its transit, walking, and biking options through its Beltline project, and this would bring a similar vibe to a busy north-south street that runs through Atlanta like a backbone.

WHAT: Discussions on building out better transit options often get undercut by claims of excessive cost and minimal impact (looking at you, New York Second Avenue subway extension). But extending multimodal transportation can be a lot more cost-effective than expected, even in a traditionally car-friendly city such as Atlanta. A street that provides multiple options where every user feels safe has been proven to be the best way to encourage people to get out of their cars.

HOW: This hypothetical road renovation would narrow car lanes (studies by the American Planning Association show that narrower lanes help manage speed without decreasing safety) while adding a light-rail corridor in the middle of the road. Outer lanes would also get repurposed, with additional pedestrian space, as well as a bike lane with space for buffers and a bike-share dock, creating additional options for mobility.

Urban Planning

Walking Is Increasingly Deadly, and Not Because People Are on Their Phones

Urban Planning

This Four-Year-Old, $150M Mall in San Francisco Has Never Seen a Customer

Urban Planning

Urbanism Hasn’t Worked for Everyone

View all stories in Urban Planning