A New Look at Urban Street Design

As we try to find more efficient and environmentally-friendly ways to live, we are tasked with rethinking the ways in which we design and use infrastructure and public space. The National Association for City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently published its Urban Street Design Guide, which focuses on street and sidewalk design and how cities can better utilize these as public spaces.

Across the country, city planners are rethinking the purpose of streets from channeling the movement of people and vehicles to promoting it for public space uses. This includes reorganizing the way that sidewalks, streets, and intersections are laid out, promoting public transportation like Bus Rapid Transit systems, and allowing in the overall design a flexibility to support spontaneity in the form up “pop-up” parks, cafes, and food truck gatherings. A look at NACTO’s Guide gives us a good understanding of what the future of city planning and transportation engineering may look like.

NACTO’s Guide focus on accommodating the “diverse and competing uses” of the modern American street by making an effort to “integrate city traffic engineering principles into street designs that balance the needs of residents with the realities of traffic.” With this goal in mind, NACTO explores what it calls the Five Principles of Urban Street Design:

1. Streets are Public Spaces: NACTO argues that streets are underutilized in most cities and that they have been built with focus on speed, delay, throughput, and congestions, with little thought to how they can be utilized as a public space.

2. Great Streets are Great for Business: According to NACTO, well designed streets lead to increased revenue for businesses and higher home value for homeowners.

3. Design and Safety: NACTO argues that a majority of deaths by traffic accidents are avoidable if traffic engineers designed streets better so that “people walking, parking, shopping, bicycling, working and driving can cross paths safely.”

4. Streets can be Changed: NACTO points out that street design has not changed with the times. They call for transportation engineers to be bold about altering existing streets through changes such as “moving curbs, changing alignments, daylighting corners and redirecting traffic where necessary.” They also write that streets should be able to be used for different purposes, including “parklets, bicycle parking and pop-up cafes.”

5. Act Now!: NACTO argues that changes need to be acted on quickly and that temporary materials can be used to redesign spaces, which allow public feedback before permanent redesign is implemented.

A rendering of the old, and new, 18th Street in Adams Morgan, DC.

Repurposing and redesigning streets is trending across the country as more cities are trying to find efficient, cost-effective, green ways of moving their ever increasing populations and goods, while simultaneously working to build up business, community and the changing needs of their people. Here in Washington, DC, the Adams Morgan neighborhood is in the last phases of completing such a project. Known as the Adam’s Morgan Streetscape Project, many of the changes made are ones recommended in the NACTO Guide. One such recommendation is that of widening sidewalks. NACTO argues that cities need to adjust their organization and classification strategies in order to shift the concept of streets from arteries of movement to one of public spaces. “Using width as opposed to type or class allows for the street to be analyzed foremost as a container and a public space, with context, land use and traffic as forces that together shape that space.”

While American cities are starting to catch on to the need of redesigning streets, we have fallen behind many other countries when it comes to the creation and implementation of both redesign and public transit. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an example of an efficient, cost-saving, environmentally-friendly public transportation system that has been implemented in other countries but has been slow to catch on in the United States. Next American City recently profiled the much-touted BRT system in Mexico City, which is estimated to save its workers hundreds of dollars a year and reduce the city’s annual greenhouse-gas emission by 110,000 tons. Other countries like Curitiba, Brazil and Bogotá, Colombia have taken the lead on BRT systems, but as NACTO’s Guide shows us a number of U.S. cities are also starting to experiment with their own BRT systems, including New York City and Cleveland, Ohio, which has seen an estimated $4.2 billion in new real estate along the BRT system corridor since its opening in 2008. With the increasing strain that growing populations, poor environmental standards and bad health are putting on our cities, there is little doubt that cities resisting these kinds of changes in urban street design will have to play some heavy catch up to the ones that are choosing to invest in them early and often.

Camille Koué

Camille Koué is a former student for the Master’s Degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focusing on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, California, she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.