May 13, 2020

What makes a street great? In the pre-automobile day, many a street was great just by virtue of the fact they were public spaces that all citizens shared equally. Yes, once upon a time, it was actually pedestrians who dominated the road, walking anywhere they pleased on the street, with horse-drawn carriages and streetcars yielding to those on foot. Then along came the automobile, monopolizing city streets and making it practical for developers to buy up farmland for sprawling subdivisions that were outside metropolitan areas.

These new suburban communities, which allowed people to separate their home life from their work life, were designed for automobiles, with recreational and cultural centers geared toward motorized transportation—not pedestrians. Over the ensuing decades, our modus operandi became: get into your car, drive to a destination, park in the parking lot, get out of your car, then walk from the parking lot to your final destination. Rinse and repeat.

Over recent years, however, many Americans have rekindled their desire for places in which they can live, work and play in close proximity to a variety of uses, not dependent on long automobile trips to reach stores, schools, restaurants, entertainment venues, and other uses. This resurgence has brought us back into a mixed-use environment that attracts pedestrians. Yet one thing is distinctly different from the horse and carriage days of old; Americans are pretty much “wed” to their automobiles, which sets up a competition—or conflict—between cars, pedestrians and bicyclists that can complicate street design when it comes to reimagining existing car-centric infrastructure.

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that reducing these types of conflict zones requires forward-thinking at the beginning of a project in order to fully understand the practical applications—and oftentimes trade-offs—that need to occur to increase user safety. I recently sat down with my colleague Katie Rowe, a transportation engineer at Gresham Smith, to discuss some key projects in which we have implemented design strategies to reduce conflicts so that walking, bicycling and driving are safe options for all users. In this post, I share some of the design solutions our Land Planning and Transportation teams applied to these projects.


Keeping Things Pedestrian-Focused

A current project in which we’re implementing design solutions to reduce conflicts between the modes is the new Clark’s Landing mixed-use development in Clarksville, Indiana. The 55-acre site was originally Indiana’s second prison, and in the 1920s became a Colgate-Palmolive manufacturing plant until it closed in 2007. After sitting unused for more than a decade, the site is being redeveloped to include residential, commercial and public spaces as well as a hotel.



The main challenge with this project is establishing public thoroughfares in what was once an industrial facility, and within which all modes must coexist. This creates the potential for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists to come into physical conflict with each other as they’re all trying to occupy the same space. To make sure all users move as safely as possible throughout the site, we placed parking in strategic locations so that motorists don’t have to drive through heavy pedestrian traffic to get to the designated parking areas. Simply put, we’ve given drivers a path to get to parking by minimizing the number of significant crossings, i.e., conflicts with pedestrians.

We also augmented safety at Clark’s Landing by shifting the focus from cars to pedestrians. For example, while we have to allow access for cars and emergency vehicles throughout the development, we’ve done so in pedestrian-friendly ways, such as incorporating surface treatments that don’t look inviting to cars. For instance, certain textures, colors and patterns, and even lighting can help send a visual cue that this is a pedestrian-only space.

Reducing the amount of time pedestrians are in the roadway is also key to further creating a safer environment. At the major entry points into Clark’s Landing, we designed busy pedestrian crossings to be as narrow as possible. This calmed vehicular traffic by eliminating on-street parking and helped walkers by minimizing the crosswalk distance.



Safety in the Zones!

Of course, multimodal conflicts aren’t just limited to intersections within mixed-use developments. Managing conflict zones was an important part of the Town Branch Commons greenway project in Lexington, Kentucky. When complete, the 3.2-mile-long urban greenway will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, creating more than 22 continuous miles of protected bike and pedestrian paths. The multimodal project includes vehicular travel lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks, and at certain points, they all intersect. To enhance pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular safety, we first separated the modes for pedestrians and bicyclists from the modes for vehicular traffic.

Providing these users with separate lanes to enhance safety, however, can inadvertently create an unsafe condition where pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists converge. To reduce conflicts, our design allows pedestrians and bicyclists to cross in a large, shared mixing zone that merges all the modes where they “sort themselves out” so they can continue on their separate, designated paths. By sending an atypical visual cue of charcoal gray pavers and white banding, this shared space alerts motorists that their “status quo” is about to change. In other words, it lets a driver know they’re approaching an intersection and need to give right-of-way to the more vulnerable modes in the mixing zone—aka pedestrians and bicyclists.



Now You See It!

Visual cues that take drivers out of their comfort zone don’t just come in unusual paver surfaces or color patterns. In Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, there is a provision that allows us to experimentally use green bike-lane paint, which is not typically used on city streets. We utilized this provision in the Louisville Urban Bike Network – 6th Street Corridor project, which is the first project in the city to feature green mixing zones as part of a new local bike-lane standard developed by Gresham Smith.

The 6th Street Corridor links downtown Louisville’s major east-west connections on Kentucky Street and Breckenridge Street that lead to high-density residential neighborhoods—home to numerous cyclists. The green mixing zones bring the driver’s attention to the fact that they’re entering a conflict zone with cyclists and need to treat it accordingly. The green paint makes it easier for vehicles to determine where to cross the bike lanes while improving the predictability of motor vehicle traffic behavior and safety for cyclists.



From Car-Centric to People-Friendly

As with Town Branch Commons, we designed West Market Street—one of Louisville’s most important connector roadways—to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Thanks to this “Complete Streets” approach, what was once wide, open space at the intersections is now better defined with corner “bump-outs” that have the added benefit of better delineating parking and improving sight lines at the intersections.

Enhancing safety, the bump-outs narrow the road so it becomes less comfortable for motorists to drive at high rates of speed. They also shorten the length of pedestrian crossings so there is less conflict distance between pedestrians and vehicles. Along with bump-outs, the West Market Street project also included the use of tree boxes to introduce street trees, which not only provide shade for walkers, but also change the context of the street from a car-centric thoroughfare to a people-friendly space.



Great Streets, Great Communities

At the end of the day, streets are for everybody, and we’re coming back to an expanded vision of that early inner-city model where pedestrians strolled the cobblestone avenues safely. Now, we must manage all the modes safely so that everybody can have their equal enjoyment of the street. And it’s that equity in design that ultimately makes a street great. And, as the old saying goes, “Great streets make great communities!”


*Katie Rowe, P.E., also contributed to this post