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An Essay by Michael Ronkin

February 2, 2010

In an essay submitted to America Walks, Michael Ronkin of Designing Streets for People LLC, explores the issue of whether to remove travel lanes or on-street parking when one must go. 

“For the past 20-30 years our profession has been advocating for “pedestrian and bicycle facilities” with mixed results. A common objection is additional cost or right-of-way. And yet we tend to have overly-wide roads that sit empty most of the time. As a new tactic, with the exception of narrow rural roads with high traffic volume, we should take a position of “no new pavement, no additional width,” and take space way from cars to create the environment we want. That was probably the most important take-way lesson from Walk21 in NYC: they’ve created wonderful places for people on foot and on bicycle, whether moving or sitting down, by taking away travel lanes and other under-utilized existing road space. The same applies to Copenhagen, Paris and Amsterdam, just to name the best known European examples.

“But this idea is not limited to big cities; towns both large and small, and the suburban wastelands are covered in asphalt that is empty most of the time. A lot of it is parking, so one may wonder why I advocate for removing a travel lane rather than on-street parking. Because one has to make a clear distinction between on and off-street parking.

“Off-street parking is the destroyer of communities. It takes up at least twice as much area as on-street parking (because of the need for driveways, access and maneuvering aisles), separates buildings from streets, and ends up making destinations even further part, making it more difficult to walk or bike to them, forcing people into car trips to access their destinations, justifying the need for more parking, and the walking and bicycle environment degrades even further, and the vicious cycle continues downward.

“On-street parking is more efficient (maneuvering takes place in the adjacent travel lane), buffers people on the sidewalk, and SLOWS TRAFFIC DOWN. So removing a travel lane and leaving on-street parking becomes a huge benefit for people on foot and on bicycles, as the advantages of slower traffic are well known. The safety benefits outweigh the chances of being doored. In Salem Oregon, the street most traveled by bicycle has both parallel and diagonal on-street parking, riders simply take the lane.

“Getting back to removing travel lanes, we need to become bolder in our thinking and stop believing there’s a level playing field out there. The cities that have high rates of walking and bicycling also have conditions where driving is difficult, expensive, even painful. We cannot continue to think we can add or create walking and bicycling infrastructure while maintaining mobility for drivers and hope to see anything more than a miniscule modal shift. Rare and expensive parking is part of the needed pain for drivers, but off-street parking should be reduced before on-street parking is threatened. We should be advocating for new traffic engineering rules such as ‘Never have more than two lanes of traffic in each direction.’ ‘Never require a person to cross more than three travel lanes at once.’

“I have a lot more to say, but this is a pretty good summary of my thinking.”

Michael Ronkin, Designing Streets for People LLC