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The Fine Art of Balancing a Street’s Ecosystem

IMG_2880_1.JPGJust saying it’s a bike boulevard
doesn’t necessarily make things better for bikes. (Photo: Reno Rambler)

Think of a street as being like an ecosystem, in which various
users — pedestrians, drivers, bicyclists — move through an environment,
sometimes enhancing it and sometimes damaging it. When a street is out
of balance, users suffer. So does the human infrastructure of the street
— the businesses and residences that line it.

As with any complex ecosystem, it can be tricky to "fix" a street
that is out of whack. That’s the topic of a couple of posts on the
Streetsblog Network this morning.

First off, Reno
asks what is wrong with the Nevada city’s first bike
— a theoretically laudable initiative that the blog’s
author finds lacking in execution:

The real problem with Reno’s bicycle boulevard is that itbasically is a boulevard in name only. It’s fine to slap some signs upand paint the street, but if you don’t employ some basic car trafficdiversions or reduce the speed limit for cars they exist as bikeboulevards in name only.

Case in point, and I realize this is anecdotal evidence, but theboulevard is my regular route for commuting home, and in the severalmonths since the new signage has gone in I have had more altercationswith cars than before it was "converted." The incidents have mostlyinvolved drivers revving their engines behind me to intimidate and thenswinging around in a reckless manner while whipping by. Occasionally,the run-ins include honks or shouts.

In this case, it sounds like the bike boulevard is almost creating
more problems than it solves for this particular street-ecosystem. Maybe
not as extreme a case as the disastrous introduction of the Indian
to Hawaii to extirpate rats, but you get the idea.

Over at Dotage
St. Louis
, they’re talking about another complex and
counterintuitive street situation. On the one hand, the city is
celebrating its first "Open Streets"
events, in which major thoroughfares are closed to cars and freed up for
exclusive pedestrian and bicycle use for a few hours.

On the flip side, St. Louis is reopening 14th Street to cars,
nearly 40 years after it was closed to motor traffic in the name of
creating a pleasant pedestrian mall — a move that was a complete

The strange irony is that, for the benefit of pedestrians, carsshould be on a lot more streets in St. Louis than they currently areeven encouraged to go. An urban, traditional street grid works bestbecause it gives the pedestrian and the motorist multiple options for making the same trip. This has implications for the saunteringpedestrian who might stumble upon a new corner store that she’ll thenpatronize regularly as well as the emergency vehicle whose driver canchoose to bypass a busy intersection’s bottleneck by maneuvering downsome minor streets. (Whenever we urbanists complain that tourists orsuburbanites or who have you never see the "real" St. Louis, we need torealize that the city is hiding its best assets behind road blocks andprivate streets).

While closing off streets with barriers and bollards and suchseems like a great idea for pedestrians, it actually renders streetssemi-private and much too quiet for comfort.

There are no clear-cut answers to these conundrums. Best practices
are constantly evolving. What’s required is flexibility and nimbleness
on the part of government and planners — and citizens as well. Municipal
authorities need to be empowered to try new things, and also need to be
able to admit when their experiments aren’t working or need significant

In the current political climate, of course, that kind of reasoned
approach can be hard to come by.

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