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

The real problem with Reno’s bicycle boulevard is that it basically
is a boulevard in name only. It’s fine to slap some signs up and paint
the street, but if you don’t employ some basic car traffic diversions
or reduce the speed limit for cars they exist as bike boulevards in
name only.

Case in point, and I realize this is anecdotal evidence, but the
boulevard is my regular route for commuting home, and in the several
months since the new signage has gone in I have had more altercations
with cars than before it was "converted." The incidents have mostly
involved drivers revving their engines behind me to intimidate and then
swinging 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 mongoose 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 failure:

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 multipleoptions for making the same trip. This has implications for thesauntering pedestrian who might stumble upon a new corner store thatshe’ll then patronize regularly as well as the emergency vehicle whosedriver can choose to bypass a busy intersection’s bottleneck bymaneuvering down some minor streets. (Whenever we urbanists complainthat tourists or suburbanites or who have you never see the "real" St.Louis, we need to realize that the city is hiding its best assetsbehind road blocks and private streets).

While closing off streets with barriers and bollards and such seemslike 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 modification.

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

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