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How to 'Rightsize' a Street

How to 'Rightsize' a Street
NYC DOT

The concept of a "road diet” has become increasingly popular, as an inelegant engineering analogy that implies the slimming down of traffic lanes as if they were so much excess fat. Got a four-lane boulevard in a now quiet residential borough? Bring in some transportation planners and trim that beast down to two!

The phrase fails, however, to capture the wide variety of ways in which streets planned and paved decades ago often awkwardly fit the needs of changing communities today. In many cases, redesigning city streetscapes is not just (or not at all) about eliminating roadway. It may be about adding parking (to benefit new businesses), or building a new median (for pedestrians who were never present before), or simply painting new markings on the pavement (SCHOOL X-ING).

According to the Project for Public Spaces, we might do better to think of the task as “rightsizing” streets instead of starving them. This week, the nonprofit planning and design organization published a series of case studies from across the country illustrating exactly what this could look like in a variety of settings. The above image pair, from the collection, shows before-and-after scenes of Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. Starting in the summer of 2010, the New York City Department of Transportation began retrofitting the street to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians crossing into Prospect Park. The whole project wasn’t simply a matter of pruning traffic lanes, but of adding yield signs, new traffic signal timing, bike lanes and pedestrian islands.

“The whole point of the concept is that it’s not going to be the same in every city,” says Brendan Crain, the communications manager for the organization. “We wanted to give people a wide range of the different outcomes. Broadway Boulevard is an exciting project if you’re in New York or Center City, Philadelphia, or in downtown D.C. But if you live in a small town of 2,000 people, that’s not going to feel applicable.”

This Main Street project, from Bridgeport, California (population 575), on the other hand may. Here is the "before" scene of the street:


Local Government Commission

And the "after":


Mono County, California

The idea of "rightsizing" suggests that none of these designs are final solutions so much as answers to a community's present needs. These roads may need to be "rightsized" again in the future as the size, shape and tastes of these place shift again.

For now, here are some other ideas to get cities thinking. These before-and-after shots come from Bridgeport Way in Pierce County, Washington:


City of University Place


City of University Place

And here is the new "Porch" public plaza in West Philadelphia, transformed from a little-used sidewalk in front of the 30th Street Train Station:



University City District


University City District

Above image, from Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, courtesy of the New York City Department of Transportation.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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