Time as volume in street planning

I was thinking about street design, the other day (yes, yes, you’re shocked). And I was thinking about capacity and volume and that sort of stuff.

I was walking along Bank Street, a street that’s pretty busy with cars, pedestrians, bikes and buses…but I was mostly thinking about pedestrians and cars. I was thinking about how the sidewalks are pretty much always as busy as the road at any instant. Take a snapshot of a block, and you’ll likely see as many people on foot as in a car.

Through that lens, it really is ridiculous how much more space is devoted to cars than pedestrians. They can call those sidewalks extra wide if they want, but with all the parking meters, utility poles, street signs and standees, there’s very little room, really. (This isn’t really a unique observation. I get that.)

Of course, there’s a flaw in that analysis. It’s only a snapshot, so it doesn’t take into account that over a longer period, more cars will drive by that block. There may be five pedestrians and five cars along a block at one time (for example), but over the course of a couple of minutes, it’ll be those same five pedestrians, but five sets of five cars may have cycled through.

The snapshot perspective gives more weight to pedestrians than to cars because pedestrians are out on the block longer. So it’s not an accurate measure, since cars pass through that block at a rate five times higher than pedestrians.

City planners will study the volume of traffic–the number of people/vehicles–in total, and seek to move more cars/people faster.

But why do we consider the established perspective legitimate? Why do we just accept that a user tally (I refuse to say “traffic”, since it’s not clear that we should want traffic, per se) is the right metric rather than user time?

Why shouldn’t we focus on the time people spend actually on the street, engaging with street life? Why shouldn’t we favour someone walking along, looking in stores, maybe doing some shopping, maybe chatting with neighbours? These people are actually enjoying the street, rather than using it simply as a means to get somewhere else.

So, yes, we should prioritize time (and, no, I don’t mean gridlock). Pedestrians spend the most time on a street, then bus riders, then bicyclists and, finally, drivers. Our streets should be designed–and space allocated–with this share in mind.

We talk a lot about modal share, and providing resources based on that (and we fail to actually do that, always prioritizing cars no matter what). And, yes, we should keep that in mind, but that still misses the primary function of city streets.

It’s easy to point out some flaws in this. Stroads like Baseline or Woodroffe aren’t really built for lingering (but maybe they should be!). True arterials, that serve little other purpose, can be balanced in favour of transportation rather than living, I suppose, but the rest of our streets should focus on living.

And this doesn’t just apply to downtown, urban streets. Or streets in really walkable areas. Or streets with mix-use development. If we look at the suburbs (like the inner suburb where I grew up), the streets should be balanced in favour of people walking to a park or school, kids riding their bikes or playing street hockey, and neighbours standing at the curb chatting, rather than drivers speeding through the neighbourhood.

So, yes, time–not counting cars–should be the unit of volume in street planning.