Unbiased Streets
January 20, 2016

I wrote a prelude about "public investment" versus "wasteful subsidy" before what I am about to talk about, but it headed completely off track so I had to cut it. Instead, I am going to jump right into saying how our transportation system is biased. Our transportation system is not just biased from a funding perspective, but also from a design perspective. Everything we do to make driving easier is going to encourage driving - and the same is true with any transportation mode (walking, bicycling, riding subways, or riding ferries.) And so, when I see a street like this;

A street in Hoboken, NJ where most of the space is dedicated just to cars.

..even though it is an urban street, with a rather dense mixture of uses, my measurements on Google Maps show that from a cross-section of the street, 68% of it is dedicated solely to cars with the remainder dedicated to trees, bus shelters, benches, and finally, walking. How can we say that our design does not influence behaviour when clearly 68% of the street has been designed just for cars? This is what I call a 'biased' street, because it is biased towards a particular mode of transportation.

Even though Hoboken is a very walkable city and somewhat of an exception, I ran out and took this photo to prove a point that there is still, in America's most walkable city, a heavy bias towards cars. Is it possible to make a street that is unbiased? What would an unbiased street look like?

And, while we are at it, would it be possible to build a system where if you do not drive not a cent of your tax dollars goes into any car infrastructure (asphalt, traffic lights, stop signs), and vice versa for railroads and other transit? Would it be possible to create a system that allows all transportation modes to compete fairly on a level playing field - with no cross subsidization?

Yes. I believe that it would be possible to build such a city and as a thought experiment I will write about how I think such as system could look like, but it will require exploring what a 'street' is - which is quiet different to the conventional American definition.

Separating Streets and Roads

First, we need to understand that streets and roads are two very different things. Let's start with roads. Roads have a defined purpose - they get you from A to B. To be safe and convenient, they need to be relatively free-flowing and clear from obstructions. Roads may be small...

A coastal road near Ballarat, Victoria.

Roads may be big...

Driving on a multilane road through Adelaide.

Roads may be really really big...

A freeway in the Dallas area.

You can have non-car roads;

An elevated railroad in Chicago.

The High Line in Manhattan. An elevated walking road?

A cycling and jogging road in Central Park, New York City.

A street, at its most basic level, is simply the public space between buildings and other places. It is the public space that is not anything else (like a park or a yard.) Essentially, it is the 'nothingness' in a built up area that exists between everything else. Obviously, we like to pave our streets, but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all the way from dirt streets of third world villages to over-engineered American streets with exact specifications for crosswalks, driving lanes, and traffic lights, but inherently, there is no single way a street should look like.

A street in Puebla.

I like to think of streets as the living room of the community. Just as you would come out of your bedroom to see what the family is doing, you come out of the building onto the street to see what the community is up to. The best cities I have enjoyed being in have lively streets. Not every street is lively - most people want to live on a quiet street themselves - but you do not have to go too far to hear the echoing sounds of the ballet of society and commerce.

Roads are important. We need roads to conveniently travel any distance of significance. We need roads to travel between towns, to cross great metropolitan areas, to organize high volumes of traffic between common points. But roads should not be streets, nor vice versa, or we will fail at both.

Unbiased Streets

For a street to be unbiased, it needs to not prefer one mode of transportation over the other. Be it walking, cycling, driving, skating, jogging, horse-riding, or driving those self-balancing two-wheeled boards that are sold under a countless number of different names. To be completely unbiased, we cannot dedicate any of the street surface to any one mode.

An unbiased street in Taxco.

What is the simplest form of an unbiased street that we could build?

A street in Mexico City.

Here we have a simple, flat paved surface. There is a drain. A drain is much better than a curb. Curbs are useless obstacles. Have you tried riding a wheelchair, pulling a suitcase, or pushing a cart over a curb? The buildings have a raised porch by the front door, although this is unnecessary and up to the discretion of the owner. There are some trees to the side for shade. This is a pretty basic but nice street.

We can make something even nicer;


A woonerf in Groningen.


Another woonerf in Groningen

These are rather cozy, safe, and quiet streets to live on.

At some point we will realize that if we introduce cars and trucks with absolutely no rules, it could be somewhat chaotic. We can introduce some simple rules. Vehicles (which include cars, trucks, bicycles, skateboards, and everything beyond perhaps wheelchairs - since wheelchairs are more of a disability device) should keep to the right, be polite and yield, and not go over 20 mph. There is no reason to make our "street rules" (a somewhat simplified version of the "road rules") unnecessarily complicated. Make the rules simple enough that you could stick them on a sign as you enter your town.


A shared space in Drachten. Keep to your side, yield for things in front of you, drive slow, and you will be fine.

At some point we might realize that these rules are not always sufficient. What if the street was too narrow for two reasonably sized vehicles to overtake each other?

Back in Taxco again. I am looking forward to traveling more this year so I can get more reference photos!

One possible solution is actually very simple. We could draw a line on the ground for vehicles to follow in single file.

Follow the line on the ground.

In the above photo there is an arrow on the side of the building, but we could also embed the arrow on the line on the ground to signify the direction that vehicles should travel on the street to avoid cluttering eye level or private property with signs. Perhaps we could make this line a little artsy while indicating the travel direction?

The pattern on the ground is just for decoration here, but you get the point. Your imagination is limitless.

On-Street Parking

I am not a fan of on-street parking. To me, surface parking is surface parking - whether it happens behind the property line or in front of it matters very little. Surface parking is a waste of space, but if I was forced to choose, I would rather it out of the way on private property, than to have 'parking strips' lining our streets.

A parking lot along an alley in Hoboken, NJ. A waste of space, but relatively unobtrusive in moderation.

"Parking strips" in Mexico City creating a wall of cars on either side.

Even though I dislike on-street parking, would be possible to incorporate parking on an unbiased street? Yes. When people are looking for parking, they are looking for a place to store their vehicle. A parking space is nothing special but a patch of vacant space to say "I am leaving this shiny metal box of mine here until I come back." Since we cannot allocate space on the street purely for storing cars (or for storing bicycles, or even wardrobes - because that would be a biased thing to do), the closest thing we can do is have generic rentable street space.

That means that this space;


A random parking space in Temple City, CA.

Could be rented out by street vendor...


A food cart in New York City.

For buskering...

Dancers in Mexico City.

As an area to relax...

Outdoor seating in Manhattan. Suppose that your café was full that you could rent out street space for extra seating?

Or to park a car..

Cars parked along the street in Hoboken, NJ.

..or something more creative!

Street yoga out on a pedestrian mall in Adelaide.

We could utilize Donald Shoup's demand-based pricing system that adjusts prices so 15% of spaces are free. You will always be guaranteed a space to park... or to set up a tent!


A car tent. I don't know where this is.


In contrast to our unbiased streets, roads are allowed to be biased - they are allowed to be only for cars, or only for bicycles, or only for trains. When we are traveling at high speeds, its safer for roads to segregate traffic and to be free-flowing, unlike our streets. Also, unlike our streets, there are no stops along our roads - only designated entry and exit points where they connect with our street system.

The open road in Arkansas.

To be unbiased and fair, we must guarantee that only those that drive will fund the the motor roads, and those that ride a bicycle will fund the bicycle roads. This does not require any fancy technology to accomplish. We already know how to build toll roads, so we could easily design a system that funds our road network purely through user fees - tolls. By knowing the entry and exit point - either by passing through the toll both, or by scanning an electronic tag, we can easily calculate the distance traveled along the road and charge a per-mile fee. On a larger road network made up of multiple owners (crossing many cities, counties, and states) it becomes very simple to guesstimate the route they took and divide the revenue up between the owners.


A toll gate along the New Jersey Turnpike.

To be honest, if I had to pay every time I rode a bicycle along the riverfront, or walked along the High Line, I would do these things less. But I am more likely to do these things because they are perceived to be free, even though I know I am ultimately paying for them through my taxes. But, the vast majority of our streets and roads that our general taxes are spent on consists mostly of surfaces dedicated exclusively to cars. That is really the point I am trying to make - the current system is rigged to encourage people to drive by offering all of this biased, car-only infrastructure for free and paid for by everyone's taxes.


This was just a thought experiment on one way an unbiased street and road system would look like. It is probably not the best way to do things (but at least not the worst.) I wrote this because I am mostly tired of seeing 3/4 of our streets dedicated solely to cars and nothing else - even in the transit-dense New York City area. We can do better than just applying the same old monotonous American street template to every single street throughout the country. I hope I have at least inspired some of you to think a little differently about the purpose of streets and what could be, and I would love to hear about your own designs and fantasies on what a perfect street system would look like and how we can make them less biased.

  1. https://twitter.com/BrentToderian/status/668562695369711619
  2. https://twitter.com/BrentToderian/status/668562695369711619
  3. http://granarydistrict.org/profiles/blogs/shared-space-how-to-make-a-better-space-for-all
  4. http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/05/22/sweet-new-protected-bikeway-on-beautiful-rosemead-blvd-in-temple-city/
  5. http://www.triposo.com/loc/New_York_City/eatingout
  6. http://geekologie.com/2007/06/car_tent.php
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jersey_Turnpike#/media/File:New_Jersey_Turnpike_toll_gate.jpg


Optional link


What is 3 * 7 ?

Michael Lew • 03.14.2016 • 16:13 PM (MDT)
Lovely, thought-provoking article. Just a minor issue, Ballarat is an inland city. The road labelled as "near Ballarat" looks like it is part of the Great Ocean Road on the southern coast of central Victoria.