Streets for People: Best Practices in Repurposing Roadway Spaces; Streets Designed for People: Learning from New York City

Sackett, Ashley, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, University of Virginia
Chen, Tong, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

My technical and STS (Science, Technology, & Society) thesis projects explore the question of “How can streets and transportation networks in the United States be redesigned to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists?” Both the technical and STS thesis topics seek to answer this question using different methods. The two projects work to better understand the history and current trends of street design to determine the effects of designing streets for vehicular traffic instead of people. The technical portion focuses on temporary street repurposing that were done in many cities across the United States, in order to provide an open space for people during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the projects were completed together, the STS portion provided the opportunity to further understand the societal impacts of designing people-focused streets, using New York City’s transportation network as a case study. In this document, I will address and explain both the technical and STS projects and the intersection between the research topics.

To solve the technical problem posed by my research question, I outlined a plan to develop a survey and interview process to answer research questions with transportation planners and engineers who oversaw street redesign projects during the Covid-19 pandemic. The research in this project involved analyzing the recent trend of repurposing streets to community spaces, in order to support social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Data compiled from both the survey and interview processes were analyzed in a final report to understand the best practices and lessons learned from the repurposed streets. This was used to suggest additions and changes to the current urban street design guidelines. The research findings concluded that the temporary signage for the changes in the streets required a lot of maintenance in the majority of cities, and that community outreach was essential for these changes to be a success. The research conducted in this project could help municipalities find the best strategies for repurposing street spaces using parameters like location, scope, space allocation, and other factors.

In contrast to the technical project, the STS project seeks to address the reasons why streets are being designed for motor vehicles as opposed to people, and the societal impacts as a result. While government initiatives, the automobile industry, and transportation planning trends in the 20th century helped shape the car-centric design in the United States today, some cities have been able to still design people-focused streets and transportation networks. Using New York City as a case study, this project gives insight into how this city was successful in implementing sustainable approaches to street design, and the failures involved in its transportation plan. The factors found to play a role in New York City’s transportation network include government initiatives, transportation capital, urbanization, population demand, and social norms. Learning from New York City’s transportation system will provide the tools that other American cities can use to make pedestrian and cyclist-centered street designs, replacing streets geared primarily toward vehicles.

Analyzing the two topics that have overlapping themes has given me insight that would not have been possible if these were not completed together. The work on the technical portion helped me see that cities are beginning to shift their focus from prioritizing vehicular traffic to instead providing spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, and the community. The STS project demonstrated why streets were designed for cars and what the factors were in the success of New York City’s shift in prioritizing non-vehicular traffic, as well as the factors that influenced the shortcomings in the transportation network. The two projects were successful and worked together to inform transportation engineers and planners about the recent trends in giving priority to cyclists and pedestrians, and it uses the New York City case study to see how these trends can be made into permanent sustainable street grids. To continue the research done in both the technical and STS portions of this research question, it would be beneficial to study other American cities besides New York and learn what the best practices and shortcomings are in their transportation grids. The best city to use as another example is Portland, Oregon. This city has also been a leader in sustainable street design and was the first city to begin remarking intersections to allow all forms of traffic, from foot to bus, to navigate the streets with equal priority. Finally, completing both projects has further expanded my knowledge of the role of transportation engineers in society, and the responsibility they have to ensure we have livable and walkable communities.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Streets, Pedestrian, New York City, Roadway, Street Design

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Technical Advisor: T. Donna Chen
STS Advisor: Kent Wayland
Technical Team Members: Adrian Diaz, Katie Settle, Bailey Stumbaugh

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