The high and low points of the streets of America

The next few years will be critical in determining how America’s neighborhoods and transportation systems will develop in the long term. The federal government will provide $1 trillion in funding for a variety of infrastructure projects, including transportation, thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in November 2021.

If used wisely, this money can transform our towns and cities, make them safer and help build a clean and sustainable future. Improving and expanding public transportation, walking and cycling infrastructure, and zero-emission electric vehicles will help reduce pollution and provide more transportation options for everyone. But if funding is wasted on expanding roads and highways, we will only exacerbate the safety, health, and environmental crises that come from designing our neighborhoods for cars rather than people.

Each year, pollution from cars, trucks, and other vehicles kills an estimated 58,000 people. Car pollution not only makes it difficult to breathe and enjoy the outdoors, but also increases the risk of serious diseases, such as lung cancer, stroke, and heart failure. Going forward, car accidents kill an estimated 40,000 Americans and seriously injured another 4.5 million each year.

Transportation is also the number one source of carbon pollution in America. Freeways, excess parking, and a lack of support for walking, biking, and public transportation have confined many Americans to a car-dependent system with dire effects on our health and our environment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With advances in technology, changing lifestyles and the emergence of smart policy ideas from cities across the country, we can make our neighborhoods healthier and safer. But we need to start investing in “people first” infrastructure that prioritizes people over cars.

To fully understand the benefits of people-first infrastructure, it is helpful to compare what works with what doesn’t. So, we’re launching a series highlighting the best and worst US streets, showcasing the most frustrating examples of car-based planning, and celebrating our favorite examples of people-first transportation.

To start things off, we’d like to nominate the brutal 26-lane Katy Highway in Houston, Texas as one of the most shocking examples of motoring dependence in America:

Photo by Matt Casall in Houston, Texas

Just by looking at this picture, you can smell the exhaust and hear the roar of cars. The amount of money and gasoline burned for this massive purpose is shocking. Is this really what we want our cities to look like?

On a smaller scale, poorly designed intersections often contribute to some disturbing, anti-pedestrian landscapes. In one place in Chicago, if you’re on a bike, you may be trapped at one point on a small roadside barrier, staring squarely at oncoming traffic:

Photographed by Mac Driesman in Chicago, Illinois

Finally, even when plans include pedestrians and cyclists in the infrastructure, implementation is often lacking. For example, the safety of cyclists and pedestrians is clearly not a priority on Massachusetts Road, with mailboxes jutting into the small, unprotected bike lane:

Photographed by Ryan Gionta in Massachusetts

Our neighborhoods and streets don’t need to look like this. By prioritizing the transportation of people such as walking, cycling and public transportation rather than maximizing vehicle speeds, our cities and towns can become safer, cleaner, and more enjoyable.

Here is an example of a narrow street in Chicago with a dedicated bike lane and sidewalk, ensuring that all transportation is viable:

Photographed by Mac Driesman in Chicago, Illinois

And prioritizing public transportation makes the street feel like a place to spend time, rather than just a place to pass through. Here’s a place in downtown Washington, D.C., with a well-marked pedestrian crossing, a sheltered bike lane, and a sheltered bus stop within easy reach.

Photographed by Sam Little in Washington, DC

Finally, this is probably my favorite spot: the pedestrian and bike trails on the shores of Lake Chicago. Separation from the road and access to nature makes this area very attractive and useful for navigating the city. And it’s not in a far corner that can be reached by car either.

Photographed by Mac Driesman in Chicago, Illinois

We started this series with some photos of our own, but readers are strongly encouraged to submit their own photos of the best/worst people-first infrastructure in their communities. We’ll be showing the best of them on our social media and the next part of this ongoing series.

We are looking for examples of the following:

Infrastructure of the car first:

  • Big roads/Excessively fast roads

  • Ugly / overly large / bad parking

  • Dangerous pedestrian crossings

  • Streets lack sidewalks or bike lanes

  • Poorly used sidewalks and bike paths

  • Important sites that cannot be reached on foot / by bike / by transit

  • Poorly managed temporary changes to pedestrian infrastructure (closures with no alternative route or areas not well cleared after snowstorms)

People First Infrastructure:

  • Protected bike lanes

  • Pedestrians only / closed streets

  • Good bus stops with dedicated lanes

  • Attractive transit stations

  • Narrow pedestrian-friendly streets

  • Road lighting fixtures

  • Visible pedestrian crossings

  • Areas with access infrastructure (slopes, tactile paving, etc.)

  • Uses trees, poles, or benches to create a physical barrier between pedestrians and the road

Please email photos with a brief explanation and general location to [email protected] We’re excited to see what you have to share!

Background image: SDOT Images, flickr.com

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