Urban planning standards: Design for people first

Posted in: Bridges, Municipal, Transportation

Bell Street in Seattle, WA, was redesigned with people in mind. The shared street project makes use of underutilized right of way and places emphasis on spaces for people rather than parking of vehicles.
Bell Street in Seattle, WA, was redesigned with people in mind. The shared street project makes use of underutilized right of way and places emphasis on spaces for people rather than parking of vehicles.

It is a planner’s job – at times – to challenge what is considered standard. With technology moving at such a fast pace, it can be tempting to build city infrastructure around technological advances. However, is planning urban areas around technology instead of people an “innovation”? I’d say that the opposite is true.

There’s no doubt that the invention of the automobile had a massive impact on city layouts after being introduced in the early 19th century. But over time, have we continued to design and live in an environment that serves humans first, or do we plan urban spaces around vehicle capacity? The overbuilt rights-of-way and ubiquitous surface parking areas may be a result of well-intended but now ill-fitting standards and manuals.

The challenge for planners and those we influence – elected officials, the public, designers, etc. – is to make sure the built environment serves humans first and technology second. With driverless cars and automated vehicles, or AVs, on the rise, we might have to face this challenge within the next few years. The April 2017 issue of PLANNING magazine discusses what a future with AVs may look like and the affect these vehicles will have on the built environment.

Let me share two quotes from the publication, the first of which is for roadway design:

“Since driverless vehicles are expected to be smaller in size, drive more precisely than humans, and have the ability to travel in harmony and platoon, travel lanes will likely be narrowed. That would allow for smaller rights-of-way and different allocations of space along existing rights-of-way. Fewer overall vehicles, combined with AV’s ability to communicate with each other, could bring further efficiencies and more opportunities for reclaiming rights-of-way for other uses.”  

This paragraph discusses the future of parking: 

“As far less parking is required once AVs have taken over, and because parking can be disconnected from almost all land uses, the form and location of parking will change. Downtown areas and high-density nodes might construct off-site parking reserves, akin to those found at airports. The ubiquitous surface parking lots sitting just outside typical office and retail developments will no longer be required, freeing much of this land up for other uses.”

Both excerpts praise technological advances for allowing cities to regain space that was appropriated by motor vehicle use. But taking a step further, should AVs lead our decisions about lane widths and parking minimums? We’re already rethinking requirements that say parking must accommodate Black Friday crowds. It’s not sound reasoning to design space for a one-day-per-year parking problem that leaves us living in a sea of asphalt. In the same vein, let’s use any newly-regained space to create places for people first, forcing AVs to respond to that environment.

In our changing world of technological advances, planners have a responsibility to slow down and think critically and find solutions to challenging problems. Let’s design a space to fit the people and then let technology respond to how we want to live, not the other way around. That is in our professional blood, and that is our responsibility to serving the public welfare.

Mark Sauer, AICP

About the Author

Mark Sauer, AICP,  delivers comprehensive and progressive planning to ensure successful project implementation. Mark uses a graphic approach to resolve complex problems; balancing effective illustrations with continuous and open communication and sound research. Mark is also a weekend warrior on Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail, hiking more than half the 1,200 miles since April 2014, and an active board member and student mentor through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Urban Planning Alumni Association.

Read more posts by Mark Sauer, AICP

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