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Vehicles Are Still Firmly in Control of City Streets

Surveys show Americans want more walkable cities and bike riding continues to grow. Yet urban streets are still designed and used like highways. Change is happening, but at a very slow pace, says urban expert Jeff Speck.

Aerial view of 5th Avenue in New York City.
Over the last decade, trends in urban policy have caught up with Jeff Speck. His 2012 book Walkable City can be considered a guidebook to many of the sea changes that have swept over the planning profession, an accessible introduction to making American cities and towns less car-centric, more walkable, and more livable.

Since then, the dialogue in many communities has shifted. The recent Democratic primary for New York mayor didn’t feature any grandstanding against bus lanes or for more parking. Many smaller city mayors and councilmembers at least pay lip service to pedestrian rights, even if trends in the auto industry are killing more pedestrians. Local transit agencies have received unprecedented federal support during the pandemic.

But when Walkable City debuted, we were still at the beginning of the movement of millennials and empty nesters moving to big cities, Uber and Lyft hadn’t become a force yet, and the leading New York mayoral candidate would soon threaten to tear out all the “fucking bike lanes.”

Now, Speck is readying a 10-year anniversary edition of his book, looking back on what he got right and wrong. Governing beat him to the punch, talking with him about the stickiness of 2020’s street reforms, why the traffic engineering profession is so resistant to reform, and how remote work can boost urban fortunes.

Governing: In Walkable City, you write that Jane Jacobs won the planners over by 1980, but they hadn’t been able to win the city by 2010. Did that change over the past decade?

Jeff Speck: In the time I’ve spent doing this work, my colleagues and I have gone from radical outsiders to establishment without changing a single thing we say. The development industry has embraced New Urbanism intellectually. Political leaders for the most part — unless they’re, like, trying to win a rabid right-wing base — have embraced the principles we’re putting forward. I think people are listening to the planners in city governments, but they still often lack the political will in the face of vocal minority opposition to make the necessary changes.

In Boston they just did a poll where they asked “even though it means less space on the streets for cars, do you want to keep the parklets we’ve put in during COVID?” Eighty-one percent said keep the parklets. They asked about keeping the bike lanes and 79 percent said keep the bike lanes. This is a randomized poll, they’re not stopping cyclists on the street. That’s where public opinion is, but that’s not necessarily what the leaders are hearing whenever the question comes up about keeping or eliminating an individual parklet or bike lane.

Intellectually, and in terms of platforms you see among progressive politicians, there has been a lot of ground gained since 2012. But it’s still super hard to get these things done, as we’re seeing now with the reversion of some of these COVID-19 amenities back to the way they were before. Typically, a minority of people who speak loudly are pretty effective in overruling majority public opinion in favor of more walkable places.
A street in New York city with tables and chairs in it and no cars.
A street for pedestrians in New York City.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Governing: How else has the pandemic affected these trends? There was talk about cities losing their edge as remote work becomes more viable and moves to the suburbs accelerate. And we heard all these reports about people buying cars. I certainly know some city residents who bought cars during the pandemic when they did not own one before.

Jeff Speck: There’s some important myths to bust surrounding the pandemic. Everyone presumed that cities were more dangerous, when the data subsequently showed it was less urban places that were suffering more per capita. The oil and asphalt lobbyist Joel Kotkin wrote an op-ed saying that sprawl saved lives, and the L.A. Times printed it like it was fact. We soon found out this was wrong, with COVID spiking worst per capita in more suburban and rural places. And the cities that did absolutely the best were the absolute densest, like Hong Kong and Singapore. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t filtered down to most people yet. 

I wouldn't rely too much on anecdotes, but we all have anecdotal data that more people bought cars. We have to recognize that in dense places, in places where there is considerable congestion, the number of cars you have on the street is a function not of any objective measure as to what’s needed, but a function of how much space we give cars. The number of cars on the street is an outcome of the number of lanes we put on the street in congested cities. The number of cars that we see in our cities will be determined by people’s willingness to put up with congestion, not by any other factor.

We could destroy our cities again by reaming out the streets to eliminate everything else except driving lanes. There’s a risk that could happen again, with people anticipating increased traffic from an increased proportion of drivers.
A minority of people who speak loudly are pretty effective in overruling majority public opinion in favor of more walkable places.
Governing: If congestion gets worse because people aren’t riding transit, then that could push more people onto transit. On the other hand, a lot of people may be remote working in perpetuity, or only working from the office a few days a week. The delta variant could potentially keep people out of offices even longer.

Jeff Speck: The incredible, surprising effectiveness of telework means a lot of trips just aren’t happening at all. As people come back to transit, but also continue to take advantage of Zoom, you’re going to see an equilibrium emerge which hopefully means fewer car trips than before. Most cities are smart enough not to increase their vehicular throughput, but I do hear discussions about how post-COVID congestion means we need to get rid of temporary open streets and parklets.

Governing: In Walkable City, you argue that the traffic engineer profession isn’t responsive to changing understandings of how traffic works. The concept of induced demand — where adding road capacities attracts more drivers and doesn’t ease congestion — is ignored by many in the profession. Has the profession reformed in an appreciable way since then?

Jeff Speck: Absolutely not. More people know about induced demand, but still the same number of people are acting on it and that’s almost none. You see it in the infrastructure bill. The real problem there is that people say fix it first and they claim that they’re making roads safer. But unfortunately, one of the techniques that engineers mistakenly believe makes roads safer, with all the evidence against, is widening. Often, fixing a road is a Trojan horse for widening the road. And the majority of most state DOTs’ budgets goes towards new build, not repair.

Governing: You wrote, “Beating the DOT is often the most important thing a community can do to reclaim its downtown.” Why is the engineering establishment so opposed to change?

Jeff Speck: The safety confusion surrounds the fact that street design as a profession evolved out of highway design. The manual that all the engineers use has “highway” in its title, even though it’s used to design local streets. What makes a highway safe is absence of potential for conflict, absence of friction. That’s the opposite of what makes a street safe. That’s not stubbornness, it’s just a misunderstanding that hasn’t yet been corrected.

The stubbornness surrounds new build. It’s bipartisan. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., was stuck in traffic on the Beltway recently and he got on his phone and explained how a proper highway bill that expanded capacity could fix this problem. It’s just human nature to think that if a road is crowded, making it bigger will solve the problem.

Let’s not forget the incredible money machine that is powered by road building. Most state DOTs are public officials who are either currently in the road-building business or taking the revolving door in and out of the road-building business. You put the wolves in charge of the henhouse in terms of having anyone in place who’s going to put a brake on road building. There’s very powerful economic reasons why roadway expansion is still seen as a solution to congestion even though it never works.

Governing: Speaking of the past, mandatory parking minimums are still common in the U.S. Developers are forced to build a certain number of parking spaces per housing unit, adding to the cost of construction for spaces that often go underused. At least a handful of cities have banned them outright in recent years. Are policymakers on the right track?

Jeff Speck: I worry that in many cases, removing minimum parking requirements is just window dressing. Many developers and most lenders still have their own parking requirements built in. But the necessary first step is to eliminate the government mandate that stops progressive developers and progressive lenders from providing something that’s closer to what the market demands.

Developers are often confused about how little parking they could provide and find in retrospect that they’ve provided too much in their projects. Cities that are truly serious about meeting their climate goals would not just remove parking minimums, they would put maximums in place.

Typically, when a developer who doesn’t want to provide a ton of parking chooses to provide a ton of parking, it’s because the neighbors insist on it. They’re confident that if new people come to live in the building and can’t park in the building, they will park on the street and take the on-street spaces that the current residents enjoy. In many cities, developers then construct buildings with a lot of parking, residents bring cars, and they still park on the street. Alternatively, other buildings have been built in the same city by progressive developers with no parking. And guess what? The residents who come to live in those buildings self-select folks with no cars. They’re not parking on the street because they don’t have a car. It’s the residents who insisted on a lot of parking who end up with a neighborhood crowded with cars.

It’s important to distinguish here between communities that have alternatives to driving and communities that don’t. If you live in an utterly car dependent place, you can only push the needle so far. But buildings with no parking at all can do quite well in cities that are walkable, like Philadelphia or Boston, or even in the heart of less urban places that have a good downtown core like Grand Rapids or Savannah. There’s a limited population that is not yet being provided with housing that meets their needs, which is no car.
A parking space for bicycle commuters in Chicago.
A parking space for bicycle commuters in Chicago. (David Kidd/Governing)
Governing: Your book points out small design changes that few notice beyond those immersed in the profession. I spend a lot of time in Baltimore, where two-lane one-way streets cut through many dense urban neighborhoods, scaring off pedestrians and making it hard to stop at businesses. Formerly two-way streets converted to speedways are common in American downtowns, created to get suburbanites out of the city quickly. How did these design decisions undermine cities like Baltimore?

Jeff Speck: When you have a multi-lane one-way street, the fact that it feels like a highway causes a different style of driving than you’re going to find on any street where there isn’t such ample opportunity to pass. It increases driver speeds significantly. A car going 35 miles an hour is seven times as likely to kill you as a car going 25 miles an hour.

I have done plans in a dozen cities where we’ve reverted one-way streets. No one has ever been anything but grateful and astonished at the positive impacts that come from calming the traffic in that way. New Albany, Ind., reverted its whole downtown from one ways. This is a small, historic city across the river from Louisville. They reverted their whole downtown, miles of streets, from one way back to two way.

The police chief was quite reluctant to make these changes. Later, he met with a group of us and said it was the best thing for public safety he’s ever seen. In terms of response times, because he’s not doing loops, but mostly in terms of the calmness of the streets and fewer crashes. It changed the city from feeling like a series of highways to a series of local streets.

A study in Louisville showed that there was less crime. There were dramatically fewer injury accidents, about two thirds fewer on the streets that were reverted to two-way travel, but also crime dropped by about 25 percent. It just changes the whole spirit of the neighborhood.

Governing: This is something I’ve thought about a lot comparing Philadelphia with Baltimore. When you look at the Census data, the poverty and median income is very similar, but you walk around the two cities and it’s a wildly different experience. Baltimore is much less pedestrian-friendly, there’s much more vacancy, the downtown is a shell.

Jeff Speck: That’s the function of many different factors, but I want to add one little caveat. Philadelphia has a fair number of two-lane one-way streets in its downtown, but the lanes are nine feet wide, which is at least a foot narrower than what most American cities require. Most cities require 11 feet. Lane width is a super important factor in how fast people drive.

The fish doesn’t know it’s in the ocean, right? It’s all he knows. There’s a dimension of cities that are invisible to most people. People don’t understand, and certainly most politicians don’t understand, that we can have the streets that we want. If we give cars too much room, we know the city won’t thrive.

The number of cars moving on the streets of your city at any given time is not some natural law. If people were driving in Manhattan at the ratios that they’re driving in even Denver, it would be all asphalt and there wouldn’t be room for a single building. But even in a place like Manhattan, where driving is tremendously constrained, there’s this fear that if you reduce road capacity, you’ll kill the city. It’s never happened. We can have the streets we want, we can have the cities we want. That’s the first step: the mental leap that we need to take to make our cities livable.

The great thing about the U.S. is that it’s town by town and city by city. All it takes is one great mayor or city council to transform a place. We’ve seen that that’s possible.

Governing: In your book, you talk about companies moving to big cities to attract millennial talent and other favorable trends for urban, or at least denser, living. Could COVID-19 reverse some of those gains? What trends are you most excited about coming through this pandemic and what’s worrying you?

Jeff Speck: When we look back at the impacts COVID-19 had on the way that we live, I think it will principally be in two categories. It will be in how we use our streets, which will be a limited impact, unfortunately. I don’t think those changes are going to stick as much as they should. In Europe, yes, in the U.S. not as much. We’ve seen a number of cities in Europe, like Paris and London, use COVID-19 as an excuse to transform the street network. Sixty-one percent of cyclists that were polled in Paris, commuting around the streets, said that they were not regular cyclists a year ago. It was the new, safe streets that caused them to be on a bike for the first time since they were kids.
All it takes is one great mayor or city council to transform a place.
Then the switch to Zoom meetings is permanent, not as a replacement for all meetings, but as a way that people are getting a lot of work done. I think the only folks that need to worry about what’s happened with COVID-19 are people who own or lease large office buildings. I don’t believe that translates into less demand for cities. In fact, this telework revolution means more people can live where they want.

Sixty percent of Americans polled by the National Association of Realtors say they want to live within walking distance of places to work, shop and recreate. Only 10 percent want to be located in homes that only have access to other houses. Yet, that’s the vast majority of the built environment we’ve created over the last 50 years. It’s dramatically oversupplied while urban walkable real estate is dramatically under supplied in relationship to demand. COVID-19 may have changed that ratio slightly, but it didn’t change the fact that there is a tremendous mismatch between supply and demand in the housing lifestyle marketplace.

Note: One of Jeff Speck's responses has been updated to improve clarity.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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