Highway clover through a city; Highway clover through a city;

Rethinking urban roadways: Post-pandemic prioritization of space

Our virtual Arup Live Event, “Rethinking urban roadways: Post-pandemic prioritization of space,” on July 29, 2021 assembled a panel to step back and reflect on the role of our urban roadways on equity, justice, and the environment. Many roadways in urban areas have fragmented communities of color, physically reinforcing historic injustices. The panel explored redesigns that redress these wrongs and prioritize livability, especially as it relates to the use and influence of our streets and public places.

Arup’s subject matter experts were joined by Stephanie Pollack, the Acting Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), as well as the following esteemed panelists: Keith Baker, Executive Director of Reconnect Rondo; Tilly Chang, Executive Director of the San Francisco County Transit Authority; Vineet Gupta, Director of Planning for the Boston Transportation Department; and Jeffrey LeFrancois, Executive Director of the Meatpacking District. 

Arup’s Director of Cities and Sustainable Real Estate Brian Swett, Senior Planner Megan Gee, and Senior Urban Designer and Planner James Francisco continue the panel’s conversation about where and how to start rethinking our urban roadways. 

Administrator Pollack tells how the Federal Highway Administration started as the Bureau of Public Roads, and she retains this multimodal vision of the FHWA. Why is this shift to a more expansive perspective on our roads so significant?

Megan: Stephanie’s broad definition of what infrastructure can be is so important. Roads have never been just for cars, they are a thoroughfare, a place for people to gather, an economic enabler — they drive all kinds of things beyond just vehicles on pavement. We need to think about these projects holistically. On and off ramps for freeways and highways in urban environments cause significant disruption to the urban fabric underneath them, dangerous conditions, high speeds, poor visibility, not to mention blight. When we examine lifecycle costs and benefits, we don't tend to consider the human costs, such as safety issues, and community disruption including the incredibly high asthma and cancer rates of people living adjacent to these polluted places. Despite what people expect from adding a ramp or a lane, it almost never reduces congestion or adds enough capacity to justify the overall cost.  

James: Unfortunately, processes to prioritize and upgrade city infrastructure often occur in isolation. Many times, highways are designed with only traffic performance in mind, and coupled with very real financial and political pressures, highway expansion is often opted for as the default solution. The fact that over 475,000 households and a million people were displaced for our highway system, which fundamentally prioritizes car mobility over everything else, highlights the importance of inter-agency collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach involving city planners, strategic advisors, engineers, and transportation planners. Engaging the community through a thoughtful, context-based approach, we can start innovating and providing feasible solutions that increase opportunity, promote affordable access, and reconnect our neighborhoods. 

There was a lot of discussion about the key role of community members in rethinking our roadways. Why is this so critical and how might it best be achieved? 

Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area

Brian: The Arup Live Event conversation focused on shifting the power of the stakeholder by saying, “You're not a stakeholder in my project, you are the owner of the project. The outcome is yours, and the success is yours to define.” Keith Baker explained that for Reconnect Rondo — it isn’t a Minnesota Department of Transportation project, or a St. Paul Department of Transportation project — this is a Rondo project, and the agencies are supporters in implementing community-driven ideas regarding their defined needs and vision for success. 

The urban roadway infrastructure we have today is largely the result of the programmatic goals and criteria of the funding and financing structures at the time it was built. And we have clearly prioritized moving cars and trucks quickly for many decades in these programs. We need to create robust funding and financing programs that truly support multimodal and human-centered approaches to urban roadways. State, federal, and local governments can make sure that we're investing in community voices, so that they can lead planning exercises, build their own organizational structures, and then identify for themselves issues of concern, how they want to address their priorities, and define success. It’s a much better process. You have a community that is prepared and ready to engage with solving urban roadway issues at various scales.

Equitable community engagement also demands a holistic conversation about compensation and support so that voices are heard and elevated. So, in addition to direct compensation for people’s time, we have to talk about childcare, the timing of meetings and other outreach, and investing in language translation. It's the whole package that empowers a just and racially and socially diverse approach and outcome. 

The webinar revealed several experimental strategies induced by the pandemic era to improve the public realm. What might we learn from those pilots and how they might scale up to advance transformation for our infrastructure?

Megan: I love Vineet’s metaphor of “planting seeds.” Piloting small projects can provide immediate feedback and they also allow us to plant seeds of change in people's minds, giving them an experience of what that future could be. We can get a better sense of community attitudes by trialing interventions rather than building big and permanent, seeing how they work, and adjusting our approach. We can use these projects as an opportunity for behavior change in the minds of both the community and practitioners like us. That said, it’s so important that these quick builds are designed with sensitivity to all users, which doesn’t always happen, for example, accommodating the needs of someone who is blind or in a wheelchair. We must design for all ages and abilities.

James: A great example of piloting is NYC Open Streets in the Meatpacking District, where we worked closely with the Business Improvement District, and were able to quickly respond to the various challenges throughout the pandemic. Working directly with the community, we were able to pilot innovative streetscape solutions that layered complimentarily with City agency standards. 

Additionally, we were able to immediately quantify the increase in footfall and sales related to the pedestrian-priority pilots, which really resonated, because everyone was focused on economic recovery at the time. We were able to prove that stores next to the pedestrianized street had a 30% increase in sales directly due to our intervention. We are going above and beyond to understand the broader impacts such as the carbon emissions savings, how a decrease in noise immediately relates to health benefits, and how access to exercise, walkable environments, and having safe places for people to socialize has positive outcomes for mental wellbeing.

This experience is entirely transferable and scalable. Working with the Meatpacking District, we have the opportunity to create a feasible a model for neighborhoods across the city to follow. With their blessing, we have been able to disseminate our knowledge and advocate for better public space in three additional neighborhoods with vulnerable populations. We are providing pro-bono services in these historic neighborhoods of color through Arup’s community engagement fund.

Bike lanes in Barcelona

Brian: There was a lot of conversation during the event around the importance of programs. Transformational change around how we use our urban public realm and our roadways requires a full-scale strategy including policy, projects, and programs. Projects are the physical infrastructure, and policy dictates the guidelines around how we define success for these projects. Programs support the equitable use of this public infrastructure. For example, it’s not enough to just build bike lanes. You need programs that provide citizens of all economic means with access to bikes in order to utilize these bike lanes equitably. That may mean providing subsidies, or a means-adjusted bike-share program, or any number of alternatives but you have to think it through holistically. 

The pandemic provided this unique forced experiment in rethinking urban public spaces, in particular, our roadways. Now, with the leadership and ambition that’s out there, not only at the FHWA but, as we saw in the Arup Live Event, also in key cities and community groups around the country, I am tremendously optimistic. The public is now more open than ever to rethinking the urban public realm in ways that they wouldn’t have considered two or three years ago. We are at a moment of inflection where we can redefine what success means for our urban roadways for decades to come.