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Rightsizing streets to create great public spaces

I’m a pedestrian before I’m a driver, a rider, a passenger, a worker, or a shopper. I have to walk through public space to get anywhere, and I prefer walking where there are other people, comfortable sidewalks, and crossable streets. Plants, diverse businesses, and the possibility of running into friends are bonuses. Streets built just for cars undermine all of these elements of great walks and great places.

Via our Rightsizing Streets Guide, Project for Public Spaces promotes rightsizing as a means of improving streets for all users and creating a sense of place. Rightsizing improves safety and accessibility for walkers, bikers, and drivers by reconfiguring the street’s space to match the needs of the street’s community. Rightsizing is often critical to the cultivation of streets as places, in which streets provide for safe and enjoyable human experiences and foster inclusive, healthy, and economically viable communities.

The Porch in Philadelphia before and after rightsizing / Photo: University City District

The Porch in Philadelphia before and after rightsizing / Photo: University City District

These case studies illustrate that rightsizing can help activate a corner by creating a plaza, transform a corridor for blocks or miles by encouraging pedestrians and bicyclists, and improve access to local businesses, neighbors, and other attractions.

    • The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and Broadway Boulevard in New York City transformed poorly utilized road space into active pedestrian plazas.
    • When University Place wanted to create a main street in their newly incorporated municipality, their rightsizing effort included installing sidewalks where there had been only road shoulders, improving the ability of pedestrians to cross the street, and beautifying the formerly overwhelmingly car-oriented Bridgeport Way.
    • East Boulevard in Charlotte was also rightsized in response to the community’s desire for a safer and more vibrant pedestrian environment with increased opportunities for outdoor dining. They brought the ‘Boulevard’ back to East Boulevard with slower car speeds making for a safer, quieter street, and infrastructure to make that street navigable on foot and by bike. Edgewater Drive has a similar story.
    • In Poughkeepsie, rightsizing Raymond Avenue included streetscape improvements that encouraged pedestrian access to local retail and dining establishments.
    • Main Street/US 395 in tiny Bridgeport, California was rightsized to increase parking and support pedestrians’ access to local businesses.
    • Prospect Park West in Brooklyn was transformed by the inclusion of a traffic-separated two way bike lane and pedestrian refuge islands. The result was a safer street for all users, and much easier access to Prospect Park.
    • Rightsizing Nebraska Avenue in Tampa and Stone Way in Seattle reduced traffic crashes, and improved the experience of the street for pedestrians and bicyclists.

East Boulevard Crossing / Photo: City of Charlotte

East Boulevard Overview / Photo: City of Charlotte


East Boulevard Crossing / Photo: City of Charlotte

Each rightsized street was improved for pedestrians, and most created bike lanes as well, with minimal adverse—and often positive—impacts on vehicle operations. While vehicular transportation is important, our streets should welcome people using many different modes. Youth, some elderly, and many in between are unable to drive, but happy to walk and bike when it’s safe and pleasant. Further, many may prefer to walk or bike for their health, convenience, environmental concerns, or social reasons. By allowing a child to bike to school, a bike lane provides autonomy for the child (and the parent), and improves the atmosphere of that corridor. By calming the traffic next to that bike lane, the street is made safer for all. Of course, street design is not all there is to Placemaking, and not every rightsizing effort is perfectly aligned with its neighborhood’s desires or needs. However, rightsizing is often a critical component of a community’s Placemaking strategy.

East Boulevard Outdoor Dining / Photo: City of Charlotte

East Boulevard Outdoor Dining / Photo: City of Charlotte

Rightsizing projects tend to use before and after measurements of success that come from traditional traffic engineering priorities like reducing injuries, the number of speeding cars, or travel delay. Rightsizing succeeds by these measures, but they only hint at the fundamental place-centered outcomes of such projects: enabling thriving communities. Safety and mobility offer support to, but are different than, our more basic and fulfilling daily activities: shopping, socializing, eating, learning, recreating, game-playing, bench-sitting, people-watching, and all of the many other experiences that are more frequent and better in successful public spaces. We would be well served by more documentation of these activities in addition to the standard safety and mobility metrics. Streets and sidewalks are our most common public spaces. Rightsizing is a major way to activate these spaces and build communities.

Click here to visit our new Rightsizing Streets Guide to learn more about how rightsizing can help a street near you!

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