CLAMOUR for well-designed pedestrian and bike lanes has been knocking on every city’s door for some time. Covid-19 has kicked the door wide open. Now more than ever, personal mobility becomes not only a sustainable alternative to worsening traffic but a necessary one amid public transport lockdown and social distancing norms.
As more and more commuters choose to cycle each day, there is a pressing need for an “instant” provision to protect cyclists from accidents. Studies have consistently shown an increase in collisions unless a designated lane, separated from vehicular traffic is designed solely for cyclists.
Where do we get the “extra” space in our already congested roads? How do we provide with a very tight budget, especially amid pandemic? How do we build designated bike lanes at “overnight” speed?
New York City under the term of Mayor Bloomberg, grappled with the same quandaries but has successfully achieved miles of bike lanes and thousands of square areas of urban plazas in one of the most jammed cities in the world – armed with just a coat of paint (and great political will)!
What makes New York City’s strategy particularly relevant and a win-win for Davao City is that, aside from the inexpensive and quick turn-around of bike lanes, the re-designed street intrinsically slows down traffic speed. This eliminates the need to enforce a 30 kph rule (a local ordinance), which ultimately reduces street accidents.
So how did they do it? By taking a closer look at the existing 12-foot road lanes (approximately 3.60 meters). The standard width of highway lanes in order to accommodate the widest semis safely. This makes sense when you are connecting major towns or cities and travel distance in between requires some speed. But does it make sense to have highway lanes in our city streets?
A typical sedan is only about 1.80 meter-wide and the majority of trucks and buses are less than 2.60 meters across. At least a meter of excess lateral space is trapped in every traffic lane. Multiply this by the number of lanes each direction – you get hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bike lanes or public spaces untapped within our cities.
New York saw this great opportunity and expanded the use of a street by narrowing its lanes. By reducing the width of each road lane from 12-foot (3.60 meters) to 10-foot lane (3.00 meters), it still leaves enough room for moving traffic and yet yields extra space which can be reprogrammed for other uses, like bike lanes.
If we adopt the same concept for a three-lane street along Matina (for example) by reducing each lane from 3.60 meters to 3.00 meters, we get a total of 1.80 meters “extra”. This gives us more than enough room for a one-way bike lane and chevron markings to keep a distance from moving traffic. This is a win-win solution. Not only did we get a bike lane, but the narrower lanes also slow down the vehicular speed.
One might think that wider lanes with a generous buffer have less chance of hitting other vehicles but the opposite is true. Wider streets induce higher speeds. According to urbanist Jeff Speck, we set our speed based on how comfortable we feel, which is a function of friction. How close we are to passing cars, or parallel parked cars, or are there bikes and other motorists around and what are the sightlines.
The 3.00-meter lanes, by the very nature of their narrowness, is safer. When cars are in close proximity to one another, drivers tend to be more cautious and drive more slowly. On the flip side, wider streets promote highway speeds and lane-changing tendencies that go with them. Wide-open lanes provide more room for the driver of one car to wind up in another’s blind spot.
Indeed, how fast people drive is not because of the speed limit or the timings of traffic signals but how wide the streets were designed to accommodate speed. When the road removes obstacles to speeding, it cancels out any safety benefits that the extra room would have given.
An outdated, fundamental traffic principle ignored by a century of transportation planners, is that you get what you build for. Building more lanes only creates more traffic. It is about time we design streets that are oriented towards people and not just for cars. Cities must adopt a more inclusive approach, rebuild and reshape to human scale.
Christine Amy Buyco-Sy was born and bred in Davao City and currently resides in Singapore for the last 16 years. She just completed an Executive program on Innovation and Design Technology at MIT, Boston. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban Design from the National University of Singapore and BS Architecture from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila.