Renegotiating the right of way in public space

They erased the lines on 24th Avenue.  Just a few blocks from my house is NE 24th Avenue in Portland, a principal North-South route through the Irvington neighborhood.  For the decades I’ve lived here, there’s been a painted yellow double stripe down the middle of the road.  Some years ago, the city added traffic diverters at a few key intersections to force cars to slow down.  A few weeks ago, city traffic crews erased the lines in the middle of NE 24th Avenue.  Now there’s just a broad unmarked swath of black asphalt from curb to curb.

Where the center line ends: Portland’s NE 24th Avenue

What was once a road that was neatly divided into “mine” and “yours” is not an ambiguous negotiable terrain.  Where does my half end and your half begin?  You can’t be exactly sure.  So as a result, now, motorists (and other travelers in the roadway) will need to look out for one another and make allowances for the fact that the person traveling in the opposite direction may have their own ideas about where that dividing line is. Instead of being partitioned into space “owned” by persons traveling in one direction or another, the roadway is now more of a shared space.  Why do this?  Because in effect, it forces people using the roadway to pay more attention to one another, and in all likelihood to drive cars more slowly than they otherwise would.

Fundamentally, what’s happening here is a subtle but purposeful re-writing of the informal rules about how we use public space. While at City Observatory we’re big on the standard fare of national and state policies, investments and pricing, its worth thinking about just how much progress we could make with this kind of thoughtful redefinition of how we use public spaces; and roads are good place to start.

It might seem like rules of the road and customs are either too small or too immutable to make much difference.  But if you look around, you can see big differences:  For example, if you are a North American, and you’ve ever driven in Italy, traffic will at first seem chaotic and indecipherable. The lines when–there are any–seem to chiefly be advisory, if not simply decorative. Cars overtake with what seems to be reckless abandon on narrow curving roads.

But if you stick it out long enough and drive for many hours, you begin to understand that it isn’t that there are no “rules of the road” it’s just that the rules are different than they are in the US. In contrast to the US system, where the right of way is clearly spelled out, defined by lines and traffic signals and subject to enforcement (in California there’s a $234 penalty for crossing a double yellow line), in Italy, it’s much more about cooperation and responsibility. It’s more of a dance of accomodation, with cars sliding in and out, acknowledging others, and being acknowledged in return. The system relies more on mutual respect and accommodation than following legal rules.  And it works: even though far more people walk in Italy, and the roads are famously narrow and separate sidewalks are few, the pedestrian death rate per million is half that of the United States (9.4 per million in Italy, compared to 18 per million in the US.)

It’s a different set of socially constructed and observed rules about how we use public space, in the case, the roadway. We seldom give much thought to these informal rules and customs, but they are a consciously created and ultimately malleable set of practices that we can, and should, change to promote our collective interests.

It’s worth noting that the system that we have in the US today was intentionally re–written to favor the automobile about 100 years ago. We made up new rules of the road which privileged private motor vehicles over pedestrians and other road users.

One small example:  If you want to use a chunk of public space to store your vehicle–usually for free, but almost always at a price lower than its market value–go right ahead.  If you want to that same bit of curbside space on a specially designated “parking day” for public amusement and enjoyment:  fill out this form, subject to bureaucratic approval, and make sure that no part of the street-side portion of your use exceeds 3 feet in height (and restriction that doesn’t apply to car storage).  This is a system that unquestioningly privileges cars above people.

Today, we’re in the midst of a re-negotiation of how we use this part of the public realm

Cyclists, whose use of the roadway predates automobiles (at least in historical/technological terms) are seeking more access to this right of way. As any cyclists knows, there’s more variation among cars based on the attitude and behavior of drivers than is dictated by the variations in law or pavement markings.  Some drivers (often those who themselves are also cyclists) are attentive and respectful to cyclists and road users, while others are indifferent, and still others outright hostile–challenging the right of a person on a cycle to even be in the roadway at all.

Over time, we can modify the explicit rules of the road. For example, Oregon has recently adopted what is called the “Idaho Stop” law:  allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as a “yield” sign, rather than having to come to a complete (and energy-sapping) stop.  A similar change is in the offing with the “right turn on red” rule, which traffic engineers increasingly recognize poses an inherent danger to pedestrians.

While the law can shape these attitudes over time, the big challenge is the renegotiation of the social contract about the allowable and appropriate uses of these public spaces. Psychologists have established that we have subtle rules about who passes whom on the sidewalk, with pace, eye contact and posture signalling who will go where and who will give way. The rules are so ingrained that we’re unaware of them.

A renegotiation that’s long been underway between cycling and private car driving is now starting to come to bus riders. The disparity between the priority given to a busload of people or a group of cyclists compared to a single occupancy vehicle has long been noted in photos like these:

It’s well established that growing traffic, the combination of private single occupancy vehicles and the growing numbers of ride-hailed vehicles is slowing traffic, and especially cutting into bus speeds. In Manhattan, as we’ve noted, bus speeds have fallen 20 percent.  A new study from Philadelphia shows a similar pattern and that bus riders have been disproportionately affected.  Unlike cars, buses can’t re-route themselves dynamically to avoid congestion, and bus travel times in the peak hour in the center city are nearly twice as long as in free-flow conditions.

The results for the cost, efficiency, effectiveness and attractiveness of bus transit are devastating:  Slower buses cost more, because a driver and bus carry fewer passengers per hour; transit agencies have to pay more, and riders get worse service.  As bus speeds decline, transit becomes less attractive to riders.

It’s monumentally inequitable that our rules of the road are based on “every vehicle is equal.”  That system of value incentivizes and rewards those who choose to (and who can afford to own their own vehicle over those who choose to share rides with others (in carpools, to be sure, but especially in buses.  Those who can’t afford cars are at best second-class citizens, but in many respects are non-citizens–they can’t make any constructive, independent use of parking spaces or freeways.

The renegotiation that is at hand is giving more of the right of way to buses.  Experiments in Boston and other cities are showing that dedicating a larger portion of the right of way to buses–or giving buses preferential treatment at traffic lights and intersections, speeds bus service, both increasing its efficiency and improving ridership. Recent dedicated bus lane projects in Boston have shaved five to ten minutes off of travel times, and improved schedule reliability, and done so at very modest cost.  The newly opened 14th Street bus lanes in New York, which reallocate street space away from a relative handful of motorists to hundreds of bus riders, in the process saving untold person hours, and making public transit more efficient are another example.

As we’ve suggested, improving bus travel times is an inherently equitable strategy.  Bus riders tend to be disproportionately lower income, and many who live in households that don’t own cars simply don’t have other alternatives. Exclusive bus lanes re-allocate scarce public space from the few (solo car drivers) to the many (bus riders), and reward those who make more socially and environmentally responsible travel choices.

From an economic perspective, we thing there’s still a strong need to adjust the way we price transportation to reflect back to users the costs their choices impose on the transportation system, on others, and on the environment.  If we had a system of charging road users for the congestion their trips create for others, we’d have a much more efficient system. And we should definitely move ahead as rapidly as possible with road pricing. But travel is about more than just pricing transactions, it’s about improving the customs, behaviors and expectations that informally govern the use of public space. For too long, the automobile has enjoyed unquestioned primacy in the public realm. The impending advent of autonomous vehicles is creating a competing demand to give priority to them in public space. Much of what we have to do in the years ahead is generate a new social compact that governs the right of way.