Guest Op-Ed: What Streets Are Today, What Streets Should Be Tomorrow

The COVID pandemic upended our way of life. As of early April 2022, nearly a million people in the US have died from the disease, and many more remain ill, suffering from interactions with underlying medical conditions or long-COVID. For the past two years, children across the country missed the physical presence of friends and family, resulting in widespread elevation in depressive and anxiety symptoms, and loneliness.

And as seen with the inequities in access primary care to manage long COVID, much of this repressed access falling upon Black, Indigenous, and lower-income people in part stemming      from a legacy of  underfunded public transit systems and a disproportionate representation of our Black brothers and sisters serving in essential worker positions—including bus drivers—who suffer under the weight of higher COVID exposure and mortality rates. Lest we allow early pandemic labeling of these workers as “essential” to slip from the mouths and minds of the public and those in power, it’s past time we center the voices of those who stand to benefit the most from improvements to the way they and we all connect with one another in physical and social space.

This connection begins with our networks of streets and roads. Today, we have audit and assessment tools to help us understand the injury-related safety performance of existing or planned streets, their capacity to induce traffic-related stress for bicyclists, as well as their “walkability.” Yet aside from questioning who gets to define “safety, “bicycling stress,”      and “walkability,” proclaiming streets “safe,” “low stress,” or “walkable” is not the same thing as saying they are “inviting,” “fun,” or “comfortable.” I’ll acknowledge that the walking afforded by walkable streets can address many social goals in the form of improving public health, safety, resilience, equity, etc. However, existing means of evaluating streets fail to fully capture the constellation of their uses, users, and purposes in our communities.

So today, I propose a different means of evaluating our streets. A way that inspires us to revisit the fundamental purpose of streets, a way reminiscent of the kinds of street rearrangements we had seen early on in the pandemic, but with much more direction from community members. This approach would consider our streets’ affordances—direct and immediate perception–action possibilities presented to people by their environment—or what streets naturally invite people to do in their space.

Let us call this approach a Radically Inclusive Street Affordance Assessment Procedure or RISAAP. Existing tools lend us insight into the injury risks of streets, their bikeability and their walkability, the RISAAP could provide information on streets’ “dance-ability,” “play-ability,” “reflect on life-ability,” among additional “abilities.”

Interested and compensated community members would guide the development and application of the RISAAP by considering those individual and social actions our streets afford, affordances which hold promise to advance people’s safety, security, social connection, health, climate response, resilience, and well-being. Community members would also prioritize the affordances through a series of thought- and discussion-organizing questions, such as what does the street and its and surrounding land uses afford and for whom? Does the street seem to invite people to gather? Could you picture children playing together in this street? Can someone alighting at a bus stop safely and comfortably cross the street? What about someone in a wheelchair?

To make the RISAAP process accessible, it would be free of technical jargon (such as the term affordance!),made available in the preferred language of community members, and composed of specific environmental affordance measures.  Ideally, affordance measures would be:

(1) readily observable (e.g., low volume and speed motor vehicle traffic, tree canopy and shade coverage at different times of day, which afford gathering and playing in the street)

(2) where needed or desired, measurable using low-cost sensors (e.g., for gauging ambient noise, temperature, and air quality, which afford breathability and comfort)

(3) reportable by community members (e.g., “how connected do you feel to the people who live along this street?”).

Unlike other street assessment tools, which tend to be prescriptive, automated, or standard across contexts, the RISAAP would instead be flexible, welcoming users to select and prioritize the street affordances of greatest social interest and import. Once community members give streets, corridors, and networks the RISAAP treatment, the visualizing, sharing, and conveying of current and possible street arrangements are far-reaching. For example, community partners could work with capable others to map results of the procedure, showing the distribution of affordance-rich and -impoverished streets in our city. Partners could also storify members’ experiences living on streets, sharing oral histories for the benefit of contemporaries and descendants and providing opportunities to learn from the past. Moreover, RISAAP procedures could be incorporated into middle and high school STEM classes, university courses, and community science programs, thereby greatly expanding the place of street life in pedagogy and public discourse.

As knowledge and appreciation of what constitutes equitable and vital streets grow, people might begin to see community-vitalizing streets as not only possible, but normal, desirable, and expected. After all, streets should be “public goods,” which by definition are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Thus, streets congested with motor vehicle traffic would not be      considered public goods. Motorists jockeying for road space are rivaling one another, and those unable (e.g., younger people, those with disabilities) and unwilling to drive tend to be excluded from automobile-dominated spaces. The RISAAP would help to bring these patterns of exclusion and suppression of other-than-automobile affordances to the attention of others and you, our policymakers.

Though COVID will someday end, additional pandemics, social disruptions, and climate catastrophes will remain with us; at the very least, our streets can and should once again become centerpieces of community vitality, health, and well-being.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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