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Justifying street design decisions with human experience

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

We often configure our streets around traffic models. This is a choice. What if we instead used human experience to justify street design decisions?

Justifying design decisions for traffic... or people?

A municipality is renewing a road, and they have to justify a new design. They need to tell their constituents that they've put thought into this. So what do they do?

Run a traffic model.

Why? It is a pretty default action at this point, but it's also implicitly a values-based one. Think: our society builds the streets, and we use the streets. We also decide collectively how to use them. They are, in fact, political. In this case, the implicit goal is having quick vehicle flow. What if... we chose a different justification to design our streets? What if for some streets we had another implicit goal?

Here I will make the argument for human experience to drive street design decisions within living areas. What you- or your city/town collectively- do is ultimately a choice; let your own values decide. But this choice should be made explicit- we should be aware of it- as it has a significant impact on our lives (te Brömmelstroet, 2020).

1. Cities and towns are more than traffic

If the only thing we needed to do was get from A to B, it would be smart to optimize our cities solely for traffic. But in our living environments, we have to live. We, our kids, and our neighbors have to do things like connect with nature, play, socialize, and exercise. By basing our streets* off of traffic models, we are targeting these activities not to happen. Furthermore, the model is... a model. It is only a partial representation of reality, and making it also involved choices.

2. What we get from configuring streets around traffic models If we invest all of our resources in planning for the traffic model, our streets show it. The other things that we forget- things for living- are left out. The street that we built for ourselves is now just... traffic.

Left to right: NYC traffic (source), San Antonio, Texas (source), Crossing the street (source)

3. Why human experience

Instead of configuring our streets around traffic models, we could instead base design decisions around research on human behavior and experience. For cycling specifically we can do this by studying people, seeing how the bike fits into their lives, and then making the street work for them. Through researching people's experiences, you stay more connected to the goal of making streets for people. And by connecting this research to your designs, you do it in a transparent way.

Want a practical roadmap to configuring your street around the human experience? We offer advice for your case. Want to equip yourself with more about the 'how'? Check out our online and in-person courses.

*This is about streets inside our cities. For highways between cities, the context is different.




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