Commissioner’s Column: Reimagining Streets for the Future

Ward 5 Commissioner Andrew Flynn

e live in a world designed for cars. The American city has been planned to maximize movement and storage of cars, for use on everything from interstate highways to residential streets. For the vast majority of Americans, the automobile is an intrinsic part of our culture. Our streets and the entirety of our communities have been designed to support that love affair.

But as we move into the third decade of the 21st century, more Americans are recognizing that the car doesn’t always improve the connections in our lives and the automobile shouldn’t have to be a required means of mobility to thrive in our communities. In fact, the designs of our car-centric communities, which were meant to facilitate the movement of people, have disconnected us from our neighbors and upended neighborhoods.

Communities planned primarily for cars aren’t only impacting our connections to our neighbors and making it dangerous for our children to walk to school or play a game in their front yards. The ways streets across America are designed significantly contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which are released as a result of fossil fuel combustion from transportation. These gases trap heat and contribute to climate change.

Based on a recent study by the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT),  Mt. Lebanon, a community of 34,075 people, emits more than 265,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The existing transportation system is the third-highest contributing category of those emissions. Every year, each ton of CO2 released is estimated to result in $46 in local and global damages totaling nearly $2 million in damages from the Mt. Lebanon transportation system alone. Multiply that by the 50,000+ communities around the country and the impact is enormous.

Our community has the opportunity to help lead regional solutions to transform streetscapes, improve our neighborhoods, reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions, improve our air quality and our resilience, and slow the effects of climate change.

But the scope of this change is sometimes hard to imagine. How can we rely less on cars when the entire community was designed on the assumption that the personal automobile was the primary means of transportation? Luckily for Mt. Lebanon, the community already prides itself on being a walking community, has invested heavily in programs to provide safe walking routes for residents, and has a strong commitment to community reinvestment. Yet we have much planning and preparation to do for a future less reliant on automobiles and more connected to neighbors.

As each town is different, each neighborhood and street are different. Solutions do not come out of a box but are a foundation of principles that inform the design process every time a road is reconstructed. Each community needs to reimagine its streets as shared spaces that need to accommodate cars but also need to equally accommodate and encourage other modes of mobility.

Streets shouldn’t require someone to own a car in order to go from home to school or work or to see friends. Luckily, many forward-looking communities are already implementing solutions globally and close to home. “Complete Streets” programs design and operate streets that enable safe use and support mobility for all users, including people of all ages and abilities, regardless of whether they are traveling as drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists or public transportation riders.

Complete Streets provide a means to reimagine our streets so walking and bicycling can be an integral mode of transit rather than a novel one, where going to a local shop and seeing neighbors isn’t done from behind a windshield.

This isn’t a simple journey. A typical road lasts for more than 40 years. It is an asset that represents a heavy investment and we rely on it to meet many of our most basic needs. Changing roads is complex and should be done incrementally when the useful life of the existing street has ended. But every time a neighborhood street is rebuilt, every time we plan major road reconstruction, we have the power to reimagine the future of our community to develop a local transportation system better than what we have today. Such a system will be healthier for our families, safer for our children and more economically vibrant for our businesses. There’s no better time to begin than now.

Photo: Doug Harhai Photography