Those words from The Human Zoo still are as profound today as they were when the book was released. The book describes how cities, like zoos, are often unnatural habitats for creatures who call them home. However, people just like animals will rise to the new surrounding and find ways to either conquer or maintain and find their new role in the larger arena. We also will often, just like our animal like counterparts, become creatures of habit once we have made our mark or have settled into a routine. Because of this natural stage of growth in our life, change is considered evil and creates intimidating fear. Not necessarily the fear of change, but the fear of the unknown is what will often keep many awake at night and cause heartache, anxiety, and street. This fear we will often spread among others, because isn’t it just like a zoo…our support network needs to be in the same cage with us and we must get through it together?
A few years ago, leaders in Fort Wayne began discussing the idea of street diets on certain streets in the city. The concept behind street dieting isn’t anything new, often the plan is to reduce vehicular accidents because these diets will calm traffic and make people more aware. However once the plan was announced, a wave of fear and anxiety spread over the city like a cloud from Pompeii, the message boards on WANE-TV were reaching warp speed meltdown and many in the city who were comfortable with fifty feet wide downtown streets were faced with the fear of the unknown. Since the city began working on the project, roads in downtown Fort Wayne are now seeing more foot traffic than they have since the birth of the suburban boom and businesses are relocating to store fronts that were often thought lost and abandoned. In fact, an interesting statistic that many have forgotten is that just as thought, reduced lanes have also decreased the number of vehicular accidents in Fort Wayne. A recent study from the Midwest Research Center reported “A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases the crash frequency and in fact indicate that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
So where did this fear of narrow streets come from in the first place? All we have to do is look deep into our city history to find out that roads were never this wide until the late 1950’s. The thought of twelve-foot lanes was almost a national standard and research continued to point out that drivers felt safer on a wider street than they would on a ten-foot wide lane. What happened was not what they expected at all. City thoroughfares began dying off from the traditional walkable neighborhood feel to a more decaying urban scene. Pockets of city streets had stretches of shopping, but many were set back over 100 feet from the primary road fronted with a gnarly mixture of pavement and cars in a place called “the parking lot.” In essence, what people used to consider a comfortable, walkable neighborhood were now in a concrete zoo and just as stated earlier, people began getting comfortable with their surroundings and settled in with a new way of life. The booming era of the personal vehicle made driving 15-20 minutes each way to the grocery store a part of the everyday life and traffic continued to build without any end in sight.
Then, something began to shift in the universe of traffic engineering. Cities began looking at their declining populations and globalization and decided that doing things the way they had been done for so long wasn’t going to work anymore. New York City was one of the first to push road diets, protected bike lanes, and walkable neighborhoods and just like Fort Wayne began upsetting the creatures in the zoo. Josh Benson, director of bicycle and pedestrian programs for the New York City Department of Transportation said: “I think there are those people who had the perception that travel times increased just because visually they saw the roadway looked different.” Local media outlets began pushing out stories that were false from start to finish with poorly researched data creating a cycle of fear that perpetuated borough meetings around the city and officials had two choices, back off or push harder. Armed with proper research from other nations and cities that had seen success, New York persevered and pushed forward, leaving bread crumbs of education, research and information for all to see and it took a lot of buy in before people started to experience that change isn’t always a bad thing. One of the first projects was finished in 2007 when 9th street was turned into a complete street with bike lanes, wider sidewalks and imagine this…ten foot lanes. A nearly 10 block stretch of the city was transformed and the last thing they had expected was the economic benefit that would soon follow. Businesses along the street saw an increase of 49% in spending while the rest of Manhattan only saw a modest 3% growth. Benson called the project a success and has now completed over 30 miles of improved multi-modal streets.
After an unexpected economic improvement along the stretch of roadway, two additional fears from complete street change were put to rest. The headline in the New York Post said “walkers and bikers will create havoc on 9th” but this of course was released without any substantial research or information proving the headline to be true. The article from the Post discussed the increased amount of traffic congestion on an already busy stretch of roadway as vehicles would lose two lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians. The concern was that with the increased congestion, it would cause traffic to back up and people to slow down making the commute longer. However, a recent study from an independent research firm found just the opposite happened on this ten-block stretch of roadway. The headline of the report called “Ten Feet To Save Your Life” said traffic flow actually has improved with ten-foot lane widths. Vehicles move safer down the stretch of roadway without the fear of bicycles or pedestrians that may block their travel as they have a dedicated space. In addition to the improved flow of traffic, the study found that the number of vehicles, pedestrian, and bike accidents have dropped by nearly 33% along the stretch of road.
While the fear continues to exist that road diets will cause traffic jams and lack of access to city essentials such as your $4.99 cup of Starbucks, time and time again it’s been proven that walkable, bike friendly streets work. While the city continues to place money improving neighborhoods and sidewalks, it’s time to invest in making them friendly for all modes of transportation. Maybe Fort Wayne, just like Indianapolis was onto something with the street diets and bike lanes. Maybe it’s time to get people solving the real issues facing our neighborhoods and focus on making them a vital, connected, walk able, bike friendly and vibrant part of the city.