(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 359: Streets are Not Just Pipes

November 10, 2021

This week we’re joined by Miami of Ohio Geography Professor David Prytherch. David chats with us about his recent journal article in Urban Geography: Reimagining the physical/social infrastructure of the American street.  We talk about businesses newfound interest in the street, equity and ethical discussions about rights to the street, and the new pandemic paradigm of open streets.

You can listen to the show at Streetsblog USA or on our libsyn archive.

Below is a full unedited transcript:

 

Jeff Wood (43s):
Well, David Prytherch welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

David Prytherch (1m 18s):
Well thank you for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 19s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

David Prytherch (1m 23s):
So I am a geographer and an urban planner. I am a professor at Miami university in Oxford, Ohio, and I’m a person who like many have who, if you are a pedestrian or cyclist, I’ve always been fascinated as a geographer. How did the geography of the street get to be the way it is? So it’s been kind of a journey for me to all the different rabbit holes. I’ve gone down to try to understand that, but then as a planner to figure out, okay, how can we do things differently?

Jeff Wood (1m 51s):
How did you get into cities? Or I should ask, how did you get into streets? Like, what was the first time you were like, oh, this is,

David Prytherch (1m 57s):
Well, I think some of that stuff is kind of implicit. I grew up in an extra urban area of Philadelphia, which was really beautiful, but I think by design, they didn’t have sidewalks because they considered it was rural. And so I grew up the kind of kid who you couldn’t really walk to anything. And when you turn 16, you got a driver’s license instantly, because that meant some autonomy. And I never really questioned that until I moved to Pittsburgh after graduation in college, it should have dawned on me in state college where I went to Penn state, but I realized my car was unnecessary to me. And in fact it was more of a liability than it was an asset. It was parked out there and I had to insure it and I worried about it getting hit and I sold it and then I started living car-free and it was a total joy.

David Prytherch (2m 39s):
So yeah, that, I become fascinated though, but, but if you are a pedestrian or a cyclist or transit user, you, you chafe against the system. So it’s been a kind of a project to figure out how did that system get to be the way it is?

Jeff Wood (2m 52s):
I feel the same way I got rid of my car in 2010 because it kind of became an albatross. I started getting so many parking tickets and it wasn’t really worth it anymore. I mean, I did use it to go to the redwoods or whatever else every once in a while, but it, most of the time I didn’t, and it was just like this thing hanging around my neck and I didn’t didn’t really need it anymore.

David Prytherch (3m 8s):
Yeah. It’s an incredible eye for those reasons. I’m happy to have access to one, but I’ve for my whole career, I’ve been able to walk or bike to work or use transit. And so the car is there for me on the weekends, if I want to do something and life is better that way.

Jeff Wood (3m 22s):
Yeah. Well, that’s what I was doing. My news research. I came across your piece, Reimagining the physical social infrastructure of the American street policy and designed for mobility, justice and conviviality in the journal, a Urban Geography. What’s the basic idea for the paper.

David Prytherch (3m 36s):
It’s been kind of an evolution for me as I think parallels the evolution for urban planners, which is I was a person who first became interested in the idea of what made the street the way it is. Why was it stacked against me as a pedestrian or a cyclist? And that was kind of a rabbit hole, again, a series of rabbit holes, which led me to things like, well, how has the street regulated? Who has, who has a right to the street? And that led me to statutes and the law. It led me to, okay, if I get hit by a car in the crosswalk, who’s liable. And that led me to torque ball, well, why is there a crosswalk there in the first place or not? And that led me to traffic engineering on roadway design, but what’s been really interesting. And that was all motivated by kind of a sense of mobility justice or in terms of intermodal equity, you know, as I was a user, why was it so not designed for me, but what’s been happening in the streets more recently is just a much deeper reconsideration, which it’s not just about equity among modes.

David Prytherch (4m 35s):
The public street is a public space it’s paid for by taxpayers. It’s open to use. It’s been regulated as a space for vehicular flow for almost a century, but many cities, whether it’s through parklets or street, dining, or particular under COVID this rapid acceleration of, well, maybe the street isn’t really a hundred percent for transportation at all. Maybe it’s for something bigger than that. And conviviality is just one way to kind of capture these debates. And these are scholarly debates about the nature of infrastructure, which is infrastructure, just the asphalt, or is it the people too? So a lot of those conversations are going on simultaneously, but that article explores the street and it’s reconsideration versus infrastructure as physical infrastructure for transportation.

David Prytherch (5m 22s):
But now it’s social infrastructure for economic development or livability or social justice. So that’s really kind of what that article was exploring.

Jeff Wood (5m 33s):
I wanted to ask also your definition of conviviality. Obviously the word was repeated a number of times and I, I see it, but I don’t see it that often.

David Prytherch (5m 40s):
Yeah, it was. It’s an interesting word that that article was part of a conference session that was talking about infrastructure. That’s the beauty of scholarship is because I think of the street as infrastructure is for transportation, but in this session they were broadening my idea of what infrastructure was. And so this was, is almost a term that’s used by some of the social infrastructure people that kind of talks about almost like human flourishing, that our ability to exist side by side for differences do exist side-by-side but in a convivial and a way that I don’t know that kind of equalizes, we’re all on the same playing field. So it’s a way that captures the street.

David Prytherch (6m 20s):
It’s not just a pipe per flow as engineers would design it, but as it’s a place and it’s a public space that can enhance our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the city beyond just below.

Jeff Wood (6m 34s):
I was thinking about this last night, obviously last night was Halloween is a big night for streets and people walking around near them or on them, whatever it may be. And this idea after Halloween thinking about this idea of conviviality, it came up over and over in my head. Maybe it wasn’t that word, but it came up because, you know, there were people on my street standing up, my neighbors were all standing outside, chatting with each other. There’s a slow street nearby that was opened up because of the pandemic. And apparently that was the hot new Halloween street. It was like a candy avenue or something like that. People were talking about it, like it was, you know, Shangri-La or, or the yellow brick road or something. And it just kind of reminded me that, you know, if you give people spaces where they can, you know, congregate where they can be, where they can get candy, they’ll change from what they were before, which is auto oriented to a place where people can meet.

Jeff Wood (7m 18s):
It was just a really fascinating thought of what could happen if you change the streets kind of base level, you know, function

David Prytherch (7m 25s):
Kind of struck by the kind of classic for so many of us as Jane Jacobs, the death and life of great American cities. The very first chapter after the introduction, she starts with the sidewalk. And you’ve got, has a really beautiful section in there in which she talks about the ballet of the city street and Hudson street and Manhattan. And she’s your says that what happens if we just let the sidewalk do the work that it’s intended to do, and that work has just kind of enabling people to interact. But it’s very interesting because I think that people, Halloween is one of those Kings. I’ve always been struck. We have a small Halloween parade in my community where they close off the main street and for two blocks, the kids can all walk in the middle of the street and then they instantly open it back up to cars again.

David Prytherch (8m 10s):
But it’s, it’s a really amazing moment that you have those times in which we slow down the cars or we remove them and what a discovery it is for people for all of us, the thrill never quite goes away of walking down the middle of the street. And I think that that feeling is something that people are getting and they’re discovering the power of that. And I think the power of that is once they’ve tasted it, they’re unlikely to quite want to give it up again, which may be part of the point of the slow streets and the cafe streets as they’re emerging across the cities.

Jeff Wood (8m 45s):
Yeah. Kind of like Ciclovia, I mean, that was the purpose was to kind of give people a little taste on a Sunday or something to figure out, you know, maybe this is the way of the future. This is a way we could possibly operate.

David Prytherch (8m 54s):
And I think there’s, I’m trying in my research right now to try to understand how many of these things are temporary. It’s kind of like CicLAvia events or open streets events on a weekend or a pray. We’ve always closed down streets for a temporary 4th of July parade. And it’s wonderful, but we never really thought it could go beyond the 4th of July for an hour. And even the open streets events were kind of, it was radical to do it on a Sunday. But I think what happened with pandemic

Jeff Wood (9m 23s):
Is it’s opened people’s eyes to, this could be more the way the street operates all the time. And that’s really profound as a lot of consequences. But I think that that’s kind of what people are seeing right now. And many cities that started out as pandemic events are not returning the slow Streets, sort of the cafe streets to their former use. And they may never go back. What that means of course is a big set of questions. That’s what’s interesting to me. Yeah. Well that candy street that I was talking about was a slow street and now it’s getting permanently turned into a slow street. So it’ll never, I hoped anyways, but the idea is that it’ll never go back to where it was before, which is a pretty wide street that doesn’t really connect anything. And then it didn’t really connect anything before.

Jeff Wood (10m 4s):
I always wondered why it was so wide a street before, but now it’s a place for pedestrians. And actually a really interesting thing happened. There was a cafe on the middle, kind of the middle segment of the street that since the pandemic, before the pandemic, it kind of rotated through various iterations and owners, but then during the pandemic, it just blossomed. The business just took off because Pete, that was the center meeting place. There was a place to get coffee, to get a cookie for the kids or whatever when you’re walking down the street. And so it’s amazing how it also changes commerce. It’s not just the street itself, but the places

David Prytherch (10m 33s):
I think this is one of the kind of profound realignments here, which is historically, I think that the streets were engineered and the parking was for storage of cars, which businesses were very much attuned to. And they saw that as kind of the street was a public space, but business has really fought hard for parking, which is why, for example, bus rapid transit had trouble succeeding in some communities because the business owners rose up against it. But some of the cafes streets, the slow streets, the parklets for example, that have created or expanded cafe dining into the street, these businesses have a literal stake now in the street.

David Prytherch (11m 14s):
And I think it’s changed the whole political economy of the thing. I think that for whatever you think about it, the real estate, you have new people who have kind of a property interest in the city, whether it’s business owners or developers. I think they’re on board in some ways, many ways about this realignment. And I think it changes the politics somewhat about, I think there’s a strange alignment going on between alternative transportation, livability people and that cafe owner. Again, it opens up other questions that we could talk about, about who does the street really belong to. And that’s going to be a really big and probably fraught conversation for us. As we expand. If we start turning Streets into public spaces, we have to have the same conversations we have about parks and should leases be left in the middle of a park for a cafe and who’s managing the park.

David Prytherch (12m 3s):
And, but we haven’t had that conversations about Streets, but, but I think we’re going to,

Jeff Wood (12m 8s):
Yeah. And I think it almost feels like it started a little bit too, because there’s a discussion, I think in New York about, you know, whether the, they call them the sheds. Right. And so whether that should be continued, right, the restaurants and how much property they should be allowed to own, quote unquote, if that’s not really theirs, it’s public space, but they’ve kind of taken over the space in time of opportunity. And then whether that should continue to be there. And so here in San Francisco, I know that there are some restaurants that have gone and taken the parking spots, which is a great thing, but at the same time, they’ve closed them off. So when they’re not open for the restaurant, they’ve closed them off and protected them. And I think that’s due to some of the homelessness issues that we have, but also just a privatization of the street almost from some perspective.

Jeff Wood (12m 51s):
So that’s a discussion, I think it’s in its nascent stages, but it’s going to come and it’s going to be big feel I kind of interview.

David Prytherch (12m 57s):
Yeah, I think so too, because again, it touches on some really profound things. I think that where it was just an individual Parkland here and there, and you could lease a parking space to a restaurant for cafe and it was, it didn’t really threaten the overall order very much, or it was a pandemic measure. We all understood it to be a temporary realignment. But I think we are looking at a more profound realignment as a geographer. I think a lot about territoriality. The street is a public space. And I think right now the battle lines have been moved forward a little bit, but those of us who believe in the public space function of streets have seen the line. What used to be parking is now. So I think there’s going to be a tussle there between the transportation interests, use the street really still for navigating down on bicycles or whatever is it for cafe tables, sprawled all over who gets to lease and what terms and which spaces are public.

David Prytherch (13m 51s):
And then also the other with the great New York times op ed piece, which is about all the infrastructure that was built into the street, these sheds put together relatively hastily and without a lot of controls. And so thinking about, so I think a lot of cities are formalizing their parklet programs and hopefully being careful about how they may prioritize the streets. I think there’s a lot of issues there that people have concerns.

Jeff Wood (14m 13s):
And that’s an interesting point though, that goes to, you know, your book, but also the article as well is the thought about how the street is a, is a legal construct, right? It’s just, it’s this idea that initially it was just a place where people, you know, traveled and, you know, they had the Agoras and they had all of the ways that people could interact in the street. And there was no vehicles necessarily. You might have card and horses, but they didn’t go very fast. And it wasn’t really a thing of, you know, it was a right away thing, but ultimately like the construct of the street is a legal one that we’ve set up over time. It’s like built like building blocks on top of it, which makes me think that it’s possible that we can change. And maybe right now we’re having this other legal conversation that builds on this long history of that legal construct is really interesting to think about.

David Prytherch (14m 55s):
Yeah. And I think that so much of what streets were, was probably customary for most of the time we had expectations of what streets were for and the technology did didn’t really force a lot of codification of what those relationships were. Yeah. I mean, there were probably norms and rules that made it irresponsible to drive your car too fast down the street, but the conflicts were still relatively minor. But as other scholars like Peter Norton have done have traced those ways in which those rules became codified in the car really forced the codification of the rules for everyone’s benefit. I mean, it was pretty messy in the teens on the street and a lot of people died, but that codification, so thoroughly defined the street.

David Prytherch (15m 36s):
If you look at most of the vehicular codes, like in your state statutes, if you look up the word street, it’s designed as, as a public way for the purposes of vehicular travel, the ideology is built into the very definition, then everything flows from there. So if you’re standing in the middle of the street and it feels as a pedestrian and it feels weird, it was yeah, because the whole construct has been built around. It was for vehicular flow and it was, the laws were designed around that. And then it was engineered around that. But if we start to question whether the purposes are exclusively for vehicular flow and that’s a whole lot of other, I’m really interested to see over time, what will happen of that codification?

David Prytherch (16m 20s):
Well, we have to revise those things, probably what’s going to happen is there may be accidents in which conflicts will happen. And we may have to revisit the law, like who really needs to yield right away before whom. And yeah, I think these shared streets, particularly because in many cases, the vehicle’s not completely banned in many of them it’s like slow streets. In many places, you can still access your property slowly or delivery vans. I’m sure you’re probably has this stuff pretty well worked out from their plazas, but I think it’s going to be a conversation, legal conversation and engineering conversation, but we’re pretty well, the stuff we did for multimodal purposes has got us down this pathway, but yeah, the idea of shared streets and how you design them, I think is an ongoing experiment.

David Prytherch (17m 5s):
Probably

Jeff Wood (17m 7s):
Another thing is that, you know, it almost is a turning point as well because of the movement of a lot of technologists towards the idea of autonomous vehicles. And you see these op-eds and you know, people kind of are testing the waters. It’s like they’re putting their finger in the water. Like, can we tell people that the pedestrians no longer belong in the middle of the road and you know, will they, will they actually acquiesce to that or will they freak out? And I think so far it’s been freak out. Like, you know, some technologists will suggest in a paper or a blog post or something. If we just, you know, get rid of those pesky pedestrians, autonomous vehicles would be glorious. And everybody’s like, what are you talking about?

David Prytherch (17m 41s):
I really wonder about this. And I’m not an expert in this, but I think that clearly the cars and their software had been coded around certain assumptions too. Right. And those assumptions are probably, they do have sensors, right? So they’re hopefully sensing that a pedestrian is around them. But I think they’re also coated with certain assumptions about pedestrians being in crosswalks and things like that. And if the street really truly does become a shared street that a little bit more like the 19th century street, which most of us find really hard to imagine if you look at images or I also show my students an image that Edison took and downtown Madison and state streets in Chicago in like 1902, it was crazy.

David Prytherch (18m 21s):
The density, the mixture, the patterns, it’ll be really interesting to see whether our technology is willing to deal with some of that messiness where we may then end up with a re reaffirmation of order to serve the technology. I’m not sure,

Jeff Wood (18m 37s):
I think they worry about the messiness because I think so far, they thought that we were going to have autonomous vehicles by now. They figured they can pump enough money into the research and the process of it that by now that I feel like they felt like they could have it. But I think the messiness of the streets, the messiness of cities have gotten in the way

David Prytherch (18m 52s):
Most human behavior is. And this is what you, I was just on a kind of a shared street. I was in Boston this summer. And I think they were, for example, some of those functions are interesting because I’m all for the public use of the street. And so I went to a cafe that had tables, but we still do want emergency vehicles to be able to access. And so the hope was, is don’t push these cafe tables, maintain some 15 feet of open space down the alley, but as the sun shifts and your table is in the sun, you keep moving your table. And pretty soon there’s no open emergency access pathway.

David Prytherch (19m 32s):
So I think that’s what is really interesting to me about all of this is that it’s, there’s really no set answer. And we’re talking about politics of what we’ve talked in our literature about mobility politics is it’s a lot of different bodies with different trajectories each with their own different desires and desire lines and conflicting needs. And the street somehow is supposed to reconcile all those of a flow and status and livability and, and mobility. And yeah, I think, I mean, it’s probably an internal project, but we’re just, what’s so interesting about right now is I think we’re seeing really fundamental realignment, at least in some places that’s just cracking open something that had been kind of settled for a century.

Jeff Wood (20m 16s):
Well, it’s interesting. We talked about on the show, a fair amount about freeways and their destructive nature, you know, thinking about, especially the freeway tear down ideas that have been popping up around around the country, you know, other cited in your research, safe for people in places not flow, how do you get the flow? And the pastor thinking overturned, you know, the idea of making places that you can go to not necessarily through is, is kind of how the way we put it. And I’m thinking about that flow because you think about streets, local streets, and then you think about kind of these huge arterials. And then as you know, the, I guess the Ash toe green, you know, the, the hierarchy of straights marks it out. There’s differences though in between what the highway and, you know, the arterial major streets, but then also the local streets.

Jeff Wood (20m 57s):
And so the changing is going to happen mostly, I think in the local streets, in the places where people are kind of more apt to move around, but then there’s these other streets that are on their own plane almost

David Prytherch (21m 8s):
Well. And I I’ve been trying to do some research to try to, it’s such a moving target right now to try to understand those changing relationships across cities. And I’ve been working with a research assistant to focus mainly on, on cities and they’re livable streets, they’re slow streets policies, but there’s a whole other thing, a really interesting dynamic about some of the conflicts about protests and black lives matter kind of protests that happened in the summer of 2020, including on the freeways. And there’s a, some serious bodily politics happening and all of the car on protest or violence that we’ve seen in the last 18 months. Yeah. So if you look historically once upon a time, the street was a mixed space and that was really messy.

David Prytherch (21m 54s):
This was some of the very origins of planning, urban, regional planning came out of that, that the Chicago plan of 1909 was primarily concerned with congestion more than anything else. And so it was this idea of imposing some kind of structure that people like Bluecore Booz EA and the regional plan association that grew out of some of the ideas of, of all the, the vertical stacking of like the, you know, the subway down here and the through trucks down here and the surface pedestrians, and, and now the pendulum swinging back where we, we don’t want that necessarily, that kind of hierarchy and that segregation, but there again, there’s, there’s, there was some competing demands that we all do still want to move across space conveniently.

Jeff Wood (22m 36s):
I just had a weird thought, you know, you mentioned like WCA, I thought of Elon Musk because of his, his tunnels and the reason why he wanted to do the tunnels was because he was stuck in traffic. And so maybe he’s the modern day, like Kubu CA and towers in the street, except for maybe it’s moon bases in the, in the park.

David Prytherch (22m 54s):
But I get it. I think that cities are doing it. I don’t remember, you know, some like you’re in San Francisco seeing Embarcadero, they really turned into a Boulevard, right. But Alaska way in Seattle, they build a tunnel that costs however many billions of dollars. But, but again, coming back to the real estate point of view is that the street is that’s some valuable real estate that we’ve dedicated often to excess capacity. And so I was just recently in Chicago and I’m always struck because you can be on the lake shore and there’s lake shore drive in Chicago. That’s like eight lanes of freeway between the miracle mile and lake Michigan. And I think about that, like what a waste of real estate.

David Prytherch (23m 36s):
And I think that probably some developers, I mean the Alaska way right now in Seattle is one big major redevelopment project, right? How to turn a viaduct into real estate waterfront real estate. And so maybe we will find that there’s somebody incentive to dig. The tunnels will come maybe from the Elon Musk’s, but also from the real estate developers who could build on top of the cap over the interstate or something, of course, people may be more, I’m a more progressive colleagues, worry a lot about that. But as someone who teaches planning, I think of development and profit making as a force of gravity. And if you can just channel it appropriately, it can transform the city.

David Prytherch (24m 18s):
But again, it opens up some really big questions. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (24m 21s):
I’ve been also thinking about the various and kind of diverse uses we have for streets overall. I mean, we, we start thinking about curb management and access. Our streets often drain water and sewage because the pipes are under the street. They move people, they act as commerce. They are electrical conduit. A lot of times we have our wires above our heads. There are communications for all of our cable companies and the phone companies go through the streets. They provide a number by which we can be found by mail or counted in a census, which is also a way we can be taxed Streets are so basic and necessary yet frustratingly restrictive. And in some ways it’s like, it’s almost like engineers. And some others who are restrictive are kind of like helicopter parents. That’s the way it kind of, I thought of it in my head.

David Prytherch (25m 2s):
It is, I can see why. And that to me is that having participated in these sessions about thinking about the definition of infrastructure, because when the street was a public space, you have certain mechanisms for resolving the problems that are with public space, but as we started treating streets as infrastructure. Yeah, of course. I mean, I think we need engineers who figure out what the capacity of a roadway is. And I don’t know, figuring out issues of load bearing all of that infrastructure that we really do need to engineer to make it work because, because when it doesn’t work, it’s not good. And we do channel a lot through the streets, but I think they are also engineers look at things a particular way.

David Prytherch (25m 43s):
And I think that the complexities of I, that to me is the most exciting part of this. And I struggle with I’m on my local city council here in Oxford, Ohio. And I’ve had lots of tussles with my city engineers and city service department because they have a certain way of approaching the problem. And that’s, it’s not a bad way. It’s just, they like to constrain the variables and have a formula that achieves an outcome. And some of these questions are just so messy and political. But to me, I think that many of our infrastructures are political questions. And they’re really not just about, yeah. Like who’s got access to bandwidth, any of these things who has, so the infrastructure is provisioned it, but also the spaces to our really big political questions.

David Prytherch (26m 28s):
And we might as well. So in so many towns, the planners have dealt with kind of the social issues over here, but they haven’t been allowed to touch the infrastructure things they’re in two different divisions. I think that increasingly a lot of cities, I think maybe in San Francisco too, but transportation is now viewed as a really a jointly engineering slash social challenge. And it’s just a different way of looking at it, but then you can apply the processes that you use to any other good to try to achieve some equity and at least have a debate about it.

Jeff Wood (26m 57s):
Yeah. Well, so th that’s an interesting kind of segue into my next kind of area of thought, you know, where does equity play into this, this overall Streets discussion?

David Prytherch (27m 6s):
And this has been kind of an evolution for me because then I don’t think I’m not a hundred percent sure that the equity and the mobility justices are a subset of our literature that talks about mobility justice. And, and even the, as the definition of what roadways are for that, that roadways were transportation for structure that were designed to move people. Then the equity is really a matter of access to the transportation. And transportation is a good, that needs to be balanced among people and fairness in the access. But still the question is still about transportation. Our own debates about mobility. Justice have looked beyond that, which is again, if the streets not just about transportation, but about other things, then equity is a bigger question too.

David Prytherch (27m 49s):
And so I think the really hard questions right now that people have shown the correlation, for example, like I’m a big believer in complete streets. Like I think streets in principle should serve all users, but the distribution of where the complete streets projects are and aren’t is not always socially equitable, that they tend to reinforce development in those parts of town that are already perhaps gentrifying. Then there are all these debates about green gentrification and that the arrival of the bike lane is that a harbinger of, of gentrification. And those are really complicated topics. And then interestingly, what’s happened with the slow streets and right across the bay from you, places like Oakland thought like, great, we’re doing this thing for, for pandemic and for intermodal equity, like we need to give the bicyclist an equal shot, for example, pedestrians, but then neighborhoods didn’t all feel equally welcoming or that they had been asked.

David Prytherch (28m 46s):
So this has been, I went thinking like, well, the street is an entranced station infrastructure. Then equity is defined in terms of modes, but that, but the conversation got way beyond that already. And it’s about a lot of other things. It’s hard though, because there’s been tough conversations about, well, I view kind of modal transportation is kind of to a certain degree now it’s not colorblind, but a pedestrian is vulnerable, no matter how rich or poor they are just because in a car versus pedestrian, there’s just such a symmetries that are just structural asymmetries, but clearly those asymmetries map on to other things like who has access to cars and so forth. So it’s really complicated right now.

David Prytherch (29m 28s):
And I think genes are just tough. And that too is a conversation that’s moving about as fast as our pandemic conversation that equity and pandemic both kind of collided on the streets. And what that means is something I think cities are just still trying to figure out

Jeff Wood (29m 43s):
Well, I think it’s, it’s interesting that, you know, academics are still trying to figure out all the details too. I mean, we had, so earlier in the year we had Carol Martins on, on the show and he discussed with us roles and the veil of ignorance and all that stuff. And I was reminded of this when a quote popped up from your book related to reframing equity for transport scholars, this means transcending the functionality of movement to see mobility as a contested social good. And so I think, I think that is the crux of all of our thinking on this subject for me anyways, we always get stuck on movement rather than thinking why we’re moving. And which to me is a kind of a fundamental reason why we need to reframe the transportation discussion almost towards access. Because if you think about what kind of access you’d like to have, not knowing who is already privileged, the veil of ignorance idea, you change how it gets distributed.

Jeff Wood (30m 28s):
And so if we think about it that way we can start to reframe our brains a little bit to start thinking, you know, if we didn’t have it because we weren’t already, you know, our own cars or we didn’t already have access to that subway line. And we wanted to design a system for that. So that way, when we went to the other side of the veil, we could get to wherever we wanted to go, we designed a more equitable system, right?

David Prytherch (30m 48s):
Yeah. And, but the part of me that’s a planner for example, knows that they are by definition have to be regulated and engineered spaces. And so you have to develop these kind of, and so the fact that engineers approach them a certain way, I w I was just thinking, for example, I was seeing a paper that was about how the, the distribution of some of these complete streets thing correlated with redevelopment. Well, in many places, that’s how street improvements are paid for through development exactions or things like that. So the structure, if the goods, meaning safe streets are not distributed evenly across the city, it’s about more than streets. It’s about how we distribute goods. And this is where the thing is tricky for me, because colleagues of, you know, or, or, or people who are also in San Francisco and written about the incompleteness of complete streets, for example, and all the tricky things related to gentrification.

David Prytherch (31m 38s):
But again, the street it’s like, it’s, we need it to be everything, but we can’t realistically expect it to be everything. It still needs to be engineered. And, and however you’re organizing, it will be imperfect in that constellation of, so as a cyclist, I’m like, okay. I, I think that the cyclist deserves a bike. Like what the blood has to do with gentrification is it’s a lot of freight to put on the bike lane, but I think those are all conversations we have to, I think society we’re just figuring out what we mean by equity, because I have found that it’s a lot easier, for example, in my literature, for people to claim a right to the city, but balancing the distribution of the goods and the capabilities and an attending, making sure the vulnerable it’s really complicated work.

David Prytherch (32m 23s):
That’s probably imperfect all the time. And then we’re literally doing things like designing thermal plastic and concrete and asphalt around our ideas of what that constellation of mobility and, and rights, and which will probably become obsolete within moments. It’s the concrete drawing.

Jeff Wood (32m 42s):
I mean, that’s interesting that it’s the extension of the social good from just mobility or accessibility to, you know, other bad goods like risk or noise or pollution. Those, you know, this is in your book. If we maybe extended the engineering to include some of, not just those goods, but to the larger set of externalities, maybe that would be beneficial. Is that, does that seem realistic or is that too much?

David Prytherch (33m 8s):
I think that this is as someone who’s been involved in sustainability work, I do believe ultimately a lot of the world is designed through spreadsheets that I think about the movie Tron that I think we live inside Olympic Excel spreadsheet. And if you can quantify a variable, then it may get included in the algorithm or not. And I think why streets were designed the way they were is that you could quantify things like traffic counts and you could quantify things like traffic width. And so those manuals that are at the very fundamental, like the highway capacity manual, how big does the street need to be? They answered it with variables that were readily quantifiable as, and I’m not a traffic engineer, but that the recent manuals have, have acknowledged that the streets need to be intermodal.

David Prytherch (33m 57s):
And they recognize that there are other variables like livability, but I’m sure engineers are kind of like, well, give me a variable for livability. Give me a number for equity. Yeah. Give me a number, give me a number for equity. Give me a number for sustainability. And I think that some of those things are probably just by definition, harder to quantify, and the engineering models will continue to kind of drive a lot of this stuff. Yeah. I mean, I can talk about transportation, but how much sub-base there needs to be underneath the roadway. And I still Marvel at the engineering of it, and I couldn’t do that and we need engineers to do it, but do we have a model that accounts for those other things?

David Prytherch (34m 42s):
I don’t know. We’ll, we’ll see. I think we’re getting there, but ultimately those decisions, those are made by the models. They’re really powerful. That’s so interesting to me as a geographer is that the world is operated by these structures that are functionally invisible, but man, they’re really durable. So

Jeff Wood (34m 60s):
Around it’s like eating a breakfast that sticks to your bones as well. You mentioned your, your love of complete streets in the book and your article. You mentioned vision zero. Do you think that these are working?

David Prytherch (35m 13s):
I do. And I think part of the reason why is that as a, as a person, who’s kind of, I look at the infrastructure, but I really believe in the power of rhetoric and discourse that I think that, that even if you look at an engineering manual, it appears to be technical, but it’s, it’s Laden with ideology. It’s just woven throughout it. Even if it obscures the ideology behind geometry. What I love about complete streets and vision zero is they start with the ethical argument. If you’re involved at all in just kind of like expanding bike or pedestrian infrastructure in your community, you find that if you say, well, we need a bike lane here.

David Prytherch (35m 56s):
And pretty soon you’ll hear all the reasons why it can’t be done technically, but the power of complete streets is that you don’t start at the street. You start with the ethical argument, which is, do we all agree that Streets should serve all users of all ages and abilities regardless of mode, which is really an ethical, moral argument. And it’s really hard for people to argue with engineers included. And we’re like, well, of course, or vision zero, that we all agree that no one should die on our streets, that no accident is acceptable. Okay. Yeah, of course. But, but

Jeff Wood (36m 31s):
What I wish people could see your face.

David Prytherch (36m 33s):
What’s that been what happened, but then you, then you go from there and I Marvel at it because I think it’s a political masterstroke, which is you start with the ethical argument. That’s very hard for anyone to argue with. And then you say, okay, well then let’s design our streets accordingly. And then you’re in the realm of engineering. And that’s really hard work. You’re talking budget choices, trade-offs between flow and spaces. And, but if you’ve all agreed that designing the bicycle out of the infrastructure is not acceptable, then it changes how you apply the engineering standards. And that takes a little while, I think, from, from adopting a complete street standard to then actually applying it to starting changing the decisions that you make to, okay, well, Ash toes good.

David Prytherch (37m 23s):
But the NACCHO, the national association of city transportation officials guide, like we’re going to rely on that too. Then it becomes a block by block struggle. But so to me that the power of complete streets is at the ethical level. And I’m a hundred percent convinced that our conversations about public street dining and public streets would not have been possible if we hadn’t already laid the framework for saying that Streets are Not Just Pipes. And so that’s some research I’m trying to do now, and we haven’t really analyzed the data, but there appears to be a strong correlation between those cities that have adopted slow and cafe streets and those ones that have longstanding complete streets traditions, because I think it’s just, it’s an idea of catches.

David Prytherch (38m 6s):
And then you’re looking for opportunities to introduce equity. But I think even for example, complete streets has they’ve woven equity into their arguments in much more of a way than they talk about underrepresented peoples in a way that they didn’t before. That’s not just about mode.

Jeff Wood (38m 22s):
I like the idea of thinking about the street from the kind of, from the ethical arguments starting, but I feel like we’re having a hard time, you know, getting to the point where we’re implementing it. And it seems like, you know, politics of the street almost gets in the way of the end result that we’re looking for, which is that zero deaths, you know, argument, I think in, in the book or either the paper, there was a thing that said San Francisco is looking to have zero fatalities by 2024. We’re almost there

David Prytherch (38m 53s):
Zero

Jeff Wood (38m 53s):
Fatalities. No, no, we’re almost to 2024. And I guess that’s what worries me is that we’re not to zero fatalities because we continue to have these. So it’s, it’s a hard slog. And so I F I find that I think, you know, many, you know, streets advocates are, are frustrated by the progress of it, even if it starts out. Well, it seems like it’s been kind of a hard row to hoe

David Prytherch (39m 12s):
Well, these systems, and we could talk about the physical systems, the political systems, the social systems are incredibly durable and they have deeply vested interests in them. So it’s one thing to change the principle, but to change, for example, the way your highway department operates, the way your budget allocates, transportation dollars, those things you could look at how hard it was in Washington. I mean, I think the transportation advocates are, you know, there’s a lot of disappointment that we’re still going to pour a lot of infrastructure dollars into repaving roadways, but again, it’s, maybe it’s the real politic of it is that Streets are, are so central to everything.

David Prytherch (39m 55s):
That, of course, that they’re going to be a lot of vested interests in them. But this is where I’m kind of optimistic is that I think that as, for example, it would come back to the territorial idea as more people right now, the streets have been a domain of engineering that served flow. But for example, as the streets become more of an asset, for example, to real estate interests, if the street is not just your buildings on the, on the side of a pipe, but your S your building is on the side of a, of a street that is vibrant, that adds value to your private property. I think all of a sudden there’s going to be a different set of interests who will be claiming for shared streets and, and transit.

David Prytherch (40m 37s):
And so I think it’s just a, kind of a political realignment, but I know right now, if, if city started to pull back from some of the cafe streets and the Parklands, there would be a roar from their business communities. And that’s kind of a tricky thing to deal with, but the whole political economy of the street is just fundamentally altered. You try to close a shared street down, and if you’ve gotten used to walking down the middle of it, you’re not likely to give up that territory you’ve gained. So I don’t know. I think that it’s, I just am a believer that progress is slow. It took us decades to turn the public street into a vehicular thoroughfare, and it will take decades to on make it just culturally, politically, economically.

David Prytherch (41m 25s):
And again, asphalt good for like 10 or 15 years. You only even need to change it up every decade or two. So it, the transformation of the system will take a long time.

Jeff Wood (41m 37s):
That’s really interesting point about the folks that might have a new interest in the importance of the streets, but it also brings up, you know, new worries about the right to the city, the right to the street, based on these new players in the game, if they restrict people from coming in, because it affects their interests. Monetarily, the capitalist system can get in the way sometimes I guess, from that perspective,

David Prytherch (41m 58s):
I think it’s a very careful balance you have to get into. And this is where I don’t know how cities are. I was just talking to a planner from Cincinnati, and that’s why they really careful, for example, with the leases and the Parklands too, they’re not gaining any more than a temporary right. To the street and making sure that that privatization is revokable and manageable. I would like to think that cities, for example, in their parks have struggled with and found some kind of balance with some of these things. I mean, these are all the issues we’ve been talking about in the redevelopment of our public spaces. How do you pay for them? And are they truly public spaces? I don’t know what the answer is from the street, but I think if you look at other public spaces, we have, well-developed ways of talking about how space should be shared.

David Prytherch (42m 46s):
And I think that we need to start applying those to streets in order to make sure that we don’t just trade one master, but another,

Jeff Wood (42m 56s):
Yeah. Well, so last question for you and this one might be maybe fun might be hard. I gave you a blank slate. How would you form a street or create a street regulation to make the street function better?

David Prytherch (43m 11s):
Hmm, that’s really a good question. I would say I’m actually, one of the big realizations I’ve had is in going into the codes and case law and the engineering is that it’s all there already. That for example, the Asheville manuals ha are full of sensitive treatments that the engineers know how to do it. I mean, it can be done. And many of us have been on the streets that are functioning like this. Now I think it’s more a matter of applying the standards so that we get them, the engineering standards, for example, tend to require things. There are some things that are required and some things are optional.

David Prytherch (43m 51s):
And so I think a lot of those design best practices are waiting in the wings. They’re well-established techniques. They’re just need us to be serious about them. But I, you know, in a broader sense, I think of, I lived for awhile in Valencia and there’s a street that called Chi Moosa go Pedro. And it was like where all the baskets were hung from the side of the streets and chairs, and it was pedestrians and yeah. Vehicle kind of come through there slowly. And, and it was the kind of street that you would go out of your way to traverse. You were still trying to get from point a to point B, but the vibrance of it, that Jane Jacobs sidewalk vibrance of it, I, I think we will need the thoroughfares.

David Prytherch (44m 32s):
We still will need truck delivery. B cars will still need to be able to reach, but I just imagine if we were up for it. I think that sharing the street in a really profound way of people in vehicles and is going to make it messy, but that’s what the nicest best cities are often. That’s what makes them so fun and vibrant and messy. And, and the fact is is if we do it, if we all move really slow, we can share the space if we can reduce the asymmetries. So, yeah, I don’t know what the ideal street is, but I think most of us have streets that we walked on and just love. And could we make more Streets like that?

Jeff Wood (45m 15s):
It’s hard to regulate personality, right?

David Prytherch (45m 18s):
This is what engineers do though. You know, like think about how safe for the most part, our transportation infrastructure, most of us don’t die on a regular basis. Traversing, there’s an enormous amount of risk that’s managed somehow. And that’s not to say that the people in the car driving next to you are paying any more attention than you are or are not, you know, their behavior is just as irrational as most human behavior. But I think that we’re going to try to figure out how to design streets. I think that kind of vision can be engineered into, but yeah, it’s going to be complicated. And I think all of that stuff I’m still talking about, what’s ultimately probably 2% of American roadways.

David Prytherch (45m 59s):
Most of them are behavior thoroughfares still. So what we’re talking about is water still nascent changes around the very edges. And so I don’t see any radical reformation soon, but I think once we’ve tried it, some of us are not exactly going to go back

Jeff Wood (46m 15s):
Totally. Where can folks find your work if they want to kind of catch up with all of your research and, and academics and all the really cool stuff you’re work.

David Prytherch (46m 23s):
Okay. The first thing I would suggest is so their local library is a good place to, for example, my book, law engineering and the American right of way more just street is hopefully available to many people. It is unfortunately an academic book, which means it’s not priced for the exactly for the general market, but it’s an academic book. It may very well be in your library where the library system that you’re in and it is in an e-book format. So, and some of the other articles, I mostly my stuff has been academic published, but I would say the library is also a good place to go. And some of the journal articles that I published, but the thing of it encapsulates most of what I’ve talked about today is in my book, which should be available via your local area.

Jeff Wood (47m 5s):
Awesome. Well, David, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

David Prytherch (47m 8s):
Pleasure and love what you’re doing and look forward to seeing who else you talked to.

 


Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast

Testimonials

…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory


I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs

Subscribe

To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free