The Myth of ‘Balance’ when Talking About How Streets Are Organized

Chicago’s Link Loop. Photo: Nate Roseberry
Chicago’s Link Loop. Photo: Nate Roseberry
This column is part of Streetsblog Denver’s Summer Reader Takeover, where we give you a platform to talk urban transportation. The author’s views don’t necessarily reflect those of Streetsblog Denver.

Have you ever attended a neighborhood meeting about traffic and asked for enhancements to sidewalks, crosswalks bike lanes, transit lanes, trails, or anything not car-related and been shot down with the refrain that “we have to maintain balance” in our transportation system?

I have. It’s infuriating. Because if Denver truly had to maintain balance, we’d see a monumental and immediate investment in walking, biking, and transit.

The “balance” statement ignores decades of history, the safety of street users, and best practices forged by more mobile cities across the globe. It is a non-confrontational way to tell people, “You’re asking for too much. We can’t take that much space from motorists.”

Our current transportation system is extremely unbalanced. Every scrap of street space is dedicated to moving cars, parking cars, or loading zones for cars. Out of the nearly 6,000 lane miles on Denver streets, 171 make room for a still highly-disconnected bike lane network. Dedicated bus lanes? Fewer than 12 miles.

Year after year, car lanes have a dedicated building and maintenance budget worth millions. Sidewalks? They’re the responsibility of property owners. Imagine if motorists had to rely on some random guy fixing a pothole just because it was in front of his house.

In truth, there is no balance on the streets or in the city budget. Almost all resources are dedicated to the movement and storage of cars, with crumbs left over for anyone who isn’t driving.

The imbalance becomes even more pronounced when you consider safety. All streets are designed for safety  — as long as you’re in a car. Traffic lanes are wide, slip lanes move you out of the flow, lights are timed to keep you moving. If you’re on foot or on a bike, your needs are subordinate to motorists, which is especially inequitable given that people walking and biking are most vulnerable in every crash.

It’s not about balance. It’s about priority.

Prioritize the needs of walkers and wheelchair users, transit riders (who do, after all, walk to stops and stations), and bicyclists. Drivers should subordinate their need for speed to everyone’s need for safety, not the other way around.

The last point I’ll make regarding the myth of balance is tied to our land use. When a street is weighted towards free-flowing, high-speed traffic, it throws the livability for the people who live, work, or play there off balance.

By “balancing” our street system to move so many cars so quickly, we’ve unbalanced our neighborhoods. We’ve made it unpleasant or impossible to be outside along these corridors. Think of the few places in Denver where the buildings on either side of the street are treated as more important than the cars in the street and you’ll begin to see how unbalanced our whole city has become.

The truth is, until we calibrate our transportation system away from high-speed traffic, we’ll never meet our potential as a city. The status quo is imbalance, so when you hear people preaching “balance,” ask them what a car and a bicycle look like on a see-saw — because that’s how our streets are balanced right now.

John Riecke lives in Sun Valley.

  • David B

    Great piece! I like how you reframe the question.

  • TourDeBoulder

    True of Boulder.

  • jcwconsult

    There is a serious difference in how “neighborhood” streets should be looked at – versus the main collector & arterial streets that carry the bulk of the commuting, shopping, tourist and commercial traffic. A LARGE percentage of the traffic on those main streets comes from well beyond realistic walking or biking distances. Choking down that traffic has serious negatives for the economy of any city.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • John Riecke

      Those streets need to have lanes dedicated to transit (buses). If car volume is affected then land use will eventually change while people figure out when and where it makes sense to drive. It’s a long term realignment, and the sooner we start the better.

      • jcwconsult

        The majority of those that now drive will NOT accept the loss of personal freedom and privacy that their cars offer to them. Walks to & from the bus stops at both ends in all weather carrying purchases or work materials and riding in crowded transit systems are not acceptable to some people. They MAY go for things like Uber or autonomous-car ride services (if the technology ever matures enough to go on all roads), but that will not change the car count – and it may actually increase it.
        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • Devin Quince

          “personal freedom and privacy that their cars offer to them”
          Too funny.

          • jcwconsult

            Since Henry Ford decided to make his cars affordable to ordinary workers over 100 years ago, the freedom and privacy of travel became one of the most important factors in the development, success, and satisfaction of people in our society. It is, of course, up to the individual. If someone wants to live near the places they work, shop, and enjoy entertainment – to the point perhaps of not needing to own a car – that choice is available.

            But it is not the choice of the majority of North Americans.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • John Riecke

            Again, people have chosen to drive cars large distances on a daily basis because we’ve unsustainably built our cities to allow and encourage it. Change the buildong patterns and suddenly people’s preferences will be revealed to have mysteriously changed to fit the new circumstances.

          • jcwconsult

            The central city real estate prices often make that choice utterly impossible for many people financially.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • jcwconsult

            For a specific example: My relatives noted above who lived in the DC area sold the two story house plus basement with a nice yard for about $650,000 and moved to Seattle to a significantly smaller ranch house with a nice yard that ran $850,000. Fortunately, they have two manager-level occupations, but for many people either location would price them out of the real estate market.

            We have friends in Palo Alto near Stanford University where the real estate costs are extremely high to either rent or buy. Some of the teachers, nurses and similar workers commute every week from long distances away and “live” during the week in their vans or small RVs to avoid massive fuel costs and time to make the trip every day. They shower with health club memberships.

            I have a large midwestern house (about 2,500 sq. ft.) in a good college town that I could likely sell for about $400,000 – but it would cost me well over double to duplicate it in Seattle – and probably 3 to 5 times to duplicate it in Palo Alto.

            The walk, bike, work, shop, and entertainment settings within modest diameter areas in cities are often out of the financial reach of many people, especially those in service occupations.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • John Riecke

            So land use would need to come along as well – exactly. Again, a process that needs to start sooner rather than later.

          • jcwconsult

            What would be your “secret” to cause home values in expensive urban areas to be cut to half or a third of current values – so ordinary workers in lower paid jobs could move there?
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • John Riecke

            Allow more density. Design streets for walkability. Allow commercial development to mix with residential.

          • jcwconsult

            It strikes me as unlikely that cities would bulldoze houses on (for example) 100 foot wide lots, have double the number of houses built on 50 foot wide lots with more commercial retail and/or housing buildings intermixed —- and expect the housing costs to drop by 50% per unit.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Devin Quince

            Still not freedom when one considers the money, time, etc. required for that freedom.

          • jcwconsult

            Cars can be pretty cheap to buy and operate if people choose with economy in mind. And the door to door commute times are often worse with transit than driving. For many people, the bus ride time is irrelevant – the door to door time is critical.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • David B

            Cars can be cheap to buy and operate in the US because policy subsidizes the total cost of driving. That is not the case in all countries. Even in the US, there are city densities where the costs and hassle discourage driving for the majority of commuters. I think the bigger question is whether a car-prioritized policy is sustainable, and at what cost.

          • jcwconsult

            Agreed in some major city centers like NY and Chicago for two, car use can be more cost and hassle than it is worth for most commuters. But in the vast majority of the USA, that is not the case and cars are the most convenient. The NMA has long advocated proper fuel taxes for user fees to maintain the roads. They are proportional to use, cheap to collect at about 1% of revenue, and encourage fuel efficient vehicles. It is absolutely idiotic cowardice for the federal fuel tax to have remained the same for 20+ years. I travel a lot internationally and have no problem paying $5 to $7 for fuel to be able to travel on good roads that put most in the USA to shame. I once paid close to $10 a US gallon in England when fuel was high and the Pound was very strong against the US dollar.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Devin Quince

            As long as they are based on weight and damage done to the roads

          • jcwconsult

            It would be possible to do that – but note that pedestrians, cyclists, and car drivers all depend on what trucks deliver.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Devin Quince

            Sure and some of that gets passed onto the consumer, but I am also talking about the ‘Murican obsession with huge vehicles for no real reason.

          • jcwconsult

            That is a valid point. But on main collectors and arterials that are designed for at least part time use by 80,000 pound semis, my DOT engineer contacts tell me there isn’t much difference in the damage done by a 3,000 pound compact car versus a 7,000 pound heavy duty pickup. Both are way below the design criteria that have to be used for semis.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Devin Quince

            Then why are roads falling apart all over the place if they are so overdesigned?

          • jcwconsult

            My DOT contacts say there are several reasons. Lack of protective maintenance is probably the biggest one. Small cracks and flaws can be sealed so water does not get underneath, but without that step roads wear out faster. Some states allow trucks heavier than 80,000 pounds. Some contractors use materials that just meet the spec, rather than a bit better ones that would cost slightly more but last much longer. And another key one that affects many things in the USA – we focus on very short run costs, returns, profits, etc. Many world countries focus on the long run costs, returns, profits, etc. which will often yield much better results in the long run.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Devin Quince

            Again, it goes back to As long as they are based on weight and damage done to the roads

          • John Riecke

            Redesigning streets for the safe operation of vehicles does not ban trucks. Even so, there are such things as smaller trucks.

          • jcwconsult

            True, but choking down the main collectors & arterials causes more congestion – and maybe some frustrated diversion onto smaller roughly-parallel streets that were never designed to carry the traffic loads of the main commuting routes.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • fdtutf

            It would be possible to do that – but note that pedestrians, cyclists, and car drivers all depend on what trucks deliver.

            That doesn’t imply that pedestrians, cyclists, and car drivers should directly pay the cost of the damage inflicted by large trucks. That should be paid by the people owning and/or operating the trucks, who can then recover it in whatever way they see fit.

            Externalizing costs always distorts incentives.

          • TakeFive

            Suppliers will pass costs along… to ultimately the consumer ie all of us (Econ 101).

          • fdtutf

            Of course. But then the costs are visible to the people who are causing them (trucking companies). Currently they’re not.

          • TakeFive

            Delivery of goods and services comes at a cost that will be paid by consumers. Efficiencies are created by market forces; inefficiencies are created by arbitrary taxes but if that’s what people want… so be it. Not sure the advantage of several smaller trucks over larger ones other than weight. Obviously there’s more vehicles required under this scenario.

          • fdtutf

            How is using taxes to pay for roads, which is the current situation, an instance of “market forces”?

            Where are you getting this weird idea about smaller trucks?

          • TakeFive

            lol, perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you wanted to ‘penalize’ larger trucks.

            The reason they haven’t ‘picked’ on freight delivery generally is that any added costs will be paid by all of us and that’s fine. What we don’t see or feel overtly doesn’t matter presumably. Delivery of goods and services is not a choice; it has to be done. One can choose to drive a car or take a bus instead; one can choose to drive a big heavy gas-guzzling car if they wish. Freight delivery is not a choice; only determining the most efficient means is a choice; the costs are always passed along to the consumer ie all of us.

          • fdtutf

            The point is that costs can be hidden, as they currently are (roads are maintained with tax money, collected in ways that bear little relation to the damage caused by the people they’re collected from, so few if any people feel the connection between the taxes they pay and the money used for road maintenance) or transparent (those who cause the damage to the roads pay for it in proportion to the amount they cause, and the proceeds are used to maintain the roads). Transparency is better.

          • TakeFive

            Eh, I think most people understand that their taxes pay for road maintenance/construction regardless in what form… and that varies depending on jurisdiction and whose responsible for what.

            So far as ‘damage’ that’s a function of both use and maintenance. afaik most everybody prefers good roads to bad including bus riders and add taxing buses if you want to target the worst offenders.

            Speaking of buses and transparency how familiar with RTD’s costs including subsidies are most people? I’m a fan of transit but everybody get what they vote for which is how it should be.

          • fdtutf

            Eh, I think most people understand that their taxes pay for road maintenance & construction regardless in what form… and that varies depending on jurisdiction and whose responsible for what.

            I don’t. And the fact that it varies by jurisdiction is part of what keeps it from being transparent. It’s too complex.

        • John Riecke

          You’re assuming that people don’t respond to their built environment, which it has been proven they very much do. If we design our streets to support biking, transit, and low speed traffic people will respond by changing their routes, their destinations, or their mode of travel. In other words, we get what we build for and at the moment we’ve built for high speed car volume. When we prioritize other thiggs behavior chnages in accordance.

          • jcwconsult

            Some people will change, but many will not. I have relatives who lived in the DC area in a condo chosen for the 2 block walk to the Metro. It worked fine for them UNTIL their daughter got older and having a real house with a yard became more important than the transit location. One of them switched to almost entirely Uber travel for convenience.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • John Riecke

            So you agree that changed circumstances result in changed behavior. Good, welcome to the club.

          • jcwconsult

            Agreed, but AWAY from your ideal.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

      • Kevin Withers

        “It’s a long term realignment, and the sooner we start the better.”

        Consensus has yet to be reached on any realignment.

  • DCUrbanist

    “We have to maintain balance” is the “All Lives Matter” of streets.

  • Michael

    In my city, about 20% of households don’t have cars. If we were to allocate resources 80/20, automobile to active transportation, we would need to spend 100% of our infrastructure budget for at least the next 2 decades on active just to catch up with the backlog.

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