For a long time the car appeared to be the dominant force in urban streets but, increasingly, we are seeing experiments which aim to design streets as places for people. Especially now that our use of public spaces is changing so significantly. UvA researcher Luca Bertolini has investigated the impacts of ‘street experiments’ and draws lessons for urban policy.
Globally we are witnessing a wealth of experiments which aim to make streets more enjoyable for people. These experiments were happening before the crisis but the crisis has given rise to a veritable explosion in street experiments. Sometimes entire streets are converted into ‘streets for people’, where cars are no longer welcome and residents are given priority. So far, says Mobility and Urban Planning researcher Luca Bertolini, what has been missing is a good comparison between street experiments and lessons that we can draw from them in terms of systemic changes in urban mobility.
In the academic journal Transport Reviews, Bertolini compares a number of experiments and comes to the conclusion that policymakers should incorporate the successful aspects of urban street experiments into long-term plans and policy so they can understand them better and utilise them more effectively.
Bertolini focuses on street experiments in which intentional temporary changes to street use are implemented to make ‘streets for traffic’ into ‘streets for people’. What are their main characteristics and impacts? How can these experiments trigger systemic changes in urban mobility? Bertolini compares experiments which are more and less radical:
The main challenge is not simply to tolerate street experiments but to proactively provide space for these experiments
Bertolini concludes that analyses of these experiments indicate positive impacts on: physical activity; a shift of mobility away from the car and towards walking, cycling and public transport; increased safety; enhanced social interaction and social capital. It is also important that no negative impacts were found on local businesses. The positive impacts were, however, greater in larger scale experiments, which focused on re-purposing of the entire street. The often very short duration and low frequency of urban experiments also appear to limit the impact.
The positive impacts demonstrate the benefits of alternative street designs and purposes, says Bertolini, but their potential as triggers of a greater systemic change is unclear. He therefore proposes a number of assessment criteria, taken from the field of transition studies, which may help to assess and optimise the potential contribution to urban mobility change:
Looking at the aforementioned street experiments, Bertolini sees potential strengths in their ability to be both radical and feasible, and in their ability to communicate and mobilise. Potential weaknesses are weak or non-existent links with urban policy and the lack of broad learning processes.
‘If the potential of street experiments is to be utilised more effectively for urban policy, it is important that policymakers understand the various aspects of urban street experiments and their potential and limitations,’ says Bertolini. ‘The main challenge is not simply to tolerate street experiments but to proactively shape institutional and physical space for these experiments and to learn from them as a result.’