The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design

Streets That Work

Mark Plotz
May 20, 2013
Dec 14, 2017
Our next Streets As Places training workshop is just around the corner! / Photo: Mark Plotz

I heard a good one the other day. It was in one of those emails that had been forwarded ten or twenty times like a chain letter of bad jokes. This one was actually funny; it was in celebration of the idiosyncrasies of the engineer. One of the jokes really nailed an endemic problem we have when it comes to planning, designing, and constructing our streets.

The optimist says the glass is half full. The pessimist says the glass is half empty. The engineer looks at the glass and concludes it is twice as big as it needs to be. But you are the thirsty person, you don’t care about who is right; you just want a drink!

In the above joke the community is the thirsty person; the advocates are either the optimist or pessimist; and the engineer plays himself. The customer isn’t engaged, and those who are in the fray carry solutions that fit their preconceived notion of what the problem is. These “solutions” obstruct our ability to have a meaningful conversation about the problem we are trying to solve. Not every street needs a bike lane; not every congested road needs to be widened; some streets are successful places despite failing our definition of a complete street. Some streets just work.

Next month, PPS will host a two-day Streets as Places training in New York City. Through seminars, field exercises, and expert coaching, we will be working with participants to identify the streets in their communities that are working, those that are not working, and what tweaks are needed to make their streets functional again.

In advance of the Streets as Places training I asked a few friends and colleagues for their nominations of streets that work. These aren’t necessarily Complete Streets, Green Streets, Living Streets, Green Lanes, Open Streets, Destination Streets, or Play Streets; these are just streets that work.



Philip Winn, PPS

Nomination: Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, NY

Why it works: This stretch in Brooklyn functions as the “main street” for the Windsor Terrace neighborhood. On a typical evening you’ll see seniors shopping here on foot, children riding bikes and scooters, single adults meeting for a beer at the bar, and families grabbing a simple meal all on the same block. The street works for a wide variety of people and a wide variety of ages at the same time.

Generous brick sidewalks, short block lengths, multiple destinations, and slower automobile traffic make it a place for walking. A multitude of public transportation options allows for viable car-free living.

Secret ingredient(s): while local real estate values are rising steadily, neighborhood retail and dining options are a nice mix of affordable, no-frills neighborhood places, with a few trendier newcomers.


Kate Rube, PPS

Nomination: Espanola Way, South Beach, Miami, FL

Why it works: The street feels like this hidden little pedestrian street in a foreign country. It’s always packed with people thanks to street fairs, dancing events, are other destinations. The architecture gives it a romantic ambiance: bright colors, lights hanging overhead, and Spanish-style buildings. Walking down that street transports you to somewhere else.


David Nelson, PPS

Nomination: South 9th Street, Italian Market, Philadelphia, PA

Why it works: Intensive layering of use and activity spilling out of storefronts and into the roadway. An area of cultural flux and exchange. Human scaled and predominantly pedestrian. Clear and distinctive boundaries, terminating at other major corridors (Washington and South). And the neighborhood is spotted with the Magic Gardens vernacular art.


Mike Samuelson, Alliance for Biking & Walking

Nomination: Bethesda Avenue, Bethesda, MD

Why it works: Like any good street, Bethesda Avenue features lots of space for people: there are wide sidewalks, plenty of benches, a plaza at one end of the street and a pedestrian alley at the other. The street is lined with shops and restaurants (and lots of trees!) of all types, and benefits from its proximity to both public transit (it is served by bus routes and is a short walk from the local metro station) and a multi-use path, which means lots of people arrive car free. For those who do drive, the street is designed to keep cars going slowly, allowing for plenty of mid block crossing opportunities for pedestrians, and parking is tucked away out of site. Most importantly, the street is designed to prioritize the safety and enjoyment of people and not cars.


Brendan Cain, PPS

Nomination(s): 30th Avenue and Broadway in Astoria/Queens, NYC

Why it works: Broadway and 30th Avenue are two thoroughfares in Astoria, my neighborhood of Queens, that are particularly bustling and active. They're definitely great destinations, even though they aren't especially bike friendly. But man, the street life! Great storefronts, transit connectivity, people watching etc.


Mark Plotz, PPS

Nomination: North Broadway, Fargo, ND

Why it works: Given limited space, the key to harmony between drivers, bikers, and walkers comes down to controlling vehicle speeds. This street nails it. Slower speeds allow bikers to comfortably and confidently share the lane. Slower speeds result in better yielding behavior when driver encounters walker. Slower speeds abet the commercial success of this street by making it a pleasant place to spend time.

Secret ingredient(s): a mix of modes, parking space turnover, right-sized infrastructure, and visual friction contribute to slow vehicle speeds.


How can you create great streets in your neighborhood? Join us at our training workshop to find out! / Photo: Mark Plotz
How can you create great streets in your neighborhood? Join us at our training workshop to find out! / Photo: Mark Plotz
Mark Plotz
Mark Plotz
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The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design