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A graduate student in human geography at the University of Maryland has been taking a quantitative approach to study urban connectivity. “If, as Rebecca Solnit once wrote, ‘home is everything you can walk to,’ those who live in highly connected cities — with lots of tightly packed, four-way intersections — have a lot more home to roam,” reads the opening sentence in a Bloomberg article on said research.
It notes that such grids provide efficiency in time, distance, and navigability for people on foot, creating better and more direct pedestrian routes. It compares them to cul-de-sacs and the looping roads of suburbia, which tend to help reduce vehicle traffic jams. However, it notes, “their discontinuity inhibits pedestrian access to facilities and amenities, while their curvilinearity lengthens and confuses walking trips.” This is why the article also notes that gridded street networks are more efficient for public transit.
Considering that, DW Rowlands, the student, mapped out the street intersections in eight U.S. cities to reveal how some have inherent disadvantages that planners seeking to provide high quality transit service can’t always overcome with more buses alone. Using street network data by OpenStreetMaps, she coded the number of roads that meet at every intersection.
The X-ray-like results reveal the underlying structures that keep some of the country’s largest human settlements moving efficiently or inefficiently. The efficient group included older cities like New York City or Chicago, and the inefficient one included newer, car-centric cities like Atlanta or Tampa.
Rowlands thinks these maps are timely given the existential questions facing big-city transit systems that no longer have the ridership that once sustained them financially. “A lot of cities need to sit down and look at how they’re funding and providing their services,” she reportedly said. “It’s also a good chance to rethink the design of the street network.”
The coronavirus pandemic made it clear to the city of Los Angeles that there was an urgent need to redesign and repurpose our streets. For example, Culver City Council recently approved the addition of dedicated mobility lanes to a 1.3-mile corridor between Duquesne and La Cienega Avenues, which would connect Downtown Culver City and the E Line. Repurposing existing right-of-way lanes along Washington and Culver Boulevards, the new mobility lanes will be available for use by cyclists, e-scooter riders, emergency vehicles, and buses. The mobility lanes are reportedly an investment by the City to improve transit service along the corridor.
Moreover, another recent study from Canada found that it is possible to maintain the efficiency and quality of the conventional suburb while adopting the geometry of the grid. It also said that it is feasible and desirable to combine the tradition of the main street and the convenience of the commercial strip in a zone of mixed land uses that both relies on and supports transportation. “By fusing the street patterns of conventional suburbs with those of the traditional grided city, and by recasting the arterial street in the light of its activity generation potential,” the study concludes, “it is possible to create communities that are efficient, viable, livable, healthy, and highly marketable.”