Vote for the Best Urban Street Transformation of 2015


It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2015, which means we’re about to hand out Streetsies to recognize achievements for walking, biking, and transit in American cities this year.

Earlier this month we asked readers for nominations for the Best Urban Street Transformation of the year, and here are the standouts from your submissions. It’s a great batch and all of these cities deserve recognition for claiming space from cars and devoting it to people. But only one can win! Your votes will determine who gets the honor.

Here are the nominees:

Chicago: Washington Street

Photo via Google Street View
Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago DOT’s redesign of Washington Street, part of the “Loop Link” bus rapid transit corridor, is the most multi-modal entrant this year.

Following last Sunday’s launch, six bus lines now bypass heavy congestion in dedicated lanes on mile-long stretches of Washington and Madison streets, which connect commuter rail and Amtrak stations in the West Loop to Michigan Avenue. The project includes eight “near-level” bus boarding platforms with rain canopies and seating. Queue-jump signals give buses a head start over car traffic, and off-board fare collection will be piloted next year.

On Washington, between the island bus stations and the curb, there’s a new protected bike lane, providing an important link in the city’s bicycle network. The Washington redesign repurposed an impressive share of street space on what had been a five-lane street, claiming three lanes that were used for motor vehicle movement and parking. If Loop Link proves successful, advocates hope the city will follow through with tentative plans for a more robust BRT corridor on a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue, a north-south street located two miles west of the center of town.

Columbus: Summit Street

Summit in Columbus
Photo: City of Columbus
Summit Street in Columbus
Photo: City of Columbus

Summit Street is near Ohio State University’s campus, not far from downtown Columbus. Scott Ulrich, the city’s bicycle planner, writes that the Ohio Department of Transportation was getting ready to resurface the road when the city stepped in.

Initial traffic studies and public involvement indicated that these streets had excess capacity, speeding problems and low safety perceptions for walking, biking and people waiting for buses.

The City of Columbus, in partnership with local bike advocacy group Yay Bikes!, decided to take advantage of the resurfacing project as an opportunity to redesign the street to re-allocate space more equitably.

The project repurposed one traffic lane to create a parking-protected two-way bike lane and bus bulbs. It calmed a dangerous, high-speed one-way route through a huge residential college campus with lots of walking (including much walking that’s a little wobbly). In addition, it connects a dense, growing residential area (Campus, the Short North) to downtown with high quality bike lanes, making it an ideal commuter bike route.

Los Angeles: Reseda Boulevard

Image via Google Street View
Image via Google Street View

This project includes L.A.’s first ever parking-protected bike lane. Called [RE]visit [RE]seda, the redesign was planned by a partnership between a number of community groups in the Northridge area. In addition to the bike lane, the project also includes the yellow sidewalk furniture you can see above, as well as sidewalk painting designed to draw people to seating by the businesses, according to Semee Park, a staffer for local Council Member Mitchell Englander. The neighborhood also received a challenge grant from ioby (“in our backyards”) to program events along the corridor. A survey after the project was completed found 97 percent of respondents thought the project helped foster a sense of community.

New York City: Queens Boulevard

Photo: NYC DOT
Photo: NYC DOT

With its redesign of 1.3 miles of Queens Boulevard, NYC DOT has started to humanize one of the most heavily motorized streets in New York. Queens Boulevard is a surface level highway funneling traffic to and from Manhattan. It has long been known as the “Boulevard of Death” for its horrific rate of fatalities and injuries. In 2008, after her son Asif was killed while biking on the street, Lizi Rahman began campaigning for a bike lane on Queens Boulevard. This is the year the city took action.

The project repurposed unused space on the boulevard’s service roads to carve out room for a green bike lane separated from traffic by plastic posts. In addition, several “slip lanes” that drivers could use to merge at high speed between the central roadway and the service roads were filled in, reducing conflicts and expanding pedestrian space. Other slip lanes were squared off to compel drivers to come to a complete stop instead of merging at speed. Much more of Queens Boulevard needs to be redesigned to make the whole corridor safer for biking and walking, but this is the project that proved it can be done. And if it can be done on Queens Boulevard, it can be done anywhere.

Salt Lake City: Protected Intersection at 200 West and 300 South

Image via Google Street View
Photo courtesy Alta Planning

Salt Lake City became just the second American city to construct a Dutch-style protected intersection, about two months after Davis, California.

Intersection design is especially important in Salt Lake City, given its notoriously wide streets. The protected intersection helps motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians all see each other and stay clear of each other’s paths.

SLC Transportation Director Robin Hutcheson told CityLab the city was planning a protected bike lane along 300 South and was looking for a solution to keep cyclists safe at the intersection:

We looked at the entire range of possibilities, and this just made so much sense. We know that ‘protected’ is what people are asking for. It creates safety and comfort. We have the space.

The project was based on a design promoted by Alta Planning’s Nick Falbo, who was inspired by similar Dutch designs.

Seattle: University, Union, and Boylston Pedestrian Plaza

Photo: Gordon Werner
Photo courtesy of Framework

This project was one of two “pavement parks” initiated by a community group in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. Gordon Werner, who nominated them, says they were designed to slow drivers and respond to the pressing need for public gathering places:

Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood is a dense urban community home to high rise residential building, major medical institutions, educational, and commercial uses — and a scarcity of public open space. Rising land values and development pressures have made acquiring traditional space for a new park difficult. So, in 2014, the First Hill Improvement Association partnered with three city agencies — SDOT, DPD, and Parks- to explore a concept sweeping the country: repurposing land in the public right of way from pavement (especially awkward public intersections or overly broad streets) into new uses as community gathering areas — pavement parks!

Through the First Hill Public Realm Action Plan, two pilot pavement parks were created on First Hill: one at University Street and 9th Avenue, the other at the intersection of University, Union, and Boylston (UUB). The first of their kind in Seattle, these pavement parks have been embraced by the First Hill community, and function as a public living room for many residents. Particularly at UUB site [pictured above], it’s common to see small gatherings of people sitting, talking, eating, and enjoying themselves outdoors in what had formerly been an unsafe five leg intersection. These spaces accomplish the two fold mission to improve vehicular and pedestrian safety, and to provide community gathering spaces.

There you have it. On to the voting…

What is the best urban street transformation of 2015?

  • New York: Queens Boulevard (23%, 407 Votes)
  • Chicago: Washington Street (22%, 382 Votes)
  • Seattle: University, Union, and Boylston Pedestrian Plaza (17%, 294 Votes)
  • Columbus: Summit Street (15%, 264 Votes)
  • Los Angeles: Reseda Boulevard (15%, 258 Votes)
  • Salt Lake City's Protected Intersection (9%, 157 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,762

29 thoughts on Vote for the Best Urban Street Transformation of 2015

  1. This is a very interesting blog. How does someone get their story submitted and why are the writers in Chicago so unprofessional? Is there anyway we can get proper representation for my fine city?

  2. It is rather depressing that even “the best” street transformations throughout the USA are still car-dominated. Virtually every Dutch city has at least a downtown car-free zone.

    Yes, I applaud improvement. But when even improvement still leaves us 40 years behind, then we have a serious problem.

  3. What Kevin said. We’re a large rich country, and these are the best we have to choose from? Very depressing.

  4. Not just every Dutch city. German cities have had this since the 70s as well, and the are steadily growing. Same is true all across Scandinavia. France, Italy Spain and the UK were a little late to the game, but there is rapid progress there as well. Farther st it’s a mixed bag.

    My impression is that once these things get established, they tend to spread.

  5. Kevin and Adam, I see your broader points; but what’s the point of your overriding cynicism? To reach the USers who still mistakenly think our streets are the best? (I doubt they’re reading this.) Or to lower expectations so that no one cares if none of this spreads? It seems to me that if you really wanted further improvement you would aim to raise expectations on the basis of the positive trajectory that these few examples are indicative of.

  6. You guys are cray. Salt Lake City, Utah built a protected intersection. Chicago practically kicked cars off these major streets inside the loop. Columbus, Ohio has a parking protected bike lane — and not on some out-of-the-way street, right where it’s needed. It’s super exciting and awesome, IMO.

  7. One small bit about Chicago’s Washington Street re-do was that the city poured red concrete for the bus lanes, instead of just painting them that color.

    In a city that gets a lot of snow (and all elements, really), this will be really nice as time goes on. Those bus lanes are red for the long haul!

    Good to see Salt Lake City adopting such progressive infrastructure. I know their streets have a reputation for being incredibly wide.

  8. I agree, Angie. It’s great to see how far we’ve come. Go back ten years and none of this could even be discussed, I think.

    We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s nice to see some of these concepts finally being introduced to American cities.

  9. France, Italy, Spain, and the UK were a little late to the game because they were busy trying to embrace some American post-war planning concepts.

    Only their cultural and geographical proximity to Germany and Scandinavia allowed them to catch up faster than the United States.

    As an aside, I was recently in Berlin and while they had very strong bicycle infrastructure, I was also amazed at how car-friendly the city was. A lot of surface parking in that city. Granted, their strong urban core was destroyed by World War II, so they started their re-build in an era of automobile-centric planning. Considering that, their bicycle-friendly infrastructure is incredible.

  10. Indeed, these are huge steps forward. Definitely keep pushing for more, but these are really important steps in the right direction for prioritizing streets for walking, cycling, and public transit.

  11. Its my understanding that Italy did a lot of pedestrianization projects very early on, and that the Dutch would say things like, “We can’t do pedestrianization here, this isn’t Italy.”

  12. These are all ground-breaking projects, pushing the limit in the US. Freaking Columbus Ohio is building protected bike lanes. Protected intersections are on the ground in multiple locations. We are starting to build Dutch-style bike infrastructure, which is BETTER than the stuff they build in Denmark. Yes, we still have a LONG way to go, but this is really exciting stuff!

  13. There are parts of Italy that are incredibly pedestrian-friendly, though that’s mostly due to the nature of their streets. Some are so old that they’re just inherently unfriendly to cars, so they’ve always been geared toward pedestrians.

    But, there are a number of Italian cities that have American post-war planning concepts, ones that can be hostile to pedestrians. It’s an interesting mix over there.

  14. Thank you. I’d been following this closely and I’ve seen them pouring red concrete. I thought I was going crazy!

    I never saw that bit with the plastic tiles, though. I wonder why they’d do that. Perhaps the street was recently paved and they’ll do red concrete the next time they re-work the surface?

  15. yep, that section was redone as part of Wacker Drive Reconstruction…red thermoplastic already peeling from wear in a few locations. Good for bikes, not durable enough for buses I am afraid.

  16. Well, considering that this city has some money problems, I’ll assume that this was a cost-saving measure. Hopefully they use red concrete when road work for Wacker comes around next time.

  17. Certainly hear your point, but just an FYI for Queens Blvd – this is actually phase 1. There will be a capital project begun in 2018 that will expand the medians and pull the bike lane up off the road.

  18. Just an FYI for the Queens Blvd project. What is shown in the picture is the first phase, what can be done quickly and relatively inexpensively now, and we just did a workshop to expand this another mile east in Queens. In 2018 there will be a capital project that will widen the medians to encompass the bike lane and extra pedestrian space you see there and provide some landscaping and other features. Hoping Bus Lanes will also be included, but we’ll see.

  19. Having personally been all over The NLs as well as to several of the protected bikeways in America, I can affirm that there is almost nothing that is Dutch-style here in America. What is currently “groundbreaking” here is being upgraded in The NLs. I’d instead put the majority of what we have in the realm of Dutch-inspired, which is a good step forward, but still falls short of what could, should, and needs to be done.

    Part of the blame is the lackluster standards we employ here. The NACTO UBDG completely drops the ball on the most critical part, intersections, and few other standards seem ready and willing to take up the mantle of promoting research-based [PDF] best practice. Additionally, agencies all over the country are patting themselves on the back for having a “complete street” because they striped bike lanes on the six-lane arterial because most of the standards for what makes a complete street are car-oriented and one step above worthless. I’ve yet to see or hear of any agency that has taken the time to lay out a best practice recommendation for bikeways like is employed in the CROW manual (pictured). The result is that bike infrastructure is left to the whim of planners, engineers, budgetary constraints, and the community.

    I’d really encourage planners and engineers to take a trip across the Pond to actually see what is being done in The NLs (and elsewhere). But perhaps most crucially, they should establish some professional contacts over there who would be willing to bounce ideas and give suggestions. Stuff that is actually Dutch-style, not just Dutch-inspired, can be built and work here in America. However, getting it right, especially seemingly minor details, is essential for success.

  20. That’s the thing. SLC built ONE protected intersection when really, they should’ve put them in along the entirety of the PBL corridor(s) or even just at high-stress intersections around the city (protected intersections work great even without PBLs). That’s what should’ve been done and what Kevin is talking about, which I agree with. As for Chicago, I haven’t yet been to try out the new configuration, so I’ll let SBChi do the majority of the talking. But I will say that two lanes of traffic and turns across the bus lane is hardly car-free.

    Additionally, since I’m currently sitting just a few blocks from the SLC intersection and took some time to wander through it, it has some rather crucial shortcomings in comparison to actual Dutch intersections. Though the geometry of the intersection itself is pretty decent, there is a critical issue as one of the approach arms doubles as valet parking for a restaurant. Predictably, that leads cars stopped in the what is at that point, a normal bike lane, and thus completely blocking access to the intersection. Also, the light cycles are unbelievably long, leading to another Dutch similarity: everyone jumps the light. Anyone coming to see the intersection as a model needs to keep those things in mind and not copy them.

  21. I think you’re missing the point. We’re a large rich country with decades of post-war building in greenfields, and no history of centuries-old urban downtowns, and yet we’re able to put some of these things in *despite* the lack of urbanity.

  22. SLC has wide streets because it was Brigham Young’s preference, they also have large blocks that were designed to have community gardens in the center.

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