Revisiting Palmer's Vision: Right-of-way width


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To aid in his vision emphasizing Colorado Springs vistas, General Palmer planned for wide rights-of-ways. In downtown, the east/west corridors are all graced with amazing vistas of Pikes Peak, reminding us as citizens of the beauty of the place where we live.

1871, the year the Springs was founded, pre-dated the dominance of the automobile by 40 years, when the rights-of-way were utilized for people, horses, streetcars, and, for the wealthy elite, bicycles and some early steam-powered automobiles. But this leads to the negative side effects of the modern day wide right-of-way (land owned and maintained by the city). 

Ultimately, with a growing infatuation with living in solidarity or sprawling cities, in conjunction with a high regard of faster transportation, wide rights-of-ways became synonymous with wide automobile-dominated spaces. After all, the ill-fated belief is to that in order to relieve congestion we should make more space for the cars to roam.

This is not just a Springs phenomenon, I believe it has more to do with the rise of the traffic engineering profession, a profession prioritizing the free flow movement of cars rather than the occupants who inhabit their cars for a fraction of the day, albeit an increasing fraction. Fortunately, I think today's traffic engineers have become more conscious about filling a right-of-way with other modes of mobility, including protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks. The results of the failed experiment of loosening the belt for immediate congestion relief have come in and it turns out that widening roads is only a temporary fix.

Alternative modes of transportation have a critical role in our cities, although they are often chastised for their detriment to vehicle traffic. Over the years, I’ve studied and hypothesized ratios of auto vs. pedestrian spaces. I’ve found and believe it to be true that the best streets, those which people choose to walk along and therefore create the most value, are streets with a vehicular-occupied ratio of 1:1, or less. An example of this street ratio is Larimer Street in downtown Denver, a shining example of a great street in our region. The Larimer streetscape includes on-street parking and the sidewalks are graced with sidewalk cafes, amenity zones for benches, waste receptacles and parking meters.

As referenced in another blog post, "Everyone loves pedestrian malls," I allude that the best streets often allow for many modes of travel, carefully calibrated so that the speed of the street provides a safe environment for each to function. The Springs has many streets with the potential to be great, with a plethora of wide rights-of-way. We just need to realize that sacrificing a minute of travel time for alternative modes of transportation will not only better our health, but will steer us towards becoming the world-class destination even Palmer knew we have the potential to be.

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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