Designing Road Infrastructure to Promote Active Mobility, with Lina Lopez

A bike in motion, with a blurred background.

Image caption: Narrowing roads can help decrease vehicle congestion while simultaneously creating a safer environment for bikers and pedestrians. Image credit: Roman Koester on Unsplash

Script by: Megan Chan | Audio by: Hannah Kaminker  |  Blurb by: Themi Perera

Zero-Emission Transport

Electric vehicles and other transportation-based climate solutions have made a big splash in recent years, and for good reason – transportation accounts for about a fourth of global carbon dioxide emissions. In the U.S, it’s the economic sector with the single largest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With such a large global impact, sustainable transportation has become an issue of international importance, and no-emission methods of transport, like walking and biking, can be part of the solution. 

Safer Streets

Referred to as active mobility, these human-powered modes of transport are gaining popularity. However, safety is a major concern, as according to the USDOT, 20% of traffic deaths were pedestrians and bikers in 2020. Sharing roads with vehicles can be dangerous, and roads designed around cars may not have the necessary pathways or sidewalks. This dissuades people from engaging in active mobility. Improving the safety of biking or walking in urban areas by redesigning streets can be key to promoting these no-emission transport solutions.

Major challenges to improving road safety for non-vehicular road users include the high speeds that vehicles travel and the often highly congested roadways. Vehicles most often strike bikers and pedestrians at intersections or corners, or while passing on the street. Slowing vehicles down and creating space and separation for bikers and pedestrians to safely move can make sharing the road less deadly. That’s where organizations that advocate for street safety, like Despacio, come in. Despacio (which means “slow” in Spanish) believes that active mobility requires a mindset shift – orienting street design to the needs of people rather than cars. 

So what does a street that is safe for non-vehicle users look like? Designated bike-only lanes and wider sidewalks create space for bikers and pedestrians to safely coexist with cars. Corners and intersections can be improved by signal phasing, when designated signals tell bikers to go, and with corner refuge islands, physical separations that prevent cars from making narrow right-turns into bikers. Another major solution is narrowing streets. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the wide streets common in the US don’t give drivers more room to make mistakes, and rather cause drivers to drive at high speeds. Narrowing streets by as little as a foot can massively reduce crashes and deaths. Best of all, this situation goes hand in hand with creating bike lanes and sidewalks. 

More than Just Climate-Friendly

Safety is not the only advantage of these redesigns. In addition to reducing emissions from cars, getting more cars off the road also reduces congestion. Biking or walking is not only associated with positive physical health benefits from exercise, it also comes with mental health benefits of being outside. Cities designed to center active mobility can also be more accessible, have greater aesthetic value, and lead to more basic needs located within walking distance of residences. While street redesigns are more achievable for some cities than for others and require investment and infrastructure, the wide range of benefits can make it an attractive option. 

An unexpected benefit of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is that it also promotes gender equality in climate adaptation. According to Lina Lopez, technical director of Despacio, which works to promote safer streets in Latin America, women use public transit more than men. As a result, they are more likely to be impacted by climate-change-related disruptions to transit infrastructure. Walking and cycling can be accessible solutions that people can turn to when climate impacts do happen, as well as a potential way to reduce the severity of climate change on a broader scale. 

So are there any potential downsides? Unsurprisingly, there is opposition from car drivers that don’t want their driving to be slowed. However, according to the DOT, converting four lane roads into three lane roads with a turning lane in the center can free up the space for bikeways and sidewalks while actually reducing congestion from turning vehicles. Also, as more users switch to active mobility, the number of cars on the road decreases. Secondly, business owners have raised the concern that street redesigns will discourage people from the area, impacting their businesses. But narrowing roads to increase active mobility also hasn’t discouraged use of those roads, and it can greatly increase livability and aesthetic appeal, leading to economic growth and new development. Ultimately, the tradeoff between slightly slower car travel and greater safety and emission mitigation may be a decision we face as we work towards adapting our cities for climate change.

Who is Our Guest?

Lina Lopez is the Technical Director at Despacio, a research center that promotes quality of life and seeks to build slow, humane, and sustainable cities. She is the co-creator of Medellin’s Bike co-share system, and has been a professor in Urban Design. Lopez earned a Master’s in Transport and City Planning at University College London. 

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Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: making it safer in Latin America for people to walk, bike, and take transit. Lina Lopez works at Despacio, a nonprofit based in Bogota, Columbia, that promotes active mobility. I spoke to her at the recent climate conference in Dubai. 

Ms. Lopez: Well, this is about, uh, reducing carbon emissions, and if you’re doing any policy or project regarding transportation, you need to be aware of what are the means of transportation that are, uh, less polluted. Cycling and walking are those, the ones that you can just use, uh, without emitting to the atmosphere.

Ethan: But often these forms of transportation can be dangerous. Lopez wants to see cities redesign streets to maximize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Ms. Lopez: Uh, maybe narrowing the streets, narrowing the width of the streets, making some, changes in the interchanges or in the junctions, making the rounds like the corners more difficult for cars to go fast. 

Ethan: Lopez notes that women are often especially at risk with unsafe streets and transit, and these systems are also vulnerable to climate impacts. 

Ms. Lopez: Women use public transportation more, uh, than men. If the transport infrastructure get affected because of the climate change, uh, thing, they are the ones who probably won’t be able to travel. So if you give other solutions that everyone can access, like walking and cycling and you design your cities to that purpose, they can choose if you have different alternatives. 

Ethan: To learn more about safe transit, visit climatebreak.org.

Designing Road Infrastructure to Promote Active Mobility, with Lina Lopez