More from Japan: Should Standards be Standard?

[Editor’s note – contributor Rick Browning is currently in Japan studying urban streetcape issues, supported by a grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon.]

Konichi wa Portland Transport Gang!

Still in Japan. It has been more challenging than I thought trying to sketch, diagram, keep a journal, interview Japanese designers and planners and — do laundry. Sorry only one report so far. Will try to do better in my last week

Being here has brought up a question I have been asking myself for years more forcefully than ever – should standards be standard?

I first started asking myself this question in earnest when my firm was hired by the city of Forest Grove to do a bike/ped masterplan. During this project I distinctly remember a cyclist coming in and pleading for space, any amount of space – no matter how narrow, on the notoriously treacherous Hwy 47. “Please” he said, “just give us something, anything – two feet would make a huge difference, even a foot. I’ve measured the road, I know there is enough space to move the fog line over at least a foot.”

The response to this, from ODOT, not us, was of course – a two foot wide bike lane doesn’t meet standards, therefore you can have nothing. There might be money for restriping if it was for a conforming to standard shoulder bike lane, but restriping for an extra foot or two of width, which met no standard and thus – had no reason for existing, was out of the question. Cyclists would continue to ride with NO shoulder space because there was not enough room to provide an ideal width bike lane.

This is a bike example, but the additional width would have made walking on the highway that much easier as well. And there are plenty of stories about missing sidewalks that fit the same script.

Now fast forward to Rick in Japan, summer of 2005. What do I see here? Zillions of sidewalks two feet wide. Not to say I am not seeing grand boulevards and 40’ sidewalks – they have those too. But on the many roads where for whatever reason space is really constrained, they put in whatever they can. Sidewalks 2 to 3’ (less than a meter) wide, shared by bikes and pedestrians, are not uncommon.

Know what? They work great. Bikes use them, often dipping out onto the adjacent roadway for short stretches to get out of pedestrians’ way. Pedestrian stop and wait for each other, or for oncoming bikes. Adjacent commercial buildings often provide some small “give back” space – a paved voluntary setback that provides a brief interlude of wider space.

There are innumerable other examples on Japanese streets and transit stations about the power of not making standards standard. Train stations have what seem to be horrifyingly narrow bottlenecks where flights of stairs come down onto train platforms, forcing massive waves of foot traffic on to narrow little ledges adjacent to open tracks, but it works.

Do the designs work because people are innately polite and cooperative or are people polite and cooperative because the designs give them no other choice? Not sure, but based on my experiences here I am more than ever against the tyranny of standards. I believe they come in part from American “me-ism”. Every mode must be accommodated in ideal fashion for that mode. The hell with everyone else. The hell with the fact that there is innate efficiency in sharing rather than segregating.

In the kind of dense, multi-layered and multi-modal society we envision for Portland’s future – I don’t think this approach works. I don’t even think it works right now.

If Japan was stuck with American risk management lawyers and code standard enforcement I think it would cease to function as a society within 24 hours. That it succeeds so brilliantly as a dense, multi-modal society (and it really has to be studied in some depth as I have been doing, to appreciate the stratospheric level to which it does succeed), is an eloquent argument that standards should not be standard.

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