I was fortunate enough to vacation in Ecuador last week. I was certainly impressed with the country’s diverse, natural landscapes, but also appreciated how the capital city of Quito is starting to approach transportation.
The above is not a streetcar or light rail station. Rather, it Quito’s Bus Rapid Transit system called Trole (Trolley Bus). Note that riders (more than 220,000 per day on its single line) pay the fare before entering the station, which speeds boarding time. Also, most of the line operates on physically-separated bus lanes with signal prioritization so that the system does not have to compete with motor vehicle traffic. Additionally, buses run on short headways, 60 seconds during peak hours, which allows for an extremely high level of service. While such BRT systems have yet to find much traction in the United States, South American cities like Bogota and Quito seem to be having good success with BRT as a cheaper than rail, but more effective than normal bus, transportation solution.
Quito has also implemented phase 1 of its first physically-separated bicycle system, dubbed Ciclo-Q. The fledgling system operates within the road right-of-way in many places, while using sidewalk space in others. In my estimation, those segments within the roadway (pictured above) operate more smoothly than those on the sidewalk where too many curb cuts, fairly narrow sidewalks, and driveways interrupt the bikeway, create conflict with pedestrians, and compromise safety (pictured below). Bikeways on sidewalks have been known to work in many places, but are typically placed on sidewalks with much wider widths and offer a commensurate level of safety countermeasures, such as prioritization signals and stark pavement/material contrast to delineate the bikeway.
Pati Menas, the city’s alternative transportation coordinator had this to say about the Ciclo-Q system and its low level of use, “even if now there are not many cyclists on the route, it is necessary to provide the people with infrastructure. Otherwise, we will never start promoting non-motorized transport.” I couldn’t agree more and expect that with their own “Bike Miami” like ciclovias now humming, the Ciclo-Q will only see more use as the network is expanded.
In the small town of Banos, located just outside the larger city of Cuenca, I was particularly enamored with the ratio of pedestrian space to motor vehicle space. Within the town center, along its traditional grid, the roadway comprises no more than 1/3 of the public realm. The rest of the space is dedicated purely to pedestrians in the form of wide sidewalks. This ratio makes for an enriched street life and allows for safe bicycling within the town’s streets. Sadly, such a humane ratio is normally just the opposite in American cities, where pedestrians are lucky to have 10% of the space between buildings.
Other traffic control devices that caught my eye were the sheer number of speed bumps used within the Ecuadorian roadway system. One may find them throughout the cities and even on some of the more rural highways. Speed bumps can be controversial for many types of users, but they are certainly well-respected traffic-control devices in Ecuador. Finally, when traveling around the country one notices dozens of unique pavement markings that come in the form of blue hearts. The hearts, I am told, designate the location of traffic fatalities. Such awareness building techniques are sobering, especially when one sees a grouping of hearts. Nonetheless, they offer a vivid reminder that roadway safety remains an important issue. With over 40,000 traffic-related fatalities a year in the United States, one would think that such measures may also prove powerful.
In general, you find that any place you visit outside of the United States seems to have a richer, more embellished public realm. Moreover, transportation innovation also seems to be taking place outside of the US as well. For those of us who are urbanists, this certainly makes vacationing a real pleasure. However, iIt also provides inspiration for what we can, and should be doing better here in the United States.
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