You can tell a lot about a time period or society simply by looking at its transportation options. On a macro level, inventions such as the steam engine, railroad, automobile, and airplane have profoundly impacted the course of history, forging new connections at an ever-growing pace. On a micro level, the quality of a community’s transportation plays a deciding role in its quality of life, affecting everything from the health of its residents to the cleanliness of its environment.
The Olmsted Parkways in Louisville, Ky., stand as a microcosm of the city’s development. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the parkways were designed in the 1890s by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, generally regarded as the father of the profession and a pioneer in urban community planning. His legacy includes the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and New York’s Central Park, for which he served as architect-in-chief.
Near the end of his career, Olmsted began designing parkways to connect his parks. Louisville’s parkway system, connecting the city’s flagship Cherokee, Iroquois, and Shawnee parks, is one of only four completed Olmsted systems nationwide. As Olmsted envisioned them, the parkways were an extension of his magnificent parks, used primarily for leisure traffic. They were designed for the prominent transportation system of the time – the horse-drawn carriage – and featured a central carriageway bordered by bridle paths and pedestrian walkways, all separated by rows of trees.
As the automobile became a more prominent fixture in American life, the Olmsted Parkways evolved and became more autocentric. Urban growth patterns and changing land use altered their design, as adjacent properties encroached on walkways and service lanes, and pedestrian spaces ceded land to increasing vehicular traffic. By the latter half of the 20th century, the parkways had become busy four-lane roadways and crucial traffic arteries, reflecting the transportation revolution sparked by the automobile and Louisville’s own rapid growth.
Today, planned renovations to the parkway system mark a more contemporary shift in the transportation industry, with officials and citizens increasing focus on walking, cycling, and public transportation as viable alternatives. Several factors have spurred this shift, ranging from growing concerns about oil dependence and auto emissions to greater awareness of the health risks that arise when transportation is primarily sedentary.
To provide citizens with plenty of space for walking, cycling, and riding, the Louisville Metro Parks Department has developed an Olmsted Parkways Master Plan resurrecting the multi-modal atmosphere of the original parkways, partnering with design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners to create a more park-like space for walkers, joggers, and cyclists just as Frederick Olmsted once designated paths for pedestrians and horseback riders. The team has worked extensively with the public through workshops, town hall meetings, and appointed community advisors to determine how improvements can best accommodate citizens’ wants and needs and create a resource that can thrive for many years to come.
Restoring Olmsted’s vision
Though the term was not around at the time, Frederick Olmsted’s original vision was remarkably similar to the complete streets strategy growing increasingly popular among today’s city planners and transportation engineers. In his ideal parkway design, with a 210-foot-wide corridor, the central carriageway was flanked by two 25-foot sidewalks, which were in turn bordered by a 25-foot side road allowing access to adjacent residences, and another 12.5-foot sidewalk. Each of these elements were separated by 7.5-foot medians lined with trees, fulfilling Olmsted’s vision of a corridor that felt more like a park than a street.
Today’s master plan for Louisville – which has from 120- to 150-foot-wide parkway corridors – aims to restore that vision while also meeting modern complete streets goals for safe and effective circulation accommodating pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles. With more space for those activities, the parkways can continue to be a valuable community resource for years to come.
To achieve these goals, the master plan calls for 10-foot shared-use pathways on either side of the traffic corridor, as well as designated on-road bike lanes. Specific improvements will vary from parkway to parkway based on unique characteristics of particular segments. On Southwestern Parkway, for example, a recommended multi-use pathway weaves into and out of the adjacent Chickasaw Park, eventually crossing the parkway to continue alongside driving lanes. On Algonquin Parkway, the master plan introduces new service drives or "woonerfs" – a Dutch term roughly translated as "living streets." Popular in many parts of Europe, these spaces recall Olmsted’s original side roads and are shared equally by pedestrian, cyclist, and slow-moving vehicle traffic – in this case cars entering or leaving driveways.
Each of these shared-use spaces will shelter pedestrians and cyclists to create a safer, more pleasant experience and encourage residents to enjoy their city’s unique and historic resource. By providing both separate shared-use paths and on-road bicycle lanes, the parkways invite cyclists of all levels, from experts comfortable riding on the road to children who might be safer on the shared pathway.
Implementing a road diet
To accommodate new features and promote safety for all users, designers have chosen to implement a road diet across much of the parkway system. The four-lane parkways will be reduced to three traffic lanes: one lane for each travel direction and a central two-way left turn lane (TWLTL). A 2010 Federal Highway Administration study found that road diets can reduce crash frequencies by an average of 29 percent because travel speeds decrease and turning conflicts are minimized by the central turn lane.
Motorists tend to object to road diets as an unnecessary impediment in their morning commute and the team encountered some of that resistance in Louisville as it worked to engage the public. However, on corridors that see fewer than 18,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day, road diets can improve traffic flow by minimizing stoppage. Without a road diet, vehicles can travel at higher speeds, but they also have to stop more frequently to avoid turning cars. With a road diet in place, traffic might move more slowly, but it will also move more evenly with less frequent stops, creating a more consistent, efficient pattern. With traffic averaging 12,000 to 15,000 vehicles per day, the Olmsted Parkways are strong candidates for a road diet and stand to experience traffic improvements, not impediments.
As part of a Louisville Metro Public Works pilot project for the parkways, a road diet has been implemented on a portion of Algonquin and Southwestern Parkway, and early signs point to successful improvements in safety and traffic movement. As designers move forward with the master plan, they have been able to direct concerned residents to that pilot project, providing a concrete illustration for the rather counterintuitive idea that narrowing roads can actually improve traffic.
Laying the foundation for a healthier city
Beyond traffic improvements, the master plan aims to facilitate more widespread improvements in Louisville’s social and environmental health. Like the railcar, the subway, or the freeway, complete streets can have a rippling effect on community lifestyles by influencing citizens’ daily choices and behaviors.
Louisville Metro Parks received partial funding for the master plan from the Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ), which aims to further bicycle and pedestrian improvements as a strategy for indirectly reducing automobile emissions. With more attractive options for walking and cycling, Louisville’s residents might be more likely to forgo their automobile for short-distance trips. Making that choice more appealing can also foster improvements in community health by encouraging residents to live a more active lifestyle, making the Olmsted Parkways Master Plan an ideal partner for larger community health initiatives.
For example, the Olmsted Parkway pathways will eventually link with the Louisville Loop, a planned 100-mile network of trails encircling the city and connecting various parks, landmarks, and communities. Proponents hope that the Loop, currently under construction, will make it easy and enjoyable for Louisville’s citizens to be active and improve their health while enjoying their community.
One project related to the Loop initiative – the Southwestern Greenways Master Plan – is being funded by a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant aimed at reducing obesity through healthier lifestyle choices. The master plan, which is also being developed by Gresham, Smith and Partners, will develop a series of multi-use trails within Louisville’s southwestern sector, an area with above-average rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.
Like the Louisville Loop and the Southwestern Greenways project, the Olmsted Parkways Master Plan quite literally takes a ground-up approach to enhancing the city’s health and vitality. It aims not just to preserve a historic landmark, but to adapt Olmsted’s original vision to contemporary social and environmental concerns. The layouts and features outlined in the plan provide space for many user groups and functions, and in doing so, lay a foundation for a healthier, cleaner, more vital community of which, we hope, Frederick Law Olmsted would be proud.
Jonathan D. Henney, AICP, ASLA, is a senior landscape architect with Gresham, Smith and Partners. John A. Swintosky, PLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect with Louisville Metro Parks.