16 Ways to Design a Better Intersection—And Better Cities

IF YOU THINK the only purpose of intersections is to move cars past each other, you solve problems like a plumber: with bigger pipes. But wide, barren streets full of traffic don’t make a livable city. One solution would be nothing. No lights, no curbs, no sidewalks—just colored pavers. It works. Accidents decline, traffic slows, and property values rise. “You’ll never do as good a job as two ­people using body language and eye contact,” says Sam Goater, a senior associate at the Project for Public Spaces. But don’t rip out the infrastructure just yet. Urban designers have a good set of tricks to turn a city intersection into something more like a plaza and less like a freeway interchange. Cars pass, people walk, bikers bike, and everyone’s lives flow more smoothly.

01: Self-Driving Vehicles

Studded with sensors and humming with AI, autonomous cars could slash death rates at intersections while eliminating traffic signals altogether.


02: Traffic Sensors

Induction loop sensors detect the metal bulk of a car and talk to signal lights. They’ve been in use since the ’60s and are crucial to traffic flow.


03: Bump-Outs

Squeeze the roadway as it nears the intersection and traffic slows to navigate the passage.


04: Protected Bike Lanes

Expect to see more of these—the US Department of Transportation recently endorsed the design as a way to create “low-stress bicycle networks.”


05: Bike Rails

Bike rails may be just a few metal tubes welded together, but for any cyclist who has waited on tiptoes for the light to change, they’re a welcome addition.

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06: Bike Signals

A light timed for cyclists gives them just a few seconds’ head start, but that’s enough to get up to speed before traffic roars to life.


07: Speed Tables

Raising the crossing puts drivers at eye-height with pedestrians. “It makes it obvious that pedestrians rule,” says Steve Mouzon, an architect and urbanist.

08: Scrambles

By stopping all traffic at once, scramble crossings provide better separa­tion of cars and people, allowing foot traffic to move in any direction—even diagonally—in relative safety.


09: Parklets

By reclaiming street parking, parklets offer pedestrians a bit of respite that, when well designed, can feel like a swanky sidewalk café, Mouzon says.


10: Trees

“One thing traffic engineers try to get rid of as quickly as possible is street trees,” Mouzon says. Bad idea. For a walkable street on a hot day, the more trees, the better.


11: Dedicated Shelters

On many bus routes, shelters protect waiting riders from the elements. Boarding goes faster if fares are collected on the street, not on the bus.


12: Induction Charging

Overhead wires mar the street­scape and don’t give bus drivers much leeway. Chargers embedded in the pavement can juice up electric buses as they roll.


13: Cool Stations

Subway stops often feel like caves—which can be great! Stockholm embraces subterranean chic, leaving bedrock exposed at some stops.


14: Sidewalk Cafes

Cute eateries are the key to a great street. “There are few silver bullets in urbanism,” Mouzon says, “but this is one of them.”

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15: Corner Stores

The best use for a corner is, well, a corner store—anything people visit once a week or more. Bonus points to proprietors who face displays to the street and stock them with enticing stuff. One winner? Wine.


16: Third Places

“Your first place is home. Your second is work. The third place can be a coffee shop or a pub,” Mouzon says. It gets people out on the sidewalks.


This feature was written by Tim De Chant and illustrations by Mike Lee. Originally appeared in Wired.


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