Home > Complete Streets, Cultural Movement, Design the Details > A City’s Infrastructure Is A Form Of Communication

A City’s Infrastructure Is A Form Of Communication

A Ramble

A city’s infrastructure is a form of communication. In a smaller city, like Traverse City, it might be the primary form of communication. It is supposed to reflect values of citizens, but bureaucracy, mis-understandings and ideology often provide their own translation. This messaging of infrastructure is more intimate when we walk (including wheelchair use) or ride a bicycle around town, as compared to when we drive or ride in a car.

For example, a pattern of incomplete sidewalks along major streets is a constant reminder that people on foot are not a priority. Missing gaps in sidewalks communicate an indifference to the 1/3 of the people who are not able or choose not to drive some or all of the time. It’s doubtful that these are the values of most who live in a context of a city.

A lack of bike lanes on the major streets is a strong message of what mode of transportation a city favors over others. Those streets are major for a reason, they take people to places where people, regardless of transportation mode, want to go; we don’t always choose to travel by automobile. For every incomplete street designed without bicyclists considered, it is a rising chorus saying bicyclists of all levels don’t belong, are not valued and can fend for themselves.

In a car, we’ve subsidized our own immediate comforts and we communicate a strong message back to a city: la, la la…I prefer to be in my own world (it has its moments, for certain.) And, for the most part, the built environment enables us to be that way. In a city that prioritizes and caters to single occupant vehicles, we travel largely free of reminders of our environment. Apart from potholes, which communicate a lack of funding or management skills, the majority of our streets encourage us to drive unaware of place; they are wide, straight, have signals sequenced for automobile speeds and built to encourage getting from point A to point B without lingering. A majority of streets communicate a value of speed over safety and community.

We may think of traffic signs as communication discouraging high speeds, but like someone who nags repeatedly on the same topic (…ahem), we largely tune signs out. Traffic calming is a form of communication that may be subtle (street/lane narrowing) or more direct (diverters), but it communicates clearly that a City values motorists that are more in tune with the environment. Traffic calming is infrastructure telling us, “hey, wake up! You’re not that special. Slow down.

My pointed comments to the city manager yesterday were a response to a pattern of communication (a pattern of infrastructure) from the City of Traverse City. Not providing the professional over-site or direct administering of standard construction site provisions for people on foot or wheel was just the latest and it sent a clear message: we don’t really care and can’t be bothered. Upon receiving complaints, responding with defensiveness and walking back from responsibility only frustrates a very, and appropriately so, public discussion.

I’m tired of infrastructure that communicates, you don’t belong and if you end up here, you’re on your own.” I live in a small town, not along an expressway; I belong everywhere. However, I’m more tired of the jabbering of how difficult and convoluted it is to carry out infrastructure that welcomes all users.  I’m trying to support work towards infrastructure that communicates that our safety, convenience and comfort is valued no matter our mode of transportation. I want infrastructure that says with a big smile, “howdy, come on in.” 


What do you see communicated in the infrastructure of your city?


  1. AnneB
    June 2, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Most awesome post, my friend.

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