Advertisement
Find a Car
Go!

Why 'Safe Roads' Are Often Anything BUT Safe, Except For Cars

Follow John

Traffic in China

Traffic in China

Enlarge Photo

The great freeway battles of the Sixties and Seventies are over. It's safe to say few new freeways will be punched through existing neighborhoods.

But transportation engineers are still busily at work updating and improving existing roads, generally by widening them, adding lanes, smoothing curves, improving visibility, and letting traffic flow freely and more quickly. The results, ideally, include fewer backups, less sudden stopping, and a reduction in accidents.

That's great, if you're behind the wheel. But it turns out that improvements that make it easier for drivers not only make neighborhoods less pleasant, they actually make them more dangerous for people who, ummm, actually live there.

Manhattan traffic, by Flickr ruser JamesH2008

Manhattan traffic, by Flickr ruser JamesH2008

Enlarge Photo

At least, that's the conclusion of a nifty little essay called "Confessions of a recovering engineer," in which Minnesota traffic engineer Charles Marohn essentially issues a mea culpa for the sins his profession has inflicted on the people who happen to live in any of the areas subjected to traffic "improvements."

He points out that improving visibility for drivers often means removing trees in a wide swath on each side of the road, including those that shade residents' houses. And that widening roads to provide left-turn lanes, shoulders for breakdowns, etc., often means taking large chunks of what had formerly been homeowners' front yards.

The crux of the issue, he points out, is that traffic engineers prioritize as follows: First comes traffic speed (which rises), then comes traffic volume (which also rises), followed by cost (fewer tax dollars spent is better), and finally safety (often measured only in terms of cars, e.g. fewer vehiclular accidents).

Property owners and residents, he notes, would likely put safety first, then cost. Higher traffic volume and speed may not be particularly important to them, and may in fact be hazardous to local pedestrians who now find themselves living next to a greater number of cars whizzing through at higher speeds.

It's the old people-vs-traffic argument. It's not a new one, but the essay ends with a kicker: According to a 2005 article in the American Planning Association Journal, it turns out that "narrower, slower streets dramatically reduce accidents, especially fatalities."

The best way to avoid accidents , in other words, is to slow down traffic (not including limited-access roadways designed to highly specialized Interstate-grade standards).

The "livable streets" movement has been gathering steam for three decades now, since the influential 1981 book of the same title by Donald Appleyard et al (only available used, but scheduled for republication next summer). Along with other evolving transportation practices, it's chronicled daily on the Streetsblog network of sites, Infrastructurist, and others.

Since High Gear Media has numerous engineers on our staff, we just wonder: Couldn't he have titled it "Confessions of a recovering traffic engineer?"

Still, well worth reading.

[StrongTowns via Grist]

Advertisement
 
Follow Us

 

Have an opinion?

  • Posting indicates you have read this site's Privacy Policy and Terms of Use
  • Notify me when there are more comments
Comments (4)
  1. A sad example of this travesty is Ontario's 18-lane Highway 401. When first constructed, 401 was a 4-lane divided expressway cutting across the top of the city. It was dubbed the Toronto Bypass, intended to serve as part of a fast-moving expressway. But Toronto's population, which until then had lived closer to the city's center, began to spread out and settle in new subdivisions. Within a few years the highway was surrounded, jammed with traffic that barely moved during rush hours. The planners had allowed for expansion, having set aside a 300-foot right-of-way, so 401 was reconfigured into an urban freeway system featuring express lanes down the middle with collector lanes on each side. They were never wide enough.
     
    Post Reply
    Vote
    Bad stuff?

  2. @Philip: That's actually a slightly separate issue. Traffic engineers have more complicated ways of expressing it, but essentially not only sprawl but actual traffic volume expands to fill the capacity available for it.
    The reverse is not always true, however, since sprawl and car-based density has been created and removing capacity strands residents and workers in areas with no immediate substitutes. Beware the dangers of relying on single-mode transportation!
     
    Post Reply
    Vote
    Bad stuff?

  3. I disagree, I care more about efficiency than safety. People often discount the enormous value of efficient road systems, but can't help but be upset when someone is hurt. The tradeoff isn't black and white.
     
    Post Reply
    Vote
    Bad stuff?

  4. Some things just cannot be co-located well. Currently I work on the Boston University campus and there is a big conflict between the needs of the student, who generally walk and the rest of the business community that tend to drive. We are in each other's way and it is dangerous.
    Contrast that with a place like UMass Amherst with a large campus, very few cars, and no business people driving around. There is inherently no conflict.
     
    Post Reply
    Vote
    Bad stuff?

 

Have an opinion? Join the conversation!

Advertisement
Advertisement
Try My Showroom
Save cars, write notes, and comparison shop with hi-res photos.
Add your first car
Take Us With You!
   
Advertisement

 
© 2014 The Car Connection. All Rights Reserved. The Car Connection is published by High Gear Media. Stock photography by izmo, Inc. Send us feedback.