The Old and the Young Need Safer Streets

Celebration, where the streets are designed for walking. (Photo: Wikipedia)

A year ago in a post about fire trucks, I complained about the road standards we have in our cities, where cars can go fast and so can fire trucks. What you end up with is urban design by road engineers and firemen instead of planners and architects. No wonder our cities look like they do.

It's all about design priorities.

A similar argument is going on in Celebration, Florida, a city designed for walking and cycling. The fire chief said he wants to take a chainsaw to the trees of Celebration and ban on-street parking to give a 20-foot-wide roadway for his trucks. He says that’s the standard and he has the power, so that is what it's going to be. But the Celebration architect disagrees. Geoffrey Mouen, as quoted in my post on TreeHugger, says there are ways to design a town that make it safer for pedestrians:

If you removed the street parking and trees there would be no visual clues to the driver to slow down. People don’t look at speed limit signs to decide how fast to go; they use visual clues that narrow the drive lane and cause drivers to slow down, as they don’t feel safe enough to go faster. There are studies that prove more people die in automobile accidents and pedestrians crossing the street than in die in fires. It’s a fact.

Danny McCoy, the deputy fire chief, says he doesn’t care about such facts:

I don’t agree. I am not here to debate that. Where I live the streets are straight and the police sit there writing tickets to control speed.

The point is that all the things that make Celebration lousy for speeding cars and fire trucks are the very things we need in our cities to make them safer for pedestrians — especially the aging population, which is disproportionately in injured and even killed in these scenarios.

It's a fundamental contradiction: the engineering mentality based around cars and giant fire trucks vs. the needs of the kids, cyclists and seniors. The AARP lists 11 ways to make streets safe for walking, most of which our deputy fire chief would reject out of hand.

Here are a few that might be problematic if you want to drive really fast or play with big red trucks:

1. Reduce the number of car lanes on wide streets

This is part of what is called a "road diet," taking four-lane roads where one lane is converted into a turning lane, with two traffic lanes. It has been shown to reduce injuries by 68 percent and it doesn't even slow down the cars.

2. Reduce the width of lanes

They are usually specified at 12-feet wide, because drivers are more comfortable driving faster in wider lanes. So they get signed at 30 mph and everyone drives at 40, it feels like crawling otherwise.

Bump-outs in Albany reduce speed and save lives. (Photo: Randal S. Johnson/Oregon Dept. of Transportation)

3. Reduce the length of crosswalks with bump-outs

These make the pedestrians more visible but more importantly, they tighten up the curb radius, which slows down drivers significantly.

4. Install speed humps, roundabouts and other traffic-calming measures

Oh, how they hate these. Drivers complain that they cause pollution (because they have to slow down and speed up again) and damage (because they don’t slow down). But as Jay Walljasper of AARP writes:

These are valuable tools for reminding motorists to mind the speed limit and keep an eye out for people on foot and bicycles. A traffic calming project in West Palm Beach, Florida, resulted in safer streets, less crime, increased property values and $300 million in business investment. Roundabouts (another FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] safety countermeasure) added to La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego led to more people walking, new businesses, more on-street parking and shorter travel times for motorists.

5. Get rid of one-way streets

one way street
Hamilton, Ontario, is full of one way streets. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

So many cities have multi-lane, one-way streets that let cars race through town. Converting them back to two-way makes drivers crazy, but it almost instantly changes the character of the street. In a town near where I live, Hamilton, Ontario, they changed one street back to two-way and it's now the restaurant and culture hub for the entire city. It's the center of the city's marketing campaigns. Yet every time they mention applying this logic to another street, it's a battle with the suburban city councillors, who like to drive fast through town.

Wait, there's more...

There are other measures that make life safer for pedestrians but drivers hate, like banning right turns on red lights, giving walkers a head start of a few seconds, making crosswalks more visible (and raising them). Red light cameras and better enforcement would help, too.

All of these measures require planners and politicians to make a fundamental choice: who comes first, drivers or pedestrians? There has to be a priority. Some say that "These pedestrian improvements also typically improve motorists' and bicyclists' safety; it's a win-win-win. Everyone's safer." They may be safer, but the drivers and the fire chiefs still get grumpy. For years, the choice has favored the driver, but as baby boomers age, there are going to be a lot more older pedestrians. And as millennials start having kids, there are going to be a lot more people on the streets in general.

About 5,000 pedestrians are killed by cars in America every year. This is only going to increase as the population ages. It's time to fix this.