Traffic calming can give pedestrians a leg up in the car-centric city – and driving should be actively discouraged. This is part of a series about the importance of small urban elements that can have an outsized impact, enhancing people’s lives or modifying users’ behavior in surprising ways.
The new husband of one of my best friends recently told me that he jogs across every crosswalk. If he walks across, he says, a car will have to wait up to fifteen seconds, whereas the car would take only a couple of seconds to cross. He believes that it’s unfair to make the car wait for so long while he crosses the street, and apparently often pulls my friend along with him as he charges across to cut down on wait time for any cars in the vicinity.
This disturbed me on a number of levels. First, why did Beth marry such a lunatic?
Second, pedestrians are looked down on by almost everyone– drivers, cyclists, traffic engineers, most of the country’s planners. The very word “pedestrian” is derogatory, meaning commonplace and unimaginative. But walking is basically the best thing ever: walking is the easiest and most accessible exercise; pedestrians make places safer (Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street”); pedestrians bring more people outside (“life attracts life”) and make streets livelier and more interesting; pedestrians promote economic development in a more meaningful way than drivers in a compact city, as it’s much easier for them to pop into stores spontaneously; and walking is by far the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation (all you need to walk is a pair of shoes–even cycling requires far more carbon-intensive equipment, including the bike, tires, lights, and all the other little pets cyclists like to buy). Now that we all agree that walking is the best thing ever, I think we can agree that pedestrians deserve a little more respect than they’re accustomed to. And rushing across the street because you don’t think you deserve to take your whole fifteen seconds is not very respectful of yourself.
Third, and most important to me: when John makes driving easier and faster, he is helping to create more traffic and encourages more people to drive. Numerous examples have shown that it’s only by making it harder to drive that cities can cut down on driving. “Without restricting auto use, policies to encourage walking, bicycling, and taking transit would have been far less effective…. the combination of the carrot-and-stick approach has produced very impressive results in German cities.” (Pucher, “Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy”) And in Copenhagen, it’s been shown that the reason that 36% of residents cycle to work is because it’s the easiest and fastest way to get anywhere. Everyone around the world is lazy, but for people in Copenhagen, it’s lazier to easily ride a bike than to deal with all the annoyances and time delays of driving. So if John stays a little longer in the crosswalk, maybe a few people will abandon their cars the next day and walk, bike, or take a train to their destination.
Why abandon cars? The environmental problems with cars are clear, in terms of their emissions, and the carbon and toxins implicit in their manufacturing process. But their impact on the built environment is just as problematic and far-reaching. There are up to eight parking spaces for every car in the US– that’s about eight 9′x18′ pieces of asphalt, leaching toxins into the soil, space that is not trees or pedestrian plaza, an area that rain runs off of, picking up oils and carcinogens. Each space is a heat island that effectively spreads out the city more and more, and makes it less and less practical for people to walk. And when cars become more necessary, the poor, elderly, young and handicapped become more and more disadvantaged. Every non-driver effectively becomes a second class citizen in that kind of environment. In all the Houstons and Sacramentos and post-war suburban cities where the sentence “I don’t have a car” produces shocked and horrified faces, a two-teir social structure sits firmly in place.
So-called traffic-calming measures can really make quite a difference in slowing traffic and giving pedestrians a little ego-boost. There’s the easy classic, the speed bump, but we’re all familiar with the quick slow-down just before the bump and the screeching speed-up afterwards. Speed limit signs tend to be ridiculous on suburban streets built with huge curb cuts and vast lanes– people drive as fast as they’re comfortable driving.
This brings us to the Dutch concept of the woonerf. These cauliflower mazes basically put obstructions right in the middle of the road. Trees and planters fill the road so drivers have to navigate more carefully. And the whole street is designed as a place for people and a playplace- curb cuts are eliminated for driveways and small roads, so drivers are constantly aware that they are the intruders on the walkers’ space, and not the other way around, as it usually is. In the residential woonerf I visited in Delft, the roads are essentially front yards and shared patios that are also ok to drive through.
Other simple but effective traffic calming measures limiting car access altogether; reducing the width of lanes, which makes drivers more nervous and careful; eliminating parking spots to discourage driving; and eliminating curb cuts for small streets and driveways, making sidewalks continuous.
And when kids are playing in streets, when people are crossing willy-nilly, when the streets are full of life and happenings, that is my favorite traffic calming measure. Drivers move much more slowly and carefully if they think they might hurt somebody. That’s one reason that having a critical mass of cyclists is so important; that’s why cars have been shown to allow more passing room when cyclists are not wearing helmets. Drivers don’t want to hit pedestrians and bikers. Most pedestrian hits happen when drivers don’t expect people to be around, such as in this horrible case, where there were no crosswalks for miles, and presumably no one had walked on that road since cars were invented. (Why would they, unless they had no other choice?)
When lanes are narrow and crosswalks are wide, when obstacles are scattered through the street and people cross streets whenever they feel like it–or maybe don’t even cross but just hang out in the middle chatting with an old friend– then you will have no need for speed limit signs. Even little old ladies will feel safe enough to participate in the outdoors. Then you will have far less traffic and many more walkers, and everyone can take their time crossing the street.
(Bonus: Play along at home! Take your sweet time crossing the street! Cross the street wherever you feel like it! Make a major commotion when motorists don’t stop for you! You are the most effective traffic calming device. )