Escaping Congestion and Attentive Driving

 

 

By Dom Nozzi

 

Over the past few months, I’ve come across two important pieces of information. 

 

(1) I’ve heard Andres Duany make this first point in a speech long ago, but just read it again in a book I started reading (Common Place by Kelbaugh). The author states that “…the Southern California Association of Governments, including some 30 municipalities around Los Angeles, commissioned a computer simulation of traffic in the year 2010. It modeled many possibilities, among them double-decking highways, additional lanes, expanded bus and rail transit service, and staggered work hours. They concluded that nothing that could be done to add capacity to the system would have a lasting effect on congestion—except for one strategy that was not a transportation fix per se. Mixed-use neighborhoods, because they eliminate the need for trips in the first place, were found to offer a permanent solution to traffic congestion…”

 

I have two observations about this crucially important insight. First, as you might guess, I’m not sure why an urban area would want to reduce traffic congestion, given all the important community benefits congestion effectively delivers. To be charitable, it is possible that what is meant here is that mixed-use neighborhoods effectively allow people to escape the congestion that exists. Being able to escape congestion is more achievable, more socially desirable, and a lot less expensive (compared to being able to reduce it). Escape tactics are generally useful for building a quality, sustainable community. Connected and tightly gridded streets. Higher density, mixed-use development. Low-speed street design. Buildings abutting sidewalks. And so on.

 

Secondly, I am firmly convinced that achieving mixed use, higher density development (which is nearly absent in the United Suburbs of America) can only occur when large numbers of residents desire it. And in these days of subsidized cars, suburban homes and gasoline, desirability comes from traffic congestion, toll roads, priced and scarce parking, relatively high gas costs, low-speed roads that are no more than 3 lanes in size, and land development regulations that make such compact, low-speed development legal (such land development regulations are nearly non-existent in America).

 

All of the elements that many of us desire in a community (well-used transit, well-used bike lanes, well-used sidewalks, less per capita Single-Occupant-Vehicle travel) come after we put the necessary pre-conditions in place (density, mixed use, expensive parking & driving). Better transit, more bike lanes, more sidewalks will be ineffective as ways to induce more transit use, bicycling and walking. I believe that communities largely assume that more buses, more bike lanes and more sidewalks will result in more transit use, bicycling and walking because those factors are more under the control of a local government. The truly effective tactics are less under the control of local government. If all you’ve got is a hammer, all your problems look like nails…

 

(2) According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 80 percent of all car crashes are due to inattentive drivers.

 

Knowing this, what would be the worst possible way to design streets?

 

How about using a street design theory that encourages motorists to drive without paying attention—that is, a design that “forgives” a motorist for driving inattentively?

 

What has been the street design paradigm for the past 100 years?

 

The “forgiving street” design paradigm.

 

Oops.

 

Is it any wonder why we have an epidemic of inattentive driving in America? Isn’t it inevitable that “forgiving street” design has created a road safety nightmare?

 

The bitter irony is that this paradigm is what traffic engineers are taught is the primary means of creating traffic safety. But what should have been obvious is that forgiving street design enables drivers to be “forgiven” for driving too fast, too recklessly, and too inattentively. The result of forgiving streets is that we have an epidemic of inattentive drivers putting on make-up, talking on the cell phone, and casually driving 80 mph. And that means we have are seeing declining driving skills and a growing number of crashes on roads that are increasingly unsafe to walk or bicycle on (or drive a car on).

 

The idea persists because it is commonly thought that safer streets would be those where we assume drivers are inevitably incompetent morons. So we design the street so that we reduce the consequences of driving like a moron. Common sense, right? It becomes a powerfully self-fulfilling prophecy. Forgiving streets have spawned an exponential growth in moronic driving. Americans are now perhaps the worst drivers on earth.

 

I don’t buy the argument, by the way, that American drivers are genetically predisposed to drive like morons to explain why American driving is so awful. It is nearly certain that bad driving in the US is almost completely due to the consequences of driving on forgiving streets.

 

Isn’t it highly probable, in other words, that after 100 years of designing forgiving roads, traffic engineers have been responsible for an enormous growth in the amount of inattentive driving by motorists?

 

Isn’t it time we strive for improved driving skills, rather than assuming moron drivers? That we adopt the Moderman concept of “naked streets” if we truly want more traffic safety in the long run? Or what I call “attentive streets,” where we obligate the motorist to pay attention?

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

2 responses to “Escaping Congestion and Attentive Driving

  1. tommy

    Great points, especially on “forgiving streets.” These have all sorts of characteristics, including unnecessarily reduced on-street parking (several feet of red paint on both sides of every single driveway and corner), traffic signal left-turn arrows (especially in medium- and low-traffic intersections where they are absolutely not necessary), wide lanes, medians, even lack of painted crosswalks across a busy street where a residential street crosses it (their reasoning: don’t want to encourage pedestrians to cross anywhere but at traffic signals, even though this is technically an “unmarked crosswalk” and a legal place to cross)…

    Treating the public like idiots just increases the problem, which in turn calls for even more idiot treatment, and the cycle continues. I suppose many of the forgiving streets characteristics can also just be explained as logical means of increasing vehicle speed, the main goal in most of the U.S. even today. However, when you have a totally unnecessary shortage of on-street parking, then people must circle around (or end up leaving altogether) and their travel times increase, not decrease. When you have left turn arrows that make every single car, pedestrian, and bike at that intersection wait longer for their turn to come, travel times increase. When there has been an accident caused by excessive speed, causing traffic jams, travel times increase.

  2. Thanks. WRT on-street parking, I fully agree. I would refer you to Don Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking as an essential read on that topic. He points out that on-street parking must be properly priced (usually w/ meters) to work properly. Otherwise, you’ll end up w/ a scarcity of vacant spaces, which induces more circling.
    I am also in strong agreement w/ you regarding left-turn arrows and the aversion to designing for mid-block crossings by pedestrians.

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