Making American Streets Safer

By Dom Nozzi

As a lifelong bicycle commuter who has suffered from trying to bike on hostile American roads, I appreciate and completely understand the terrified, negative impressions of those who bicycle or walk our streets. After all, they must regularly face the hostility of American motorists.

For many years, it seemed obvious what the solution to this problem needs to be: More caution signs, caution lights, caution road markings, safety education for bicyclists and pedestrians, helmets and lights and bright clothing for bicyclists and pedestrians, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, this solution seems so common sensical that road engineers in America have given us stronger and stronger doses of this remedy over the past several decades.

Urging bicyclists and pedestrians to be safer, by the way, is a form of blaming the victim. The root problem is unsafe motorist behavior. True safety will never be achieved if we focus on making the victim safer, rather than compelling the motorist to drive more safely.

Why do American roads seem to be in a downward spiral of increasingly hostile, unsafe, reckless, car-only death traps?

I firmly believe that the answer is not that Americans, somehow, are genetically hard-wired to be unsafe, enraged, irresponsible drivers. Or that bicyclists and pedestrians are recklessly unaware of how to be safe. That, mysteriously, only Europeans (where transportation safety is much higher) have a culture or a gene pool that is courteous and safe when it comes to travel.

I cannot buy this notion because I am a scientist and a cultural materialist. The behavior and ideas of nearly all of us is largely shaped by the material conditions we experience in our everyday world. It is not due to unexplainable, cynical differences in culture or genes between Americans and non-Americans.

What are those material conditions that Americans have faced for several decades now?

Forgiving Roads

Forgiving road design says that roads should be wide and free of obstructions. Remove on-street parking or nearby trees on the shoulder of the street!

Such design “forgives” the motorist who drives recklessly and inattentively high-speed because there is less for the driver to crash into if driving mistakes are made. The unintended consequence that surprised us (but should not have been a surprise) has been a substantial growth in high-speed, inattentive driving by Americans. Nearly all drivers drive at the maximum speed at which they feel safe. Forgiving roads ratchet up that safe speed. They also encourage folks to, for example, put on make-up or talk on the cell phone while driving. “Why not?,” says the motorist. We are so busy these days that we need to multi-task as much as possible, and the forgiving road makes it easier for us multi-task, because we don’t need to be very attentive.

The forgiving road is the common sense design paradigm that assumes that American drivers are reckless and unsafe. Unfortunately, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it breeds a growing number of high-speed, inattentive, unsafe drivers. Again, it is material conditions that deliver us the behavior we see, not mysterious cultural or genetic differences.

An Absence of “Safety in Numbers”

An essential, perhaps overriding tactic for a bicycle and pedestrian safety is to promote those tactics that are most effective in inducing large numbers of citizens to become bicycle and pedestrian commuters.

“Safety in Numbers” needs to be promoted and leveraged. Large numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians create a self-perpetuating herd mentality: when non-bicyclists and non-pedestrians see lots of fellow citizens bicycling and walking, they are increasingly likely to join the herd. They are more likely to identify with bicyclists and pedestrians (rather than seeing them as annoying, in-my-way weirdos). When there are a lot of bicyclists or pedestrians, bicycling and walking is more likely to be seen as safe, hip, and normal.

When there are large numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians using streets on a regular basis, motorists are more likely to expect to see bicyclists and pedestrians. Expectation improves safety, in part because surprise is reduced. In addition, when motorists commonly see in-street bicycle lanes, crosswalks and sidewalks being used by bicyclists and pedestrians, the motorist learns how to drive more safely near bicyclists and pedestrians.

How do we grow the number of bicyclists and pedestrians to achieve the immense power of “safety in numbers”?

As a 20-year city planner, writer, researcher and town designer, I believe the following are some of the most powerful tactics to increase the bicyclist and pedestrian population:

 Scarce & priced car parking.

 Proximity (via mixed use and higher residential densities).

 Relatively high gas prices (via a gas tax).

 Short block lengths and connected streets.

 Slow-speed street design (via attentive rather than forgiving street design).

 Converting one-way streets back to two-way streets.

 Oppose all road and intersection widening projects, especially those done in the name of safety or capacity; wider roads and intersections are among the biggest deterrents to walking and cycling. Those roads and intersections that are already over-sized (four or more lanes, or one or two turning lanes) should be dieted down to safe, low-speed, human-scaled sizes.

 Full-time local government staff assigned to bicycling and pedestrian commuting.

Enormous Car Subsidies

Nearly all Americans exclusively drive on free roads and park in free parking lots. This is a huge subsidy to driving a car everywhere. The consequence is that, for all intents and purposes, we end up essentially begging people to drive a car for all trips with these market-distorting subsidies. The result is that we artificially create more motorist trips than would occur naturally. We artificially reduce the number of people who walk, bicycle or use transit with this overwhelming form of auto socialism. The subsidy makes it extremely irrational for someone not to drive a car everywhere, no matter how short or trivial the trip.

As a result, the near absence of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users in America means that there is no “safety in numbers” for such travelers. Motorists in America are not accustomed to encountering such travelers. Consequently, many do not know how to safely share the road with them. Or are surprised when, on rare occasions, they encounter one.

And surprised motorists are unsafe motorists.

Still others are enraged by such travelers who, because they are so rare (and therefore “weird” or otherwise dysfunctional), are seen as annoying obstacles getting in the way of “real” travelers who are engaged in “serious” travel.

In other words, were it not for the big subsidies, there would be a lot more people bicycling, walking or using transit. They would be a lot safer. Motorists who would be seeing them more often would expect to encounter them more often, and therefore be more safe and courteous near them.

Traffic Calming

Calming strives to design a road in such a way as to force the motorist to slow down. Calming reduces the speed at which the motorist feels safe, which results in slower average car speeds. It also forces the motorist to be more attentive. Not paying attention can, for example, lead to a sudden jolt when unexpectedly reaching a speed hump or roundabout. An enormous number of high-quality studies throughout the world have shown that calming results in substantial increases in safety, higher quality neighborhoods, and more non-auto travel.

Perhaps the single most effective way for pedestrians and bicyclists to feel safer on streets (and to encourage people to walk and bicycle more often) is to slow down car speeds.

Friction and Road Diets

Roads need more “friction” in most cases. One-way streets, excessively-sized streets (such as five-, six- or eight-lane monsters), big vision triangles at intersections, wide travel lanes, removal of on-street parking, and removal of trees and buildings from street shoulders all serve to reduce friction and create a “racetrack” road feel that says to the driver: “You can drive like Mario Andretti and chat on a cell phone while driving here!” Counter-intuitively, it is actually safer to increase street friction because it forces motorists to slow down and be more attentive. As a bicyclist or pedestrian, I earnestly hope that the motorist is obligated (by road design) to be attentive to his/her driving, instead of discussing, say, a soap opera on the phone. Therefore, we need to convert one-way streets to two-way, start removing lanes on streets with more than 3 lanes (i.e., put them on a diet), shrink vision triangles, narrow lane widths, restore on-street parking, restore large canopy street trees, and pull buildings up to the streetside sidewalks.

Minimize Caution Clutter

The Forgiving Road design paradigm, and the litigious nature of our society, means that our roads and their signage have become cluttered with a confusing, overwhelming blizzard of cautionary warnings. A common way for the human mind to cope with this proliferation of cautionary clutter is to tune much of it out (which also applies to strip commercial retail signage, where the explosion of signage drowns out individual signs because there are so many signs shouting at the motorist). As a result, when we use caution signs, caution lights and caution road markings more modestly, they tend to be acknowledged and obeyed more readily by the motorist.

The Road to Safety

In sum, it should not surprise us that the safest, most attentive and courteous driving occurs in communities where we find relatively large numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists. And where we have avoided high-speed, overly-wide, forgiving, caution-cluttered road design.

Compact development patterns, and narrow, tree-lined streets with on-street parking, modest building setbacks, and tight street intersection vision triangles breed safer, slower, more attentive driving that increases non-auto travel and makes such travel safer.

Conversely, the American paradigm of big, frictionless, subsidized, forgiving roads and parking cluttered with caution signage breeds unsafe, high-speed, inattentive driving that seems to deliver a worsening problem over time. The more we apply this conventional “medicine,” the worse our roads and motorists seem to become.

We Americans have met the enemy and he/she is us…

Differences between road-raged, reckless American drivers and those in, say, Europe, are more due to how we have designed our roads. They are not based on unexplainable cultural or genetic factors.

One definition of insanity is to continue to apply the same tactic to solve a problem despite the repeated failure of the tactic.

We need to radically change the paradigm for road safety, as I outline above, to make meaningful progress in road safety.


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Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

2 responses to “Making American Streets Safer

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Making American Streets Safer | Dom’s Plan B Blog --

  2. Nice Site. Just be careful if you come cycling in Florida. We have the worst drivers. This is not a bike friendly state but we ride as often as we can in large numbers on the road.

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