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Quality of life in Bloomington: What needs to be done?

Quality of life in Bloomington: What needs to be done?

Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Times

Guest column

November 17, 2007

This column was written by Dom Nozzi. He is the executive director of Walkable Streets, and has been a senior city planner for over 20 years.

I was invited to speak in Bloomington on October 22, 2007. I am the author of two books on sprawl, congestion and quality of life. My expertise is quality urban design. In my 20 years of research, visiting countless cities and preparing development regulations for the “college town” of Gainesville, Fla., I learned that quality of life is a powerful economic engine that communities most effectively leverage by providing a range of lifestyle choices from walkable urban, suburban and rural.

My most important realization was this: Compact, lower-speed, human-scaled walkability (particularly in a downtown) is the lynchpin for achieving a sustainable, more economically healthy and pleasant future.

I was able to tour much of Bloomington while in town. It became immediately clear what measures Bloomington will need to improve its overall quality of life for its citizens, its businesses and its environment. These measures are the “low-hanging fruit” that must be incrementally achieved in the coming years for Bloomington (especially in its downtown), if the city is to realize a brighter, more prosperous and sustainable future.

Convert one-way streets back to two-way.

Creating one-way streets was popular a number of decades ago as an easy way to speed high volumes of traffic through downtown. Nationally, cities are converting these back to two-way because of the obvious problems that one-ways create. One-onewaystreetsway streets result in a significant increase in speeding, inattentive driving, road rage, traffic infractions and motorist impatience.

Former “shopping streets” (often including residences) become drive-throughs instead of drive-tos. Life for the now declining number of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users becomes unsafe, inconvenient and unpleasant. Likewise, the street loses residences and businesses due to the more hostile conditions. The one-ways also require a great deal of extra motorist travel distance due to backtracking.

Install metered, on-street parking.

In a walkable location, on-street parking must be maximized. (In particular, College Avenue and Walnut Street downtown need on-street parking.) Such parking would be extremely beneficial to downtown businesses and pedestrians (the lifeblood of a downtown).

By contrast, off-street surface parking must be minimized, as it creates gap-toothed dead zones that inhibit walkability, create danger zones and undercut the “agglomeration economies” (the concentration of jobs, residences and commercial) that a downtown requires for health. On-street parking creates safer, slower-speed, more attentive driving, provides protection for pedestrians and offers high-quality, convenient parking for retailers.

On-street parking must be properly priced (targeting an 85-percent use rate), and the parking meter revenue must be dedicated to improving the streetscape in the vicinity of the meters, rather than being dispersed citywide.

Convert off-street surface parking to buildings.

Such parking is deadening to a walkable location, and makes retailing, office and residential substantially more costly. Surface parking — particularly when abutting streets — must be converted to active retail, residential and office buildings. Parking garages — especially when wrapped with retail — consume less parking space, and are much better for walkability than surface parking.conversion to town center

The tragic dilemma that cities such as Bloomington find themselves in is that most all of us are forced to drive a car (and park it) every single time we travel. By providing for cars, walking, bicycling and transit become more difficult. Understandably, we are compelled to urge that conditions be improved for our cars.

Wider, higher speed roads. Larger parking lots.

Yet the “habitat” for cars is at odds with the “habitat” for people, as people tend dislike being near high-speed roads or huge parking lots.

In the end, we find ourselves becoming our own worst enemies, fighting to improve life for our cars.

As we expand our communities for cars, the world for people shrinks.

The remedy is to return to the tradition we have abandoned. The tradition of designing our communities to make people happy, not cars.

Overall, Bloomington has much to be proud of. However, without incrementally taking the steps I recommend above, the quality of life for residents and retail is being severely compromised. I urge the city to start taking these steps as soon as possible.

 

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Thoughts about the Virginia Department of Transportation Plans for Bicycling and Walking in Richmond VA

By Dom Nozzi

May 19, 2008

I’ve read over the review comments by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) bicycle and pedestrian coordinator pertaining to the bike and pedestrian elements of the draft Downtown Richmond Master Plan. Before I provide my thoughts about his comments, I’d like to point out that I met the coordinator recently at a VDOT complete streets workshop. In my brief chat with him, I found him to be likeable, informed, and smart. He seemed to “get it.” I enjoyed talking with him.

I agree with the coordinator that a shared, narrow outside lane proposed in the plan on the extremely wide, hostile, high-speed Broad Street will not be suitable for bicyclists (even commuter bicyclists). Broad Street would need fairly substantial redesign to induce low-speed motor vehicle travel in order for a shared lane to work on Broad. As far as I know, this sort of needed redesign has not been proposed by the plan. Until that happens, I agree with the coordinator that routes parallel to Broad need to be designated and designed, if necessary, for bicycling.

I agree with the coordinator that the Fan District needs more traffic calming mechanisms than are called for in the plan. The streets are overly wide, and encourage excessive motor vehicle speeds. On a related note, I agree with the coordinator that the frequent (and in my opinion, misguided) use of stop signs in the Fan for traffic calming is counter-productive. I agree with the coordinator that bulb-outs could be a better treatment for a number of intersections.

I strongly disagree with the coordinator that one-way streets are beneficial in the downtown area (he cites the benefits of reducing peak-hour congestion). In my view, he is speaking as a suburban motorist rather than a downtown bicycle commuter when he urges the use of one-ways. In my professional opinion (and as a life-long bicycle commuter and whose master’s thesis subject was bicycle travel), one-ways degrade property values, induce higher-speed car travel (due to reduced “friction”), reduce pedestrian comfort, increase motorist impatience with bicyclists and other motorists, harm retail, increase onewaystreetssidewalk bicycle riding, promote sprawl housing by speeding commuters into and out of downtown jobs, increase inconvenience for bicyclists and motorists (especially for visitors to the city), and increase wrong-way bicycle riding. I am a bicycle commuter in Richmond, and I find myself being obligated to wrong-way ride nearly every day.

In my opinion, the most essential thing that Richmond can implement from the draft Master Plan is the conversion of one-ways to two-way. No other recommendation in the Plan is so important and so potentially beneficial to the city.

I would note, as an aside, that there are no one-way streets in suburbia, in part because they are considered undesirable for suburbanites to live on. “One-way streets are okay, but only in your neighborhood, not mine.”

Another aside: Having been a bicycle commuter since I was a boy, and having lived in a great many communities as a bicycle commuter, my assessment of Richmond is that the city street system is relatively hostile to bicyclists. I have found that, by far, the most important reason that Richmond is not bike-friendly is the one-way street system. I am therefore astonished that the bike/ped coordinator supports them.

I disagree that the draft plan does not adequately address the needs of bicyclists.

By the way, I’d like to note here that the consultants propose using a “transect” system for the regional design of land uses and streets. This is a wonderful idea that the City needs to heartily embrace. Such a system requires that design be context-sensitive, and provides designs for the full range of lifestyle choices. There is a rural/peripheral/conservation zone at the edge of a community, suburban zones, and compact, low-speed, walkable urban zones. Speeds and dimensions increase as one moves from the urban zones to the suburban to the rural zones. Promoting quality lifestyles for each of those zones therefore requires design that is calibrated for each zone. That is, design is context-sensitive. For bicycling, for example, this means that in properly low-speed downtowns, bicyclists tend to be comfortable sharing the lane with cars. Painted bike lanes are unnecessary (and often counter-productive to the low-speed, human-scaled ambience). As speeds and sizes increase in suburban zones, bike lanes become more necessary. In rural zones, the highest speeds here often require fully separated bike paths.

My speculation is that the coordinator is unfamiliar with this transect concept, and his comments seem to suggest that he supports use of designs which I will here call “transect violations.” That is, he seems to inappropriately call for the use of bike lanes in the low-speed Richmond downtown. In a low-speed downtown environment, the lifestyle and design imperative is the pedestrian. Bike lanes can degrade this walkable lifestyle design intent by subverting the potential for future (and needed) street narrowing, and increasing motor vehicle speeds.

I agree with the coordinator that the increased bike parking called for by the plan is not a meaningful way to promote increased bicycling. I would note, however, that despite the fact that bike parking does not significantly increase bicycling, bicycle parking is an important way for the community to send a visible public message that the community recognizes, respects and supports bicycling.

I disagree with the coordinator that the transportation consultant (HPE) “doesn’t ‘get it.'” Indeed, in my many years of looking over bike/ped plans, these are some of the very best I’ve seen, despite what the coordinator indicates. Again, I think the problem here is that while the consultant is designing for a low-speed, walkable environment (downtown), the coordinator is thinking about the design necessary in higher-speed suburban applications.

The coordinator points out that the plan is woefully inadequate in its bicycling recommendations for downtown Richmond. Speaking as an urban designer and bicycle commuter, I find the recommendations to be adequate, appropriate and impressive. As the consultant notes, in a compact, low-speed environment, bicycling does quite well without the need for special treatments such as bike lanes (bicyclists tend to be able to comfortably “fend for themselves,” so to speak, in compact, low-speed environments).

It is therefore appropriate that the plan, in designing for a high-quality, low-speed, pedestrian-oriented downtown, devotes nearly all of its design focus on the pedestrian. Happily, properly designing for a quality low-speed environment for pedestrians also happens to be an effective way, indirectly, to improve conditions for bicycle commuting.

I would note that the coordinator makes almost no substantive comments regarding pedestrian design needs.

 

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America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame

By Dom Nozzi

In his 2010 book, One Less Car, Zack Furness points out something that should utterly shame all bicycle advocates, alternative transportation activists, planners, and elected officials: no nation on earth has a lower percentage of bicyclists than the United States. A pathetic one percent of all commuting in the US is by bicycle. Even in places with bitterly cold, forbidding weather – such as the Northwest Territories adjacent to the North Pole – bicycling rates are higher.

How could this be? After all, those promoting more bicycling and less motoring have successfully convinced towns all over the nation to install bike lanes, bike paths, bike showers, and bike parking.

The reason, as Michael Ronkin, former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Oregon has brilliantly and provocatively pointed out, is that it is NOT about providing facilities for bicyclists. To effectively convince large numbers of Americans to commute by bicycle, it is necessary to TAKE AWAY SPACE FROM CARS (and increase the cost of car travel).

[Note that in this essay, I am referring to “commuter” bicyclists. Commuter/utilitarian bicyclists are those who use a bicycle for travel to work or shop, for example. “Recreational” bicyclists, by contrast, are bicycling for entertainment or exercise.]

A new paradigm is needed for effectively promoting a large increase in bicycling in America. For several decades, there have been two large advocacy groups aggressively promoting their idea of the best way to recruit more bicycling:

1. The “vehicular cyclists,” led by John Forrester. The VC advocates claim that no in-street bike lanes or separated-from-the-road bike paths are needed for bicycling. The best, safest way to bicycle is to have a bicyclist travel by following the same rules of the road as the motorist (largely to increase predictability and visibility). I subscribed to this view ever since reading Forrester’s Bicycle Transportation in grad school back in the early 1980s.

2. The “separated bicycle path” group, which holds that the way to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists is to separate them physically from dangerous, high-speed car traffic. The assumption of this group is that the main reason we don’t see large numbers of bicyclists in the US is that most people are put off by the danger inherent in bicycling in the street with cars.

Both of these tactics have miserably failed to recruit large numbers of new bicyclists in the US. The US continues to have, by far, the lowest number of bicyclists in the world.

Why?

The vehicular cyclists take an approach that even in theory is only applicable to a small number of people – those who have the courage, skill and athleticism to bicycle in the street with cars. Even VC advocates admit that their approach, even if widely used, would not result in a large number of new bicyclists.

While they believe their approach would lead to a large number of new bicyclists, off-street bicycle path advocates fail to understand that “perceived danger” for bicycling is only a minor reason why commuter bicycling is not popular in the US.

Car travel is so heavily provided for and promoted in the US that it is highly irrational to travel by foot, bicycle or transit (even if we provide bike paths, sidewalks, better transit, etc.). There are a great many reasons why nearly all trips in the US are by car. Some of the more important reasons why the car is more rational in the US is that compared to other forms of travel, the car excels in the following ways:

Comfort

Protection from weather

Climate, music and noise control

Cargo-carrying capacity

Passenger-carrying capacity

Status

Ego

Protection from violent people and strangers

Speed

Travel range

Subsidized fuel and roads

Subsidized parking

The perceived safety provided by off-street bicycle paths, when compared to the above car benefits, does not even come close to convincing the vast majority of Americans that bicycling is preferable to car travel. In other words, the above list of car travel benefits far exceed the benefits of safer bicycling.

As an aside, an important reason why the off-street bike path tactic is highly counterproductive, is that even if it were possible to find the trillions of public dollars necessary to install a comprehensive network of off-street bicycle paths, doing so would essentially abandon the road to it always being a “car sewer.”

A Third Way for Bicycle Promotion

The key to successfully creating a large number of new bicyclists, and reducing undesirable car dependence, is to establish a “third way:” End the extreme pampering of the car so that the list of reasons why it makes sense to bicycle outweigh the reasons why it makes sense to travel by car.

Tactics for Effectively Creating Large Numbers of New Bicyclists

A. Government Measures

  • Narrow roads in the community (popularly called “road dieting.”). In general, streets in a town should be no larger than three lanes in size.
  • Reduce the amount of off-street car parking (particularly FREE parking). Governments should end the highly counterproductive, costly practice of requiring new development to provide off-street parking. Much existing off-street parking should be shrunk in size and often replaced with buildings.
  • Design streets to obligate slower and more attentive driving. Tactics include provision of on-street parking, use of relatively narrow travel lanes, requiring buildings to be pulled up to abut streetside sidewalks, removal of traffic safety devices (such as traffic signals, flashing lights, stop signs, etc.), installing bulb-outs, reducing the height of street lights and traffic signals, installation of canopy street trees, shortening block lengths, and other traffic calming measures.
  • Electronically pricing roads and parking so that drivers pay their own way with user fees, instead of being heavily subsidized with free roads and free parking (free parking is the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US).
  • Substantially increase the state and federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been raised in 18 years (1993). By not increasing the gas tax, the US transfers an enormous amount of national wealth to oil-producing nations in other parts of the world. The relatively low gas tax is another in a long list of examples of motorist subsidies that promote excessive car travel. This loss of user fee revenue severely strains government finances, because in order to pay for the enormous costs of providing for car travel, governments must raise (non-gas) taxes such as property taxes or sales taxes or income taxes to pay for car travel. Alternatively, governments must cut other government services, which harms quality of life and makes our society less civilized.
  • Require relatively large employers to provide a “parking cash-out” program, and use such a program for all government offices. Parking cash-out, as Donald Shoup points out, is a program that offers the car commuter a choice: Either keep your free parking space at work, or give up the parking space in exchange for a higher salary, a bus pass, or other perks.
  • Require that the cost of parking be “unbundled” from the cost of a home or business. Currently, nearly all homeowners and consumers of goods and services pay a hidden parking cost – housing, goods, and services are more expensive because it is expensive to be required to buy extra land to provide for (and maintain) car parking. If this car parking cost was unbundled, housing, goods, and services would be less expensive, and people would be less compelled to drive a car excessively.
  • Requiring relatively high levels of street connectivity. When streets are connected, bicyclists that are less comfortable on main roads are able to find lower-speed, lightly-trafficked side streets for bicycling. Existing dead ends and cul-de-sacs can sometimes restore bicycle connectivity with connector paths linking the cul-de-sac with a nearby street.
  • Converting one-way streets into two-way streets. One-way streets strongly discourage bicycling because such street design promotes excessive car speeds, motorist impatience, and inattentive driving, not to mention the loss of residential and retail development along such streets. Increasingly, towns in the US are converting one-way streets back to two-way operation, and seeing extremely rapid improvements. See my blog for my thoughts about one-way streets.
  • Reducing trip distances. Governments are able to do this by finding ways to increase residential densities in appropriate locations, allowing “mixed-use” development (where homes are combined with offices and retail, for example), and keeping “community-serving social condensers” such as farmers markets and important government offices in the town center (rather than allowing them to relocate to remote suburbs).

B. Citizen Measures

  • Civil disobedience. There are a number of measures which are being used increasingly in the US to protest excessive, detrimental car dependence in the US. These measures include various forms of civil disobedience, “guerilla” tactics, or direct action. Examples include “critical mass” bicycle rides (where large numbers of bicyclists will gather and ride in large groups on streets in such a way as to inconvenience motorists), temporarily converting car parking into parks, etc.
  • Elections. Citizens can campaign for candidates who support the measures described above.
  • Normalizing bicycling. Bicycling in the US is substantially marginalized because bicyclists dress in ways that visibly set them apart from “normal” people. Most wear a bicycle helmet, which tend to be unfashionable, messes up hair, and sends a message that bicycling is dangerous. Many bicyclists also wear brightly-colored lycra bicycle clothes, which gives a very unusual, “elite athlete” appearance. It is important that bicycling be seen as more “normal” if bicycling is to become more common in the fashion- and status-conscious US. Bicycling advocates, then, can better promote bicycling by dressing in everyday leisure or work clothing while bicycling, and using a bicycle helmet less often (particularly when bicycling in relatively safe, low-speed environments such as town centers). See my blog for my thoughts about bicycle helmets.

Providing New Bicycle Facilities

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to provide well-designed bicycle facilities and parking. While neither would recruit large numbers of new bicyclists, both are important for at least two reasons. First, it is important that bicyclists be given safe, convenient places to bicycle and park. Second, providing such facilities sends the important message that the community respects and promotes bicycle travel.

The Bicycling Transect

There is an emerging concept in urban design known as a “transect.” The concept essentially posits that there is a place for everything and everything has its place. Dennis McClendon states that it is “a way of classifying different kinds of neighborhoods along a continuum, from rural to suburban to city neighborhood to downtown; things that belong in once zone would be out of place in another.”

In the Smart Code introduction, version 6.5, Andres Duany says that “one of the key concepts of transect planning is the idea of creating what are called immersive environments. Successful immersive environments are based, in part, on the selection and arrangement of all the components that together comprise a particular type of environment. Each environment, or transect zone, is comprised of elements that keep it true to its locational character…planners are able to specify different urban intensities that look and feel appropriate to their locations…a farmhouse would not contribute to the immersive quality of an urban core, whereas a high-rise apartment building would. Wide streets and open swales find a place on the transect in more rural areas while narrow streets and curbs are appropriate for urban areas. Based on local vernacular traditions, most elements of the human habitat can be similarly appropriated in such a way that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the immersive character of a given environment.”

Applying the Transect to Bicycle Facility Planning

Appropriate bicycle travel routes vary based on their location in a community in the following generalized ways:

Walkable Town Center

In this location, the pedestrian is the design imperative, which means that quality design emphasizes a low-speed street design. This means that there are generally no more than two travel lanes (and possibly a turn lane or pocket). Curb radii are modest, and combined with intersection and mid-block bulb-outs, minimize crossing distances for pedestrians.

Further enhancing the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian is on-street motor vehicle parking, sidewalks, and buildings abutting the back of sidewalks.

There is a dense, connected grid of streets with short block lengths.

When designed properly, the modest motor vehicle speeds mean that most all bicyclists are able to safely and comfortably “share the lane” with motor vehicles (that is, ride within the motor vehicle travel lane). Those bicyclists who are not comfortable sharing the lane with vehicles are able to ride on nearby parallel streets.

In walkable urban locations, in-street bicycle lanes should generally be considered a “transect violation,” since their installation usually means that average motor vehicle speeds are increased (due to the perceived increase in street width for the motorist). Bicycle lanes also tend to increase the crossing distance for pedestrians, and are often incompatible with on-street parked cars unless an excessively wide bicycle lane is created.

Note that I do acknowledge that when a walkable, compact urban location contains major (arterial) streets that such streets generally require the installation of in-street bicycle lanes. However, when such major streets require bike lanes, it is a strong indication that the street itself is a transect violation. Ideally, such streets should be re-designed to be compatible (or “immersive”) in the walkable location through such techniques as removing travel lanes, adding on-street parking or other mechanisms that dramatically slow down motorists and obligate more attentiveness in their driving.

Also incompatible in this location are bicycle paths separate from the street. Such paths are not only unaffordable to install in this location, but significantly increase bicyclist danger.

Suburban

In this location, in-street bicycle lanes tend to be most appropriate on major (“arterial”) streets, due to the increased average car speeds. Bicycle lanes should be 4-5 feet wide.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to be used somewhat less on suburban roads than on walkable urban streets. Building setbacks are larger, as are turning radii.

In general, bicycle lanes are not necessary on intermediate (“collector”) streets, due to low traffic volumes.

Like walkable urban locations, bicycle paths separate from the street are generally incompatible in this location. Such paths significantly increase bicyclist danger, largely due to the number of cross streets, the reduced visibility of the bicyclist, and the false sense of security created for the bicyclist.

Rural

In this location, bicycle paths separate from the road tend to be most appropriate, due to the relatively high speed of motor vehicles here, and the relative lack of crossing roads.

On-street motor vehicle parking tends to not be used on rural roads. Building setbacks are largest in this portion of the transect, as are turning radii.

In-street bicycle lanes are sometimes appropriate here, but are not as appropriate as in suburban locations.

Transect Summary

In sum, bicycle travel routes are increasingly separated from motor vehicles as one moves along the transect from walkable urban to suburban to rural.

Bicycle Parking

My master’s thesis in graduate school emphasized providing properly-designed bicycle parking. It has become quite common for bicycle parking to be provided improperly. So many strange, unusual, non-functional forms of bicycle parking are provided that I have concluded that the main criterion for selection of bicycle parking is aesthetics and low cost. Like car parking, there is only one form (or with very minor variations) of acceptable bicycle parking design: the “inverted-U” (also known as the “Hitch-To”). This relatively low-cost, durable bicycle parking design is vastly superior to most all other forms of bicycle parking that have proliferated in the US. Communities should require this design in the same manner as they require only one form of car parking. Doing otherwise trivializes bicycling.

Summary

It is quite possible for the US to end its humiliating, unsustainable lead in the world for lowest level of bicycling. Americans are NOT genetically predisposed to drive a car rather than bicycle. The effective tools are not a mystery. Using them is simply a matter of leadership on the part of citizens and elected officials. Yes, it will be difficult to “take away from the car” to increase bicycling. But if we are, as a nation, truly serious about reducing ruinous, unsustainably high levels of car dependence, and substantially growing the number of bicycle commuters, the steps I outline above are essential.

There are very few, if any, “win-win” tactics for car and bicycle travel. Instead, car travel and bicycle travel are more of a zero-sum game. Increasing the level of bicycle travel inevitably means taking away space from cars, inconveniencing cars, and making car travel more expensive.

It is important to point out here that for over 100 years, the US has engaged in the opposite: We have taken away space from bicycles, inconvenienced bicycles and made bicycling more expensive.

For the sake of improving our health, the health of our cities, and our future quality of life, we must begin the incremental, long-term practice of ratcheting down car pampering. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.

_________________________________________________

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

The On-Going Danger of American Road Design

By Dom Nozzi

As a lifelong bicycle commuter who has suffered from trying to bike in hostile American roads, I appreciate and completely understand the perception on the part of many bicyclists that American roads are extremely dangerous for bicyclists, as well as pedestrians. And even for motorists.

For many years, it seemed obvious what the solution to this problem of dangerous roads needed to be: More caution signs, caution lights, caution road markings, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, this solution seems so commonsensical that road engineers in America have given us stronger and stronger doses of this remedy over the past several decades.

One definition of insanity is to continue to apply the same tactic to solve a problem despite the repeated failure of the tactic. This form of insanity has certainly been evident in American road design over the past century, as we keep applying the same “safety” tactics and our roads continue to become less safe over time, and as a result of such tactics.

Why, then, 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. That, mysteriously, only Europeans 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. Or in what Americans are taught in schools.

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 such as on-street parking or nearby street trees along the edge 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. It should not surprise us at all that forgiving road design leads to 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. Monster road intersection

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 forgiving road design 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.

 Enormous Car Subsidies

Nearly all Americans exclusively drive on free roads and park in free parking lots. This is a huge subsidy that induces many to drive a car everywhere. We beg 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. 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. As a result, 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. And their large numbers would mean 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.

 How Do We Remedy These Problems?

In my opinion, the strategies we should employ are clear. Besides ending the motorist subsidies, roads need to be traffic calmed, given more friction and put on diets, and have less “caution clutter.”

 Traffic Calming

Calming strives to design a road in such a way as to obligate 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. Bike narrow brick street

Perhaps the single most effective way for pedestrians and bicyclists to feel safer on streets is to slow down car speeds.

 Friction and Road Diets

Roads need more “friction” in most cases. One-way streets, multi-lane streets, 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 very much 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 (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 androad caution signs 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.

Toward a Safer Street Design 

In sum, it should not surprise us that the safest, most attentive driving occurs in communities that have avoided high-speed, forgiving, caution-cluttered road design. Narrow, tree-lined streets with on-street parking, modest building setbacks and tight 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 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.

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.

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

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