Tag Archives: traffic safety

The Deadly Stew of Transportation

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 18, 2017

American society mixes together a deadly stew in transportation: We combine forgiving road design (which forgives motorists for not paying attention) with very busy lives (which inevitably induces an epidemic of motorist speeding), sleep deprivation (which inevitably leads to falling asleep at the wheel), and a car-dependent community design (which obligates most of us to drive for all our trips — and putting all those huge, heavy, high-speed metal boxes on our roads inevitably creates frustration because all the boxes of our fellow citizens are always congesting roads).

Instead of continuing our century-long, single-minded effort to maximize the speed of cars (and therefore condition motorists to expect high-speed driving), we need to more universally design our street system to obligate slower and more attentive driving forgiving(thereby conditioning motorists to expect slower speed driving — at least in cities).

Forgiving street design is not the ONLY cause of distracted, high-speed, angry driving, but I believe it counterproductively amplifies existing societal problems, such as the desire to live in dispersed, car-dependent living arrangements. Forgiving street design makes dangerous driving more frequent.

We have ramped up education and enforcement efforts every few years since the 1920s to fight dangerous driving, yet we probably have more distracted, speeding, angry driving than ever before. Even if those levels are not the highest ever, they are certainly unacceptably high today.

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Are Cell Phones the Main Cause of a Recent Increase in Traffic Fatalities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 1, 2017

It is surprisingly difficult to isolate causes of crash/fatality trends in driving. One source has made the persuasive case a while back that the only good correlation we can find is based on the health of the national economy, of all things.

In any event, pointing to something like cell phones is a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” method that distracts people from a major cause of crashes: our roads are shockingly dangerous in how they are designed. And this follows over 100 16598647019_2c1634cb89_zyears of annual campaigns to make roads safer. Talk about a failed track record. Talk about a need to change course on our efforts to improve safety…

The US has seen over 30,000 people die on the roads EACH YEAR since the 1940s. Cell phones did not arrive until the 80s or 90s. The number of annual deaths is a crazy high number and should be utterly unacceptable to any civilized society. Given the American love of the death penalty, our failure to adopt universal health care, our 240 years of being a Warrior Nation, and our abusive criminal justice system, a great case can be made that the good old USA is one of the most uncivilized nations in human history (probably at least partly due, ironically, to our high level of religious belief – which is infamous for inspiring hatred, violence, and intolerance).

I agree that cell phones (and many other distractors) are very dangerous for a driver to engage in while driving. But we need to keep our eye on the ball. We’ve had over 100 years of failed efforts to make driving safe.

In sum, if no driver ever used a cell phone again, we’d STILL be seeing over 30,000 traffic fatalities in the US each year.

In my view, successfully reducing the number of drivers distracted by cell phone use is unlikely to produce the safety benefits we expect. Efforts to point to cell phones as a silver bullet solution to making our roads significantly safer is quite likely to distract us from the much more important, pressing fact that our car-happy transportation system is inherently deadly (largely due to car-happy, “forgiving” road design and a dispersed land use pattern that requires us to drive everywhere — and at high speeds).

 

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Boulder, Colorado Traffic Safety is Ineffective and Behind the Times

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 11, 2016

Every few years for about 80 years, Boulder and pretty much every other city in the US “redoubles its efforts” to engage in more education and enforcement to promote bicycle and pedestrian safety.

At best, such efforts have had marginal benefits.

After 80 years of “redoubling our efforts,” Boulder’s streets are more dangerous than ever.

In my view, these endlessly repeated campaigns are largely a waste of time and money (except to show symbolic support for political reasons), and the very minor benefits diminish each time we implement these campaigns (the dilemma of diminishing 3556802_origreturns). Indeed, such ineffective and repeated campaigns may be worse than a waste of time, as they can distract the City from engaging in pursuing meaningful strategies. Strategies such as retrofitting streets for slower and more attentive car travel, reducing the size of roads and parking lots, significantly increasing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians by removing motorist subsidies and making community development more compact.

Nothing else comes remotely close to being as effective as these tactics in increasing motorist attentiveness, slowing down motorists, and growing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians. I am ashamed of how much Boulder has delayed doing these things – particularly in the face of the many recent traffic fatalities and the plateauing of the levels of bicycling, walking, and transit use.

If it were up to me, Boulder would forego a number of expensive, big-ticket “safety” projects in the pipeline right now (which I believe do almost nothing to improve safety) and divert that money to effective tactics I mention above.

And start doing that immediately.

Shame on Boulder for dragging its feet and being so far behind the times regarding redesigning our streets effectively. Shame on Boulder for thinking it can just give up on trying to calm larger roads and monster intersections. For thinking that it is a good idea to create an alternative (“separate but equal”?) off-street path system for cyclists – a system that will never allow commuter cyclists to reach more than a tiny fraction of destinations cyclists have a right to get to by bike.

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Walking

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

What Do I Think of the Diverging Diamond Interchange?

 

By Dom Nozzi

Febuary 2, 2017

Superior, Colorado built a “diverging diamond” interchange that opened in October 2015. It was only the second such interchange to ever be built in Colorado. Traffic engineers are imagessinging its praises throughout the nation. A newspaper article appearing in the February 2, 2017 edition of the Boulder Daily Camera fawned over the fantastic new addition to the region’s transportation system.

I am not joining the engineers or the newspaper in their love affair with the design.

Instead, I find such designs a colossal waste of money – money that could have been used for, say, transit. They are also a colossal waste of land. An entire city could fit inside one of these intersections.

The diverging diamond is a boondoggle for those reasons. But it is also a blunder because they promote increased per capita car travel. Why? In part because they are nearly 51df393d218c6-imageimpossible to cross by foot or bicycle. And in part because in the long run they will further disperse land development in a more sprawling way. Those increased distances will make it increasingly impractical to walk, bicycle or use transit.

Ironically, the major justification for the car-only design is that it briefly reduce intersection congestion, which will initially save a few seconds of motorist time (think of the fiscal irresponsibility of spending millions of public dollars spent to save a few seconds temporarily). Ironic because by artificially inducing more car trips than would have occurred had the diverging diamond not been built, the design will lead to MORE traffic congestion and MORE time delay for motorists in the long term (both at their location and areas in the region).

To hide the embarrassing fact that the millions spent ($14 million in this case) to briefly save a few seconds of time, the publicly proclaimed explanation is that it will improve safety. For the conventional traffic engineer, “improved safety” actually means that motorists can now drive faster and more inattentively with less fear of crashing. No mention is made of the fact that the intersection is much less safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, or that faster, less attentive driving is very dangerous for everyone.

The diverging diamond, therefore, is an excellent example of the century-long failure by conventional traffic engineers to understand induced car trips that are created by (briefly) reducing traffic congestion with these designs. There is a reason, after all, that many researchers repeatedly urge us to understand that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion. It is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

But wait. There’s more.

Not only is the diverging diamond a boondoggle in the above mentioned ways. It also damages our world by adding more auto emissions into our air (by increasing per capita car trips) and reducing potential tax revenues in the region (by encouraging dispersed rather than compact land use patterns).

Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief over why our generation built these monstrosities.

There is one tiny upside to this overwhelmingly negative idea: it produces future jobs for people hired to remove these mistakes after we regain our senses.

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Filed under Bicycling, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Is Traffic Calming Unsafe?

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 1, 2016

On October 5th, David Wagner alleged in the Boulder CO Daily Camera that traffic calming (which uses street design to slow cars to safe speeds) does not improve safety, yet significantly degrades fire safety (due to slower response times).

This is a red herring.

A study by Peter Swift conducted in Longmont CO found that when cities use excessive dimensions for roads to reduce fire truck response times, there is a net LOSS in overall safety.

Why?

Because those road dimensions lead to a large increase in car crashes, and the number of injuries and deaths caused by that increase in car crashes far exceeds any decrease in fire injuries/deaths due to allegedly slower fire truck response times. Dan Burden – a national traffic calming expert and son of a fire chief – disputes the claim that fire truck response 8330087time is significantly slowed. Boulder would benefit from having Burden conduct a traffic calming audit with the Boulder fire department, and demonstrate designs that slow cars without slowing fire trucks.

Swift’s study shows that safety is far better served when a community focuses on the much broader question of LIFE SAFETY rather than the subset of FIRE SAFETY.

Something not easy to measure in studies: When car speeds are not slowed by traffic calming measures, a large number of potential bicyclists and pedestrians are deterred from biking or walking (particularly children and seniors) due to perceived danger of high car speeds. Conversely, slow car speeds effectively recruit large numbers of cyclists and peds. Studies show that a society where there is less walking and cycling — and the more driving — public health declines and deaths increase.

The Transportation Advisory Board has been inundated with dozens of emails from citizens throughout the city pleading for the Board to calm their neighborhood streets due to dangerous speeding and cut-through traffic.

They would beg to differ with Mr. Wagner’s remarks.

 

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Promoting Traffic Safety

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 20, 2016

After three years of trying, I have finally been given the opportunity to give a presentation to the Boulder transportation advisory board – of which I have been a member. The topic will be on traffic safety, and I will be making the presentation in either early September or early October.

I decided one point I’d like to make is that if anything, streets have become much less safe than they were in the past – despite decades of often aggressive, extensive, expensive boulder-traffic-safetysafety efforts. This morning, I looked for a chart showing the trend in the number of annual deaths on US roadways. I have included a few charts from Wikipedia in this blog. “Annual Traffic Deaths” shows the crazy high number of annual deaths.

But the “Annual Deaths Per Mile Driven” chart shows that we are making a lot of progress on safety! I was surprised and realized I’d have to revise my presentation.

Then I came across a “Traffic Deaths” essay.

I learned from the essay that several decades ago, the auto folks needed to find a way to address the great alarm on the part of many Americans when they saw the huge number of traffic deaths. The solution to this PR problem – to head off serious efforts to reduce car dependence in our society – was to convey deaths based on MILES DRIVEN. It turns out that applying “miles driven” as a way to measure deaths is quite misleading. After all, if we used miles traveled, the space shuttle would be the “safest” way to travel…

Using that metric, the auto folks were able to reduce alarm (and meaningful efforts to reduce car dependence), because the metric shows improving traffic safety. Now we can sidestep the thought that 30,000 to 40,000 traffic deaths per year is barbaric (and demands our society reduce car use) and instead focus safety on individual motorist mistakes or mechanical solutions (which does almost nothing to correct this shocking, unacceptable road carnage problem).

One of my points about traffic safety is that our forgiving roadway design induces dangerous and growing levels of inattentive driving and excessive speeding. I believe inattentive driving and speeding are epidemic mostly because of our decades of employing forgiving roadway design. But if this is true, why does the chart show a decline in deaths since 1970?

My explanation is that while roads ARE more dangerous today than in the past, much of the reduction in deaths is associated with making cars (and, therefore, the motorists bike-car-crash1inside them) safer with such things as seat belts, air bags, and aggressive efforts against drunk driving – not to mention our removing a lot of trees and other “hazards” from near the side of roads.

I found another chart that shows a big increase in bicyclist deaths since the 1970s. That can partly be explained, I guess, by the growth in cycling since then, but I think it is also compatible with my belief that roads are more dangerous today. Motorists are safer in certain ways, but the growth in inattentiveness and speeding are leading to motorists killing more people bicycling.

In sum, it is clear to me that our roads need to be substantially redesigned to obligate slower, more attentive driving by motorists through various traffic calming, as well as reductions in the size of roadways and intersections. More warning signs, warning lights, warning paint, warning education, and warning enforcement has utterly failed to make our streets safe.

It is way past time to get serious and redesign our appallingly dangerous roadway system.

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