Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Danger Cars Pose

I've gotten some questions recently over at the Walkable DFW facebook group about what an average citizen can do about potentially unsafe or unwalkable roads in and around their neighborhoods and downtown. Not to plug too much, but the purpose of that group is to provide a forum for concerned citizens and activists to meet each other as well as engage directly with me seeking urban planning/organizational advice for the kind of information they need, who they need to talk to, as well as some general planning ideas for them to be empowered with some knowledge, information, and organization to start the ball rolling with their elected officials, no matter the municipality within the DFW metroplex.

With that in mind, the Infrastructurist has some startling graphics representing the toll roads take (get it?) on our bodies and minds.
Of course, cars and roads don't have to be unsafe, but the way they are designed is. While this is obviously a serious issue, I had to have some fun with it:
As in all cases, governing traffic speed via regulation/signage/enforcement is nonsensical and costly (when factored for policing, paperwork, etc.) Cars (w/drivers) will ALWAYS go as fast as the driver feels comfortable. Long, straight shot? Gun it. One way? Gun it. Turning radii allowing for high speed cornering and some dukes of hazzard style "wheelin' n' dealin'"? Gun it.
We certainly aren't meant to turn our brains off through lowest common denominator engineering currently driving road design. And evolutionary biology tells us that our eye-hand coordination and reflexes aren't adapted to 60 mph movement let alone 30.

I've discussed the issue of designing for dumb drivers and designing for smart drivers in the past:
Have you ever noticed how much safer and more polite Dallas drivers are when traffic lights are out, operating as blinking reds and the drivers are left to their own devices, responsible for their own safety. Interesting how they begin to cooperate with other drivers, no? Well, I have noticed.

Similarly, four-way stops are drastically much safer than any other form of regulated intersection. One reason is b/c of reduced speed in areas where stop signs are utilized rather than signals. The other primary contributive factor, is that (although not necessary due to literally written protocol for who goes first at 4-way stops) there is a necessary communication to some extent between the drivers: eye contact, a slow roll to indicate that "I'm moving. Hold back buddy," maybe even a honk or two...or this.

That communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, makes something infinitely more intelligent because there are now feedback loops.
Tightly controlling pedestrians with a view to improving the flow of car traffic just results in more and faster driving, and that makes life even harder and more dangerous for people on foot or on bikes.
Not to mention it allows drivers to tune out by funneling them virtually (and sometimes literally) into cattle chutes.
In fact, studies have shown that pedestrians are safer in urban areas where jaywalking is common than they are in urban areas where it is forbidden.
Essentially, it's creating some measure of chaos in the streets. Ewwwww, engineers hate chaos. Their theocratic formulas can't dictate. Their metrics can't measure. Can. Not. Compute. But, you can via safety statistics, measures of happiness, quality of place and real estate development on the street. For example - when the Champs Elysees went all travel lanes, all of the businesses died. When returned to parallel slip lanes w/ parking and wide sidewalks, it has become some of the most valuable floor space in the world.

To some extent, it is pushing the idea behind the Woonerf, or shared living space. The name comes from the fact that this is more residential in nature, the street as front yard for the residents, where children can play safely in the middle of the street w/ mother's watchful eye peering out the kitchen window. And they can, because the business (visually) of the street, the narrowness of the travel lanes, the lack of definition of the travel lanes (ie there are no 12' wide rights-of-way dictating direction), slows traffic. In sum, it's a free for all. See some pictures here (bottom of the post).
Which do you think it is, road design that turns your brain off? Or too many potentially incompetent or dangerous drivers on the road? Or a combination of the two?