Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Building the Yellow Brick Road; For Speed and Dependence...and Death

This is truly amazing on many levels.  TxDOT says that the state of Texas has now gone 13 years with at least one traffic fatality every single day.  Every day.  Somebody died on the roads.  That's pretty terrible and unnecessary.

However tragic, that isn't even the worst part of the story.  It is completely believable.  No, the real shame is the complete abdication of fault by TxDOT.  That's the easy and cowardly thing to do when places like Chicago are making explicit goals that no citizen should die just trying to get around.  To live.  That is the very first responsibility of government.  Public safety.

User error.  Not our fault.  Even though other municipalities except the reality that traffic safety and deaths are directly related to the kind of roads and transportation system we build.  Safety improves at lower speeds, with more visual activity happening, narrower roads, two-way roads, when there are more transportation modes available and those modes are convenient, when the driver has to make eye contact or just pay attention, when there is higher intersection density, and more pedestrians.  We KNOW all of these things.

And yet?  Here is TxDOT's response:
Authorities say impaired driving, lack of seat belts and speed are the "big three" reasons for traffic deaths.
Higher speeds.  Well, we know people will always drive as fast as the road is designed for them to go.  How fast they feel comfortable and still in control.  Often, so fast that they feel like they don't have to pay much attention and could even text while driving.  Nope, regulation (speed limits) and enforcement (speeding tickets) are quite impotent in improving safety when the road is designed for high speed travel.

When I first saw the designs for the Hunt Hill Bridge and then TxDOT announced the speed limit would be 35, I immediately knew there would be a speed trap on it or at the base, months before it actually opened.  And it happened.  Why?  Because the bridge is designed at highway standards to go fast.  And that alludes to the deeper problem.  The roads are all designed by set standards, all to encourage fast moving traffic, because somehow in fantasy land that improves congestion or safety.  It does neither.

On top of that, the funding of roads steers more money to bigger roads through the mandatory Thoroughfare Plan system.  Bigger the road, the higher the priority, the more money, the wider it has to be.  So cities, to get their free crack fix of transportation money, are incentivized to 'upgrade' as many roads as possible.  By 'upgrading' the road it 'levels up' on the road hierarchy.  Local streets become collectors.  Collectors become arterials.  Arterials become highways.  As they do, they each get incrementally wider, faster, less safe, with less intersections, pedestrians, street life, or clutter.  All the things mentioned above that improve safety.

Sorry, we gotta protect the jobs and the gravy train.  And those jobs are to kill.  Every day for thirteen years past and in all likelihood on into the future unless drastic, systemic changes are made.  Not the occasional bone thrown to a hike and bike trail through and to locations nobody is willing or able to go.  That only exacerbates the problem while pretending to address it.

Impaired driving.  Is due to car dependence.  See my post on this subject here.  The deadliest cities for drunk driving per capita are the most car dependent.  Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Memphis.  (The deadliest states per capita tend to be the most wide open like Montana...high speeds plus drinking).  Here the problem is also partly due to sprawl, inducing such car dependence.  The most convenient and often only way to get around is by car.  Cabs don't know where to congregate outside of hotels, the airport, and McKinney Avenue.  And transit?  Please.

To some extent the user error is true.  However, it's like saying you must use something and you must use it in an unsafe manner to do mundane tasks.  Like eating every meal with a chainsaw.