Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Two Near Misses

Today I saw two car drivers completely run red lights. These weren't ambiguous situations or running the yellow only to have it turn red after the car entered the intersection. Both were along Larpenteur Avenue/East Hennepin Avenue, a long east-west street that connects Minneapolis and St. Paul and changes names at the border.

The first was as I went to an appointment in Minneapolis on East Hennepin, and the other was on the way back from the appointment. So I was doing a minimal amount of driving — maybe two miles in each direction.

The first driver blew through the light, going east at Cleveland Avenue, after I had a green arrow. If I had gone out of the light immediately, that driver would have slammed into either the front of my car or the driver-side door.

The second driver zoomed through a different light, going west in Minneapolis, as I sat at the light facing the opposite direction to go east. There was a pedestrian in the street and she was almost hit by the car, which was going well above the speed limit.

What is wrong with people?

As urban planner Jason Segedy (@thestile1972) wrote recently on Twitter,

6,000 pedestrians killed in the U.S. last year. There needs to be a national cultural reckoning with the way that we sacrifice thousands of vulnerable people on the altar of unimpeded traffic speeds and inattentive drivers.

We design too many of our urban streets as if they are freeways - too many lanes, wide lanes, wide shoulders, huge signs (you need huge signs when traffic moves fast), no street trees. Every aspect of this street design sends a subtle, powerful message to drivers: "You rule the road. All obstacles and impediments to you driving as fast as you can get away with have been removed."....

Drivers drive at the speed they think conditions warrant - not the speed that the sign on the road says. It's actually an extremely human and rational thing to do. And we all do it (except for you, of course.)

So let's talk about street design. Why? Because street design is ultimately what makes people drive at safe speeds.

Streets that make drivers feel unafraid to drive too fast are unsafe streets, by design. Conversely, streets that make drivers feel afraid to drive too fast, and therefore makes them more wary and cautious, are actually safer streets.

The lowest hanging fruit is number of lanes, lane width, and shoulder width. Have a four lane street? People driving too fast? Put up some new signs? Pay cops to patrol it? By some cameras?

No. Get rid of two of the lanes. Make the lanes themselves narrower. This makes drivers feel uncomfortable and slows them down. Put in street trees, narrow intersections, install speed tables at high-volume crosswalks - there are tons of fairly low-cost design changes that make a big collective impact.

Yes, traffic will move slower. That's a feature, not a bug, in an urban environment. We have high-speed roads where pedestrians are prohibited - they're called freeways. Everywhere else? It's time to think about what our streets are for, and designing for who uses them.

Streets aren't for maximizing the speed of vehicular traffic. That's what roads are for. We treat all of our streets like roads, regardless of locational context. It's a cultural blind-spot. An innovative, equitable, wealthy nation can do better than 6,000 pedestrian deaths.

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