Slow down! This is a neighborhood!

While doing this week’s readings, I thought a lot about one of the more basic facts about people: that we are lazy and selfish. To be kinder to ourselves, we’re really good at conserving energy – behavior that, while often optimal on the individual scale, doesn’t always work in society’s best interest. Calming car traffic is a great example of this idea. According to “Our Cities, Ourselves”, cars must be “radically slowed” to promote more walkable, bikeable streets. But how? One current proposed local solution is the “Safe Streets” Bill, which recently passed the Washington State House (HB1045) and is now moving through the state senate (SB5066). This bill makes it easier for cities and towns to drop speed limits to as low as 20 miles per hour on non-arterial streets in their jurisdictions. Great, right? The streets are safe! Everybody go home!

While I think this is a good step, it’s a distraction from the root of the problem. In pushing to drop speed limits, no one ever asks why people are speeding. In most cases, it’s probably not because speeders are terrible people who like to take out as many school children on bikes as possible before breakfast. It’s probably because, as rational humans, they’re responding in natural ways to cues in the built environment. When driving, I often catch a glance at my speedometer and am surprised by how fast I am going – this is because the speed that feels natural, that the road has been designed for, often has little correlation with the speed limit. When faced with a wide, straight expanse of road and a distant horizon, you will drive fast. Why take longer to get from point A to point B when the environment is not telling you that’s necessary? All that thinking takes up too much energy. You’re not one of those bad drivers who hits cyclists, after all.

The problem is of course that, in areas developed after World War II, many of these superhighways-in-function masquerade as neighborhood streets. As addressed in the Sightline report on road widening, this is driven by the well-meaning but horribly misguided idea that wider streets with more capacity mean less traffic. Again, people respond to cues – why not choose to drive when it’s so easy and so much faster? And that will always continue until the widened road is choked with traffic again. The result’s a mess – at rush hour, you can’t get anywhere, and, off-peak, cars fly through overly generous rights-of-way. So long as this form is used, it is what will happen, regardless of how many flashing lights or scolding signs a community puts up.

How about we work with human nature rather than against it? In older single family neighborhoods, like mine in Wallingford, speed on neighborhood streets is practically a non issue because they’re narrow and lined with parked cars. From my car, I can look my neighbors walking on sidewalks right in the eye, rather than surmise from a distance that a moving blob is in fact a person and not a hallucination as on a typical suburban street. I can’t speed even if I wanted to, because at any turn I might come face to face with a car coming in the opposite direction. It takes more time to get around, but it works just fine for moving within the neighborhood, and I feel safe when I’m riding my bike or walking.

Hans Monderman took the idea of working with human nature in traffic to the ultimate level. Monderman was a Dutch traffic engineer who advocated creating “shared space” on streets by removing the things we take as a given for traffic safety – traffic signs, crosswalks, lanes, curbs, lights. Instead, all people using the street much pay attention to each other and negotiate through space. In “shared spaces”, your natural response is not to speed. It works. When reading signs, I think you get a false sense of control that if I stay in my lane, keep going the speed limit, and stop where I’m told, everything will be fine. Even if everyone does this, cars still hit icy patches and kids still run into the street. Things go wrong, and when they do, there’s not a sign to tell you how to respond. We’re lazy beings, but incredibly perceptive and intelligent – a couple new speed limit signs are simply not enough to control our behavior. Like Moderman said – “when you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots”.

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