Design and Plan For What People Actually Do, Not What They Should Do

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I realize a common theme in my recent writing has been a sort of breakdown and analysis of how people who don’t understand the concepts of smart community design respond when they are introduced to these emerging concepts. I think it’s vital for urbanists and urban enthusiasts to understand where they lose people, and how we can frame these concepts in an effort to create a more effective vessel of communication. So I’m not going to break from recent tradition just yet!

In my advocacy for Complete Streets as a method of slowing traffic speeds, designing safer intersections and creating infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrians and more sustainable mobility modes, I receive responses that are ritualistically repeated. It’s something to the effect of “we shouldn’t have to slow traffic, people just need to be more responsible,” or “we need more enforcement,” or my personal favorite, “<insert my city here> drivers are the worst.”

These are the banner arguments of those who disagree with the implementation of complete streets. Here’s why all three are shortsighted and simplistic.

People Should Just Be More Responsible

The easy answer to this statement is remarkably simple… drivers aren’t reliably responsible and no amount of wanting them to be is going to make it any better. An automobile is a powerful tool. It makes people feel in control and free to do what they want. True, most people do their best to be relatively responsible behind the wheel, but many succumb to the unchecked power of their vehicle, ignoring speed limits, stop signs, crosswalks and more. And even when good drivers are cognizant of the laws in place for their safety and the safety of others, mistakes can happen, and those mistakes often have grave consequences.

Saying people should just be more responsible instead of designing safer streets is the equivalent to saying “thoughts and prayers” after a preventable series of tragedies. It’s wishing for something hopeful, but doing or advocating for nothing constructive to ensure that the event doesn’t occur again.

For decades, automobile crashes were the number one killer of children and teens in the U.S. This has recently taken a close second to gun violence, creating a sobering pair of preventable leaders in American child mortality.

To put this number in perspective, the US has approximately 5 times the rate of automobile related fatalities as the UK. This is not to say that drivers in the UK are “more responsible,” but rather that automobiles in the UK are smaller because the roads are narrower. So in essence, the United Kingdom is a great example of why street and vehicle size can greatly impact our everyday safety.

We Need More Enforcement

Police patrols can be effective in limiting vehicle speeds and curbing traffic infractions. But the cost versus benefit comparison is astronomically out of sync.

Let’s say a State Police officer parks her police cruiser on a highway. She clocks a car traveling 85 in a 65 and immediately intercepts the culprit. She takes the driver’s license and registration, enters it into the database, issues a ticket and moves on… but the whole process takes 20 minutes. This is time in which taxpayer dollars are spent on the officer’s time and the vehicle she is driving, not to mention the time she idled, waiting for the speeder. In addition, dozens of other vehicles have likely passed by, committing the same offense with no punishment. And when you consider the cost of traffic court on the taxpayer as well, the fiscal burden of police as the primary motivation for adherence to traffic law is fiscally inefficient.

The above is in no way an attempt to marginalize our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day. Instead, the above paragraph hopes that we design roads that limit driver irresponsibility so that that our police might be able to direct their efforts elsewhere.

Simply narrowing roads, limiting traffic lanes and incorporating traffic calming implements can slow all drivers without the need for human enforcement.

Drivers Here Are The Worst!

Think about it, how many times have you heard someone say “you know where the worst drivers are?” Now count the number of states you’ve heard people reference. It’s probably more than a handful.

Here in the Northeast, the term ”Masshole” is often used to describe the supposed reckless drivers of Massachusetts. Yet traffic data shows that Massachusetts has the lowest automobile fatality rate per 100 million miles driven. And yet southeastern states that anecdotally are associated with Southern Charm” and a “Slower Pace” (South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Louisiana and Florida) lead the country in the same metric.

We know that wider lanes mean that people will drive fast, and we know that speed is a factor of traffic fatalities in nearly 1/3 of all incidents. We know that even small increases in vehicular speeds can lead to deadly outcomes. So why speculate on what state, city or region has the worst drivers?

The truth is that, given any environment, drivers respond accordingly to road conditions. Wider roads will lead to greater speeds which lead to more fatalities, even if those speed increases are a matter of a few miles per hour. Lane width, the presence of street trees or parallel parking, and the sheer number of lanes are the real determinants with regard to how people drive, or how the built environment allows them to pilot their vehicle.

In Sum

To some extent yes, excessive speed, aggressive driving and defiant road behavior is a choice, and one that should be subject to greater education, better enforcement and mob ridicule. But the choice to drive irresponsibly is in large part welcomed, conditioned and even encouraged by road design that inspires a false sense a freedom and a misplaced sense of security. We can try to address this behavior at the individual level, or we can more effectively and efficiently accept that we are all susceptible to the behavior-changing elements of the built environment that encourages us to pilot our vehicles in an unsafe manner.