Imagine Slow(er) City Streets

29 Jan
New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City.  Image from Streetsblog.

New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City. Image from Streetsblog.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about what the statistics tell us about the safety and danger of our streets for bicyclists.  The following is the second of three installments about the still-radical idea of (drum roll) slowing car traffic.     

Richmond is taking small but important steps toward safer streets.  Bigger steps are sorely needed.  In the annual “Dangerous by Design” report from the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Richmond area ranked lower than D.C. and Hampton Roads for pedestrian safety.  See the report here and the RTD article here.

The RTD reported last summer that city council passed a resolution put forward by Parker Agelasto adding an additional $200 to fines for speeding on sections of Cary Street and Semmes Avenue.  On Cary it’s between Addison and Meadow, and between Granby and Cherry (one block was left out because law restricts the increased fine zone to residential areas), and on Semmes between 22nd Street and Dundee.

The current speed limit on these parts of Cary is 25 mph, on Semmes it’s 35, but it’s been determined that at least 85 percent of drivers on these streets are going more than 10 mph over the speed limit.  It’s striking that it has to be that bad to justify doing anything.  And it’s also not that surprising that many drivers go this fast because it’s come to be taken for granted that going faster than the speed limit (up to a point) is acceptable.

I could see taking this effort a lot further.  It’s not easy to slow drivers down, especially if the road still encourages higher speeds.  But at least the problem is being recognized.  Richmond has a number of streets that serve as quasi-highways (another example is Laburnum Ave. in my neighborhood).  These “arterial” streets are dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians and cyclists.  The physical design often sends the message that motorists own the road, and not surprisingly, drivers act accordingly.  They could and should serve other users but are so heavily tilted toward traffic flow that people using other forms of transportation effectively shut out, or at least discouraged from using the space too.

Speeds on other streets downtown and in neighborhoods are also often too fast for an urban environment with bicyclists and pedestrians as part of the mix.  Is there really any reason why anyone should go more than 15 mph on a neighborhood street?  Combined with cultural and psychological factors that make for relative impatience, we’ve made it more dangerous and unpleasant to walk and bike than it should be.

An Emerging Movement?

There has been quite a bit of press in recent months about emerging efforts to reduce deaths and injuries of pedestrians in New York City (see this New York Times piece, for example).  A group called Families for Safe Streets, founded by relatives of individuals killed by motorists, has joined forces with local advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives to lobby city and state leaders.

Recently elected Mayor Deblasio has embraced the movement with his Vision Zero action plan, an effort to bring traffic deaths down to zero.  (In 2013, 286 people, mostly pedestrians and bicyclists, were killed by motorists in New York).

One of the first concrete results of this initiative was unveiled earlier this month: arterial slow zones (see the Streetsblog report here).  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  But that’s the point; like Cary, Semmes, Laburnum, and other similar streets in Richmond, New York has streets that serve as thoroughfares and have traditionally seen heavy and fast traffic.  In the “slow zones” the limit has been reduced from 30 to 25 mph — which probably means that many drivers have been traveling at 40+ mph.  These streets will also be redesigned and see targeted enforcement to encourage slower speeds.

It’s striking in this regard that in Richmond the effort to reduce the speed limit on Floyd Avenue from 25 to 20 as part of the bike-walk street proposal has proven difficult, mostly because the standards, assumptions, formulas etc. used by traffic engineers are so narrowly structured: these decisions are based on current traffic speeds and accident statistics, but no sense of whether the street is actually inviting to cyclists and pedestrians.  The manuals and models and formulas do not tend to take into account this basic and obvious fact: a person walking or on a bicycle is at an incredible disadvantage against 2-tons of metal and plastic.  People walking or on bicycles are by definition (very) vulnerable road users, but our roads and policies do not really reflect that fact.

It’s no wonder, then, that many people will not even consider riding a bicycle to get around and would rather not walk either: it feels too risky because, even on a relatively calm street in the Fan, there are enough cars going fast enough to make it intimidating.  That issue gets missed in the arguments that such streets are already fine for biking and walking; they may be for those who already do, but not for the large number of people who would consider it if the streets were more inviting.

I have heard the concern that the Vision Zero idea, which originated in Sweden and is now being embraced by a number of U.S. cities, that we should be careful about the increased enforcement aspect because of persisting racial disparities in who gets pulled over for traffic violations.  This is an important concern that should be taken into account in the formulation of these strategies.

Keep an eye out for the final installment in this series next week: a case for life in the slow lane, and how it’s not as slow as you might think.



One Response to “Imagine Slow(er) City Streets”


  1. Life in the Slow(er) Lane | Bikeable Richmond - February 24, 2015

    […] ones are here, focused on recent reports about the relative safety and danger of bicycling, and here, about a new movement called Vision Zero that seeks to reduce traffic deaths of all kinds to […]

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