Life in the Slow(er) Lane

15 Feb
Slow-Zone-thumb

A newly installed neighborhood slow zone in Brooklyn, NY, as part of NYC’s Vision Zero program. From BrooklynBridgeParents.com.

 

This is the last in a series of 3 posts focused around a simple idea:

We’d all benefit from slowing down.

(The two previous 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 zero):

The Costs of Speed

I’m very much in favor of protected bike lanes and good sidewalks and paths, but people in cars or on foot or on bicycles still have to interact with motorized traffic even with the best sidewalks and bike lanes.  Slowing all traffic down would be the easiest and possibly most game-changing thing we could do to make things safer and more inviting for everyone, and make our communities more livable in the process.

This probably seems like a crazy idea to many because as a society we put a premium on time and therefore on speed, and because we’ve just gotten used to traveling relatively fast, especially in cars.  Driving 35 or 40 on a street like Boulevard, for example, feels normal because the street is designed that way, everyone else is driving more or less that speed, and that’s what we’re used to.  As I’ve suggested in earlier segments of this series, however, we pay a fairly high price for that — or we indirectly force others to pay it — in lower levels of safety for everyone, as well as the danger and unpleasantness of going by foot or bicycle.

The crazy thing, when you think about it, is that we’ve accepted that the way we handle traffic now is worth large numbers of deaths and injuries among people in cars as well as others.  There’s no way to prevent all collisions, but it’s odd that significant loss of life and limb are regarded as acceptable costs for driving the way we do.  And we know — it’s been proven over and over — that slower speeds make for fewer deaths and less severe injuries for people in cars as well as on bike and foot.

As reported earlier, a number of countries and now several U.S. cities have begun to say that this cost is too high — in the form of a program labeled Vision Zero.  It basically means taking measures to reduce traffic deaths to zero.  This signals a welcome and monumental shift away from accepting those costs that we’ve previously treated as an unavoidable reality .  It says, “We don’t have to accept death and injury as inevitable consequences.  We can prioritize safety and still have a functioning system that works for everyone.”

Inaugurating a new Arterial Slow Zone in NYC on a major commercial street.

Inaugurating a new Arterial Slow Zone in NYC on a major commercial street.his includes is slowing down traffic on “arterial” streets like Boulevard.  I would argue that you could slow down traffic  in Richmond and it wouldn’t make a very big difference in the time we spend traveling, but would make a big difference in safety and quality of life.

 

This includes is slowing down traffic on “arterial” streets like Boulevard.  You could slow down traffic everywhere in Richmond and it wouldn’t make a very big difference in the time we spend traveling, but would make a big difference in safety and quality of life.

“But I’m in a Hurry!” Experimenting with Slowness

It comes down to this: the difference between 20 and 30 mph, or 30 and 40 for that matter, is not that big in terms of travel time, especially when you’re driving through the city.  You usually can’t maintain a higher speed for long in any case due to signals and other cars, and the time difference in the end is no more than a few minutes.

I did an experiment last spring with the help of some friends over at Bike Walk RVA to test this out.  For purely self-serving purposes (having a nice lunch at a favorite spot), we decided to test how long it would take to get from Union Hill to a restaurant in Carytown, a distance of about 4 miles.  We did this on multiple occasions, always leaving near 1:15 p.m. from Union Hill, comparing “slow,” “normal,” and “fast” car driving as well as more “law-abiding” vs. “law-bending” bicycling.

Car vs. Bicycle

The first test: car vs. bicycle.  I imagine that one reason some do not embrace riding a bicycle for transportation is that doing so would take up too much time compared to driving.  So my partner-in-experimentation and I left Union Hill at the same time (1:15 p.m.), I on a bicycle and he in a car, selecting somewhat different routes through the city (not using the expressway).  Driving at the posted speed limit and taking into account time to park, it took him 18 minutes to arrive at the door of our destination in Carytown.  As the one on a bicycle I stopped at all stop signs and signals, and rode at what is for me a normal pace — neither leisurely nor hurried, probably about 12 mph.  It took me 26 minutes.  So, not surprisingly, driving a car was faster.  But for getting halfway across down it was a difference of only 8 minutes.  And unlike my partner, I had already burned off some of the chips I ate for lunch.

Speed Limit vs. Slow Driving

The second test was driving the speed limit vs. driving slower.  I drove the same route that my partner did on another day at the same time of day, but kept my speed at 20 mph or below the whole way.  I drove mostly on Main Street through downtown and the Fan.  It was actually hard to compare my speed to the speed limit because there are very few signs indicating the limit.  The one sign I could find on Main St. between Shockoe Bottom and Belvidere read 25 mph.  Given the general understanding that speeding a bit over the limit is normal and won’t get you in trouble, I would bet that the average speed is usually 30 mph at least.

There were certainly times that I felt self-conscious going that slow, feeling like a slow poke getting in everyone’s way.  It shows how hard it can be to resist “going with the flow” of traffic and how strong our sense of “normal” speed is.  The result?  It took me a whopping 22 minutes to travel the same route — 4 minutes more than going the speed limit in a car, and only 4 minutes less than on a bicycle.  5-10 mph difference probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it can make a big difference, actually, in terms of reaction time and whether someone you hit lives or dies, not to mention how the street feels to more vulnerable users.

Regular vs. “Hurried” Bicycling

As a final test, we asked a volunteer to ride a bicycle a bit faster and without following the rules of the road as strictly as I did (rolling through stop signs, etc.).  It took him a little over 20 minutes.  So going at a slower pace and sticking with the rules of the road cost me about 6 minutes extra.  If you think about the various things you do (or don’t do) in a day that take 6 or 8 or 10 minutes, it’s hard to think that you’re wasting precious time by taking it easier on the road.

Cost of Slowing Down vs. Cost of Speed

I realize that this is not a rigorous scientific experiment.  But the results are not surprising and I think they point to something.  There is a cost to slowing down — going faster and driving less carefully can get you somewhere a bit faster (assuming you don’t have an accident on the way).  And driving a car is somewhat faster than riding a bike.  But the difference is just not that big.

The question for us to ask ourselves is whether the 5 or 10 minutes we may save by virtue of the transportation and driving choices we make are worth the costs.  That can be tricky for us humans to calculate because the costs are not always right in front of our faces — and they may be costs to other people more than ourselves.

The real idea is just to start a conversation that hasn’t been happening much in Richmond yet.  To introduce an idea that many would not even contemplate because the status quo seems, well, so normal: that we might shift our priorities and the way we think about travel in a way that recognizes how much streets are not just places that each of us uses to get where we need to go individually, but really a place of coexistence and given-and-take.

What can you do?  One is to choose to drive slower — at the speed limit or even below, considering how non-motorized folks out there, not to mention people who live along such streets, are experiencing your speed.  The other is to find ways to bring up this radical idea of slowness — nudging friends and family a bit from their sense of normal speed and “where I need to be” toward sharing the road in a more profound sense.

 

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