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Pro-Pedestrian Policies Can Be Pro-Driver Too

Some transportation writers seem to believe that the interests of drivers and those of nondrivers are irreconcilable. For example, I just searched on google.com for websites using the terms “traffic calming” and “anti-automobile” together, and found over 60 such sites. But in fact, the interest of pedestrians in calmer, more walkable streets sometimes intersects (pun intended) with the interests of at least some motorists.

Michael Lewyn | March 31, 2008, 7pm PDT
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Some transportation writers seem to believe that the interests of drivers and those of nondrivers are irreconcilable. For example, I just searched on google.com for websites using the terms "traffic calming" and "anti-automobile" together, and found over 60 such sites. But in fact, the interest of pedestrians in calmer, more walkable streets sometimes intersects (pun intended) with the interests of at least some motorists.

In parts of my city, surface streets are eight or nine lanes wide, and shops are typically set back at least a couple of dozen feet from the street. Obviously, such streets are not particularly safe for pedestrians. A wide street takes more time to cross than a not-so-wide street, and every second spent crossing streets and parking lots is another second that a pedestrian is exposed to automobile traffic.

But does that mean that such wide streets are "pro-driver", and that critics of such street design are "anti-auto"? Not necessarily. If you are a long-distance commuter passing through an eight-lane street, you may think that the wide street is a good idea, because it allows you to drive through the neighborhood more quickly.

But if you actually want to drive to a shop or restaurant near the eight-lane street, you may find a narrower street more convenient. Suppose you want to drive to a restaurant on the left side of the street. On a two-lane street, you don't have to worry about getting into the appropriate lane to make a turn- you just get to the store and turn left. But on an eight-lane street, you have to plan your trip by getting in the center lane, and then risk your life making a left turn across several lanes of high-speed traffic.

And if you don't know whether your restaurant is on the left or right side of the street, Heaven help you, because if you are driving 45 miles per hour to keep up with the traffic, you probably won't be able to find your restaurant in time to figure out which lane you need to enter. Ordinances requiring buildings to be set back behind 20 or 30 feet of greenery or parking lots make navigation even more difficult, because street numbers are often invisible when buildings are far from the street.

Thus, decisions about street design are not always simple "pedestrian vs. driver" conflicts; different drivers have different interests. The interests of a driver searching for a neighborhood destination, or of the shopkeeper who wants to attract drivers to that destination, are not always the interests of a driver who wants a speedy commute to exurbia.

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