Pro-Pedestrian Policies Can Be Pro-Driver Too

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

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.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

Comments

Comments

Wide streets can be calmer

Widening the two lane arterial near my suburban home to six lanes has made it safer for my daily walks with my beagle. Traffic had long exceeded the capacity of the two lane state highway, and the road was usually congested. Drivers raced to get through intersections with traffic signals, and paid little attention to pedestrians.

Our new six lane state highway, completed in 2004, is much calmer. Traffic is never backed up, and drivers are able to pay more attention to crosswalks. The elimination of congestion also makes it easier for drivers to see ahead, and determine far earlier whether destinations are on the left or right.

Planners would not likely use the term "traffic calming" to describe our road expansion. But I can see much calmer drivers today.

What is can and calmer.

Wow. This one comment has - Galileo-like - negated almost a decade of work by traffic engineers and traffic planners; all done without evidence or attribution, simply by applying one anecdote to all other situations. Congratulations - most impressive.

Best,

D

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

As long as we are trading stories

I live very near an eight lane arterial that has been progressively widened over the past few decades. The arterial is very congested during rush hour, but is less congested at other times. I find that traffic runs even faster when it is not congested than when it is.

On the other hand, the road widenings did cause sidewalks to be installed, which partially balances out the negative impacts of the road widening.

Don't we want wide arterials?

Not sure I understand, Michael. What are the negative effects of the road widening? If the road is an arterial, isn't it serving its purpose better as an eight lane road than if it were a four lane road?

If the road had not been widened, would the traffic now flowing on it have moved to non-arterial roads? That's what was happening in my suburban town before our arterial was widened. Drivers sought less congested routes through residential neighborhoods. Children on bicycles and on foot in the residential neighborhoods were more at risk due to the higher overflow traffic.

Who is 'we' wrt arterials?

If I may:

What are the negative effects of the road widening? If the road is an arterial, isn't it serving its purpose better as an eight lane road than if it were a four lane road?

Purpose. Better. What are the questions if autocentricity and pedestrian safety are considered? Right! too wide for non-motorized safety. There are other considerations than just cars.

Pardon me. Thank you.

Best,

D

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

negative effects

"What are the negative effects of the road widening? If the road is an arterial, isn't it serving its purpose better as an eight lane road than if it were a four lane road?"

Negative effects include pedestrian danger and discomfort. Nearly all neighborhood commerce is on this street, so its "purpose" should be not just to move long-distance traffic but to serve all road users.

"If the road had not been widened, would the traffic now flowing on it have moved to non-arterial roads?"

Not in this particular case, for two reasons:

1. Because residential streets are primarily cul-de-sacs, traffic on this street is not going to go to residential streets.

2. In fact, much of the traffic might simply go to arterial roads in other neighborhoods: this street serves not just neighborhood residents, but long-distance commuters from downtown into suburbs further out than mine. I suspect the road widening shifted development to those suburbs, thus inducing long-distance commuting traffic to shift to that street.

My guess is that had the road not been widened, some of the development in those outer suburbs (that is, the ones closest to my street) would simply have never taken place, and thus my street would have far less non-neighborhood traffic. Instead, the development (and the traffic) would have moved to other arterial streets in other parts of town. But this is just a conjecture.

road expansion meets the demand for expansion of far suburbs

Thanks for the reply, Michael.

I can understand that road expansion enables development of outer suburbs. But I'm having trouble buying the arguments of some urbanists that road expansion causes suburban development. From what I've read, streetcar suburbs were sucessful because they offerred buyers the type housing they desired. Outer suburbs developed because that's what buyers wanted. Road expansion just meets a demand, it doesn't seem to cause that demand.

I've been in more than a handful of town hall meetings between congressmen and their constituents. Road expansion is almost always an important topic for voters. Local officials see this, and pressure state agencies and politicians incessantly.

Here in Dallas, regional planners have used the demand for road expansion in one high growth suburb to get toll road approval by city councils. The regional planners arrogantly threaten to not fund already planned expansion of arterial road A if the city council does not allow a nearby freeway already under construction to be converted to a toll road. Needless to say, such strong arm tactics do not help relationships between planners and citizens.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Well, that's another argument, but ...

"I can understand that road expansion enables development of outer suburbs. But I'm having trouble buying the arguments of some urbanists that road expansion causes suburban development. From what I've read, streetcar suburbs were sucessful because they offerred buyers the type housing they desired. Outer suburbs developed because that's what buyers wanted. Road expansion just meets a demand, it doesn't seem to cause that demand."

Well, that's another topic that we can argue about till the cows come home.

But just bringing it back to the neighborhood perspective (and to my giant neighborhood arterial)-given that there is some demand for outer suburbs, where roads go affect where the demand is met.

Imagine two streets heading into the countryside, A St. and B St. If A St. is widened, the demand is likely to go there, as new suburbs surround the A Street. If B Street is widened, the demand is similarly likely to go there.

So from the standpoint of A Street's current residents, widening A Street may have unintended consequences in the long run.

In the very short run, widening A Street may, as you have suggested, relieve congestion. But in the long run, widening A Street ensures that the demand for outer suburbs goes to the outer edges of A Street rather than the outer edges of some other street or highway (for example, B Street), so A Street eventually becomes much busier.

Conversely, if A Street had not been widened, the traffic would not necessarily go into other residential streets nearby- it would just go into other neighborhoods, as the demand for outer suburban development shifts to other, wider streets.

Long term consequences for the few and for the many

OK. I think I understand. You were referring to long term negative consequences - possibly unintended negative consequences - for the residents in the immediate vicinity of the arterial. I was thinking about:

  • the short term benefits to everyone;
  • the long term benefits for those people who wish to live in the outer subdivisions; and
  • the long term benefits of the drivers and residents who use other arterials.

The consequences which may be unintended for some of the residents along the arterial are likely the intended result of the planners who decided A St should be a wider arterial. They would have known that widening an arterial would result in further development of outer suburbs, and also that some traffic from parallel arterials would relocate. Isn't that correct?

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

who knows what lurks in the hearts of planners?

"The consequences which may be unintended for some of the residents along the arterial are likely the intended result of the planners who decided A St should be a wider arterial. They would have known that widening an arterial would result in further development of outer suburbs, and also that some traffic from parallel arterials would relocate. Isn't that correct?"

Actually, I've heard people argue that highways, widened streets, etc. don't affect development. So I think that sometimes planners are clueless as to the effects of their actions. (By contrast, we both know otherwise!)

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