23.10.12

Today on Streets.mn: The First Rule of Urban Design is "Show, Don't Tell"

[Actually, no. A crosswalk is a crosswalk.]
I have a new post up on Street.mn today, about what I view as the limits to educational campaigns. The idea here is that, often engineers and planners rely too much on signage and legal changes (e.g. the 3' bike law) as opposed to actual infrastructural changes. There are obvious limits to this kind of approach to traffic design.

Here's the main point of my piece:
Real change is concrete change. For example, compare an educational campaign that says “every corner is a crosswalk (even ones without crosswalks)” to actually designing and paint decent crosswalks throughout the city. Compare hiring thousands of policemen to enforcing safe speed limits all through the city, to constructing “sleeping policemen” (what the British call speed bumps) that actually limit how fast people can drive, 24/7. Compare the erection of flashing speed limit signs to traffic calming. Compare a yellow ‘human being’ sign to a road diet, or narrower lanes, or bumpouts,
There’s no comparison. Actual concrete viscerally slows down traffic, no matter what the time of day. All of these things, real concrete changes, are effective no matter who is behind the wheel, or what they are thinking about, or what kind of person they are. All of these kinds of changes demand more from drivers, and say “pay attention” not with a sign, but with an demanding road environment.

I have this thought each time I see a bike route that relies only on a green sign, or a sharrow painted on the pavement. These kinds of design approaches pale in comparison to traffic calming, where you're actually narrowin the street, putting in a traffic circle, or installing speed bumps.

In writing, one of the oft-repeated rules is "show, don't tell." I think a similar ruel could exist for urban design. Instead of putting up a sign that says "watch for pedestrians" or "Speed Limit 30", you want to design a street that makes it obvious that pedestrians are all around, and that makes it highly uncomfortable to drive fast. You don't want to tell people to drive slowly and carefully, you want to make spaces where that is the obvious way to behave.

While there are some examples of useful educational campaigns, I fear that, for the most part, these are simply ways to keep graphic designers employed. Good street design should be self-evident.

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