30.1.13

Today on Streets.mn: Three Easy Steps Toward Walkability

[A driver on a phone while turning right on red. Portland Ave, Mpls.]
I put up a post yesterday on Streets.mn called "Three Ways to Improve Walkability Without Touching the Street." The three steps are red light cameras, 'no turn on red' signs, and a ban on cell phones while driving. Here's the key point:
Most everyone likes to say they support traffic calming, promoting walking, and increasing safety. Doing any or all of these three things would make immediate progress on those goals at minimal cost to the city. They are all steps that begin to change the culture of automobile dominance on our streets, the kind of attitudes that allow people to creep through the crosswalk, honk at bicycles taking the lane, treat speed limits signs as minimums, or drive blindly through the curb cut out of the parking ramp downtown. (“Caution! Car approaching!“)
At some point, as a society, we have to ask whether saving an extra few seconds on a car trip is worth making all of our crosswalks and sidewalks dangerous. We have to ask whether or not that phone call is worth getting someone killed. Maybe next time one of our political leaders says that they we want to make walking a priority, they could actually do it. The tools are there. They’re not expensive, and they don’t have to involve re-making the street (though that would be nice). All of these tactics are the equivalent of “calling the bluff.
The article fits a theme I've been mulling for a bit this year. I am thinking through a sort of political triage: what kinds of things can we prioritize to improve our streets for walking and biking? Last time I wrote about road diets, because I think those are the simplest, most effective way to change our urban priorities. This time, I was focusing on what some of the alternatives might look like if we can't agree to spend the money on bumpouts or new lane paint.

Apart from the 'no turn on red' signs, none of these ideas are very likely. Our institutions are still to geared toward a mentality that prioritizes traffic flow at all costs. These ideas, rather than being large revolutionary projects, are cheap, somewhat effective fixes to the large problem of taming traffic. One of the commenters actually improved my argument with a bunch more easy regulatory changes, things like signal timing. Here are some of his ideas:
The cheapest and easiest way to make the pedestrian environment better is to lower speed limits to 20 mph, 15 mph on local residential and business streets. Lower speed limits might not immediately lower the actual speed of traffic, but over time people would become accustomed to much lower speeds. At that point, they will slow down because 30 mph or 40 mph feels unsafe for them. [...]
Shorten traffic cycles so that pedestrians don’t need to wait more than 20 seconds to cross the street after pushing the button for a walk signal. Give pedestrians an automatic walk signal in every cycle. On intersections where the green cycle only occurs when traffic is present, don’t make pedestrians wait for non-existent traffic by activating a don’t walk cycle across the street. Set traffic cycles to provide reasonable times for pedestrians to slowly cross the street.

The point of this conversation is to help biking and walking advocates wrangle with cities. Not every step forward has to involve a big engineering project. Sometimes small changes can add up to a big difference. Next time you're in a conversation with an engineer, politician, or a neighbor concerned about speeding traffic, why not mention one or two of these tweaks. You never know what might work.

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