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Are Urban Arterials and Pedestrian Safety Mutually Exclusive?

Pedestrian Traffic Accidents, 2007-2010. What interesting things stand out?

While looking at a pedestrian traffic accident map for Baltimore the other day, one obvious thing stood out;   injuries and fatalities are collected around arterial streets. Besides the obvious reasons for caring about this issue, pedestrian crashes usually make up the majority of traffic related fatalities, and while a fender bender is often easy to walk away from, pedestrian traffic injuries are often life changing events.

So, for non-transporation planners, urban arterial streets are usually 4 lane roads which accommodate through traffic – usually downtown to suburb commuters. Traffic speeds and volumes tend to be higher on these streets, and while many of Baltimore’s arterials double as neighborhood “Main Streets”, like Greenmount Ave., the character of these corridors often leans towards automobiles rather than comfortable, pedestrian environments. In the suburbs, arterials often connect banausic subdivisions or lame strip malls with little pedestrian activity, so it’s not a problem to design these streets for maximum throughput. In urban areas, there is a greater chance for accidents due to pedestrians, bicycles, transit vehicles, and cars all vying for space on a street designed for rush hour traffic.  Things get messy.

Baltimore is not alone.  NYC’s Pedestrian Safety Report shows that while traffic injuries and fatalities have dropped considerably since 2000, major two-way streets account for 47% of pedestrian fatalities but only 12% of the road network. The report also shows serious pedestrian crashes are about two-thirds more deadly on major street corridors than on smaller local streets. So what is NYC doing about the problem? Recent road diet projects are narrowing streets, reducing the number of traffic lanes, adding bike lanes, and widening sidewalks.  Will gridlock ensue? Probably not. Will the world come to an end?  Probably not. Will angry drivers write Mayor Bloomberg and demand their traffic lanes back? Perhaps, but in the interest of public safety, livable communities, and reasonable-ness, the mayor shouldn’t listen to them.

My favorite design guidelines come from famed planner and engineer John N. LaPlante of T.Y. Lin. I won’t repeat his recommendations, which I laid out here, but traditional methods of traffic engineering and design don’t necessarily apply to urban streets.  Inconveniencing drivers by adding 2 minutes to their trip is a reasonable trade off for improved pedestrian safety, neighborhood character, and the economic development benefits which accrue with increased pedestrian and bicycle accessibility.

The answer to the question posed in the title has been “yes” up until very recently.  The very concept of “arterials” in urban areas also comes into question – who wants to live on or do business on a street primarily designed for rush hour traffic?  With enormous amounts of traffic crash data collected, and complete street and road diet designs becoming more accepted by municipalities throughout the country, we have the tools needed to make significant pedestrian safety gains by focusing on major gateway streets.


[Your City] Should Take Traffic Lanes Away From Cars – Part I

The New Times Square. This used to be a traffic lane filled with angry cabbies. Nobody is angry in this picture.

What if WTMD played Rush all day, every day? Sure, I like a few of their songs, but hearing them non-stop would cause my head to explode.  What if there were huge networks of roads crossing entire cities that had one sole purpose?  You’d think it was a waste of real estate, right? And pretty monotonous.  Like, people do so many more things than the one thing this network was designed for. What if this network was also designed for the most deleterious mode of transport? Isn’t it common sense that this network should be re-adapted to include other people who may not want to use these machines?

You get my point. On a trip to NYC over Thanksgiving, I saw again how NYC DOT is pushing the envelope and creating places for people which were previously dominated by cars. Take the Green Light for Midtown project. Several lanes of traffic were closed and cars rerouted to turn Broadway between 42nd and 47th into a pedestrian plaza. This design, once a pilot project, is now permanent. Let me try to convey the magnitude of this change. 50,000+ cars a day, probably the busiest/most congested intersection in the U.S., complex traffic patterns, and a huge number of angry cabbies. And NYC DOT, with the help of tons of stakeholders and the Bloomberg administration, closed entire traffic channels and transformed the space so that people could sit on a lazyboy with their feet up in the middle of the road in Times Square. And it works.

Broadway. A more rational balance.

Some results from NYC DOT’s website:

  • Travel speeds increased through the remaining traffic lanes – more drivers are using parallel streets
  • Injuries to motorists and passengers in the project area fell by 63%
  • 74% of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance agree that Times Square has improved dramatically over the last year.

Columbus Circle, Herald Square and entire stretches of Broadway have also seen similar treatments. Auto capacity reduced, more public plazas, Copenhagen style bike lanes, dedicated transit ways – and gridlock does not ensue. The traffic justification (gridlock!) used to build thousands of miles of interstates through dense urban areas, widen an ungodly number of road miles to accommodate “future traffic volumes”, and destroy hundreds of neighborhoods to accommodate these roads can pretty much be thrown out the window.

A caveat, though. Some parts of Manhattan have a pedestrian volume/capacity ratio higher than 1 , meaning there are more pedestrians than the streets can handle – especially in Times Square. This overflow will naturally spill onto any additional space created. You put out a  bench coated with maple syrup in Times Square, and I bet a few people would be sitting on the thing within a few minutes.

In Baltimore, because we don’t have the pedestrian volumes nor the outdoor cafe culture NYC does, we have to be more selective when we convert traffic lanes into people lanes.  As the new dedicated bike/bus lanes on Pratt and Lombard show, even on our busiest roads, we have excess capacity.  Most of our street network was built out when we had almost a million people. Granted, we have higher car ownership rates now, but the doom and gloom naysayers are off the mark when they use congestion and gridlock fear mongering as a justification for maintaining the status quo.

So where in Baltimore should we take traffic lanes away from cars and give them back to the people? More on this in Part II.

Also see: Streetfilms: Carmaggeddon Averted As Broadway Comes to Life

Entrenched Idiocracy in Florida

The New York Times has an article about beach driving in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Apparently, this was a common thing back in the age of the dinosaurs, and while a large stretch of beach is now off limits to cars, the “tradition” of beach driving is alive in some communities and supported by certain Florida politicians and locals, despite numerous injuries and deaths due to the practice.

In New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach Shores, where Ellie Bland, a 4-year-old British girl, was run over and killed in March during a family vacation, residents and officials seem determined to keep the status quo. Last month, both communities passed resolutions declaring their continued support for beach driving.

Loading patients up on gin and knocking them out with a left hook was also a tradition before the discovery of anesthesia.  It doesn’t mean we should continue doing it. Mixing cars and people on streets is one thing – mixing them on beaches, where there is (1) a large contingent of tourists who are not accustomed to this cultural quirk, (2) people laying down on blankets, (3) and kids playing all over, is crazy stupid.

I understand that as a politician, you have to listen to your constituents. It doesn’t mean you have to remove your backbone before taking office and bend to the whim of locals who support outdated and dangerous practices which endanger the public’s safety.  I also hope one of these Florida county council members or beach driving  locals reads this and writes me a nasty message.  Bring it.

Sightings: Garbage on the Promenade

Exhibit A: Garbage

While walking along the promenade, I saw this; a dumpster on a private parking lot blocking the vista between the Inner Harbor and the new Ritz Carleton extension. While the structure doesn’t block the walkway itself, it does create a visual obstruction which, for those unfamiliar with the promenade, may indicate a dead-end for east bound pedestrians.

These small things make the pedestrian experience seem like an after-thought and detract from one of the best waterfronts in the country. Baltimore Brew has a good article about this very same issue on a larger scale near the Harborplace pavilions.