Want Safer Streets? Put your Road on a Diet
Last winter I gained a new appreciation for speed limits. During a month-long internship at the New York City Department of Transportation, I spent a lot of time working on safety initiatives to reduce speeding. I learned that 30 mph, the speed limit in most cities, is not arbitrary. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 40 mph is 3.5 times more likely to die than one hit at 30 mph. An entire campaign, “That’s Why It’s 30,” is built around this fact.
Coming from rural New England, speed limits have always been more of a nuisance than anything else. Slowing to 25 mph through an empty town, on a wide road with no crosswalks or sidewalks, sometimes feels silly. We do it to avoid a ticket, but I don’t often think about the real implications of speeding in these areas.
In cities like New York speed limits make more sense, at least to outsiders. With so much cacophony – people, buses, bikes, and cars – people have to slow down, right? Don’t tell that to a New Yorker.
But in all honesty, speeding is a problem in cities. A recent pedestrian safety study in New York City discovered that 21% of all traffic fatalities are directly caused by speeding. But instead of resorting to the traditional wrist-slapping measures of speed traps and increased police surveillance, New York is using more innovative tactics to reduce speeding.
Along with their provocative “That’s Why It’s 30” campaign, the NYC DOT is re-designing streets to meet the safety needs of both drivers and pedestrians. This complete streets approach combines pedestrian, bicycle, and recreational components into the same streetscape, reducing the space dedicated solely to cars. The idea is that when drivers have less space and more distractions on the road, they are forced to slow down and drive more safely. This is sometimes referred to as a “road diet”.
I was initially skeptical of putting so much faith into the driver’s ability to pay attention, but the statistics back it up. The same pedestrian safety study found that streets with a bicycle lane have 40% fewer crashes involving injury or death than streets without.
The idea of complete streets always attracted me from an environmental and social perspective. Cars often take up a disporportionate amount of the street compared to other transportation modes, leading to traffic, pollution, and unattractive downtowns. Occupying huge amounts of public space, streets are important for civic life; they should be places shared by all users, social spaces as well as transportation arteries. A previous blog post talks about the value of these living streets. But I never considered that improving streets for pedestrians and cyclists could help with safety as well.
If this preventative safety strategy works in New York City, couldn’t it work in a town setting? While speeding may not be the deadly problem it is in cities, towns also seek ways to improve the safety of their streets – for children, families, and elderly, or to improve the town’s atmosphere.
Is anyone out there using complete streets methods to improve the safety of their roads?