Shared Streets and Small Towns
From today's Department of the Counter-Intuitive: Traffic signals and controls do not improve safety in busy, walkable areas. In fact, they typically provide less safety, as they encourage drivers to go even faster through areas that should require close attention. Mind blown yet?
Of course, signals are a logical result in a system that prioritizes the movement of cars, quickly. Either consciously or unconsciously, every question in terms of transportation planning for the last few decades has been laden with the idea of traffic flow at its core. As traffic flows more smoothly, our communities work better, people complain less, etc.
Except, in many cases that's simply the wrong set of ideas to be prioritizing.
Take this fantastic example from Great Britain. I encourage you to watch the entire fifteen minutes, as it's very well done and illustrates so many important issues.
Poynton is a small town, really not unlike many small towns throughout the world. It has an important highway running through it, and therefore the typical issues of traffic and trucks. Pedestrians are not comfortable, and therefore the pedestrian-oriented town center is struggling economically. Here's a simple tip for main street and downtown interests: if you're physical environment is uncomfortable for pedestrians, it will discourage them to come down, and all business will suffer.
The scenario is all-too-familar back here in the US. I can't tell you how many communities I've talked with over the years that struggle with truck traffic on their main streets, as our state highways have become more and more conducive to freight traffic. The solutions usually involve some sort of bypass of the main street, with the notion that getting those trucks and all the highway traffic off the street will make it more inviting for people, and thus help the downtown.
The problem is, it doesn't work that way. Nearly all traffic eventually flows to the bypass, and the predictable cries for rezoning occur for commercially or industrially-oriented development. The old downtown becomes a haven for antique stores and banks, with little to no viable businesses left. And towns wonder - "What did we do wrong?" Soon afterwards, the inevitable Requests for Proposals are sent out with a cry for help in revitalizing their downtown.
Instead of focusing so much on the amount of traffic, we would be better to focus on speed of traffic. Doing so will make a place more comfortable for everyone, as the video so elegantly illustrates. Big trucks are indeed a nuisance, but they are mostly a nuisance because they rumble through quickly and loudly. When they are forced to slow down, they become no more of an issue than any other vehicular traffic.
For another take on this issue, read Sarah Goodyear's piece on it over at Atlantic Cities. Incidentally, Goodyear is a great last name for someone writing about transportation issues. I should be so lucky.
Her piece and the video describe the work of Hans Monderman, who was one of the pioneers of the Shared Street movement, which also includes the Dutch woonerf among others. Their work is foundational, and it's great to see it spreading to more and more towns.
The moral of the story comes back to what we often say in planning. If you plan for cars and traffic, that's what you'll get. If instead you plan for people and life, then that will ultimately be the result.