How to slow traffic: Put s#!t in the way

Bike racks and a playground force drivers to slow down.

One of my favorite comedy bits is Robin Williams having an imaginary conversation with a Scotsman about how the Scots invented golf. You can view it on YouTube here (the key to this post occurs at 1:21), and it goes something like this: “Aye, here’s my idea for a sport. You knock a ball in to a gopher hole.” “You mean like pool?” “No, bulls#*t, not with a straight stick, with a little f%#*@d up piece of wood.” “Like croquet?” “Aw, f%#k no! Hundreds of f%#*!@g yards away! Whack the ball and it goes into a f%#*!@g hole.” “So it’s a straight line, then?” “F%#k off straight line! I put s#!t in the way like trees and bushes and grass and bamboo….”

Streets.mn logoPretty funny (and quite profane) indeed! But what does this have to do with urbanism? Allow me to explain. Whenever I’m trying to explain traffic calming, it is that last part where he describes about “putting s#!t in the way” that sticks in my mind. The more I hear and read about traffic calming, and consider it in practical terms, this is precisely what we need to do – put s#!t in the way. There is no better way to explain it. The photo at the top of this page explains it all.

How can you possibly go fast down this “shared street” in Germany? Just like with golf, the idea is to make driving a challenge. In fact, the Dutch for example put s#!t in the way as a matter of policy. I did a little research and found a 1994 report for the FTA describing one of many methods the Dutch use, “chicanes,” which are “physical obstacles or parking bays, staggered on alternate sides of the roadway so that the route for vehicles is tortuous.” If an American road design manual uses the word “tortuous” as a goal, I’d sure like to see it. We tend to allow cars to move unimpeded at the cost of all else.

Some of the genius of Dutch and other European methods is not the use of signage and enforcement to slow traffic, but literally a different road design, and that includes putting s#! in the way. The Dutch call another solution the “Woonerf.” According to Donald Appleyard in his book Livable Streets, there are five criteria for a woonerf. They include gateways that announce that one has entered the woonerf; curves to slow vehicle traffic; amenities such as trees and play equipment that serve the dual purpose of also forcing vehicles to slow down; no curbs; and intermittent parking so that cars do not form a wall of steel between the roadway and houses. The key is to blur the line between vehicular and other space. The elegance of woonerfs is they lack signage. Designing them is an art, but adding signage our existing roadways is not the solution. There aren’t signs saying “slow down” or “watch for kids playing,” for example. Rather, the jungle gym is in the street. S#!t is in the way. You don’t need a sign to intuitively slow down – you just do! And it works.

An interesting tidbit about the woonerf is they purport to have an average speed of 10MPH. If this seems excessively slow to you, consider your average urban commercial corner with a traffic light. Approach in a car at 30 MPH (the speed limit) and half the time you cruise through on the green, perhaps slowing slightly because of the activity or pedestrians, and half the time you slow to a stop because of the red light. Thus, your average speed is around 15 MPH, not much faster than the woonerf. Your cross-city drive time may be roughly the same, but the urban environment benefits greatly because in these zones cars never travel even close to 30 MPH.

But what about that s#!t in the way? Isn’t it dangerous if the cars hit these obstacles? Alas, we need to get past the cars-first mentality in this debate. Whereas driving is a privilege, in my opinion the ability for all citizens to navigate cities is a right. From that point of view, it is perfectly acceptable in some instances to make driving a little more torturous, or to put s#!t in the way, in order to make our cities safer overall for everyone, including pedestrians and bikers, the old and young.

Take for example a recent public meeting about striping bike lanes on 42nd Street in my neighborhood. A few immediate neighbors showed up and a few cyclists showed up. These two groups showed up for different but not diametrically opposed reasons, but could both agree that the biggest problem with the roadway is the speed of cars. Mind you, 42nd Street is a 42-foot wide, very smooth roadway with limited parking utilization and a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit, so it should hardly be surprising that the vast majority of vehicle traffic travels at greater than 30 MPH, and a disturbing amount move at a rate of more than 35 and 40. A big wide street with no s#!t in the way; in every way the street encourages speed. Hmmm…what to do about that?

Of course, what s#!t you put in the way depends on the street. The image above shows bike racks and a playground on a quiet residential street, not something appropriate for 42nd Street. Nevertheless, the county, which is considering the aforementioned bike lanes, is also considering painted crosswalks to make the street more pedestrian-friendly. And in their wisdom they want to do more than just paint crosswalks. They want to put s#!t in the way. What s#!t has not yet been determined, but could include center islands to provide refuge, crosswalk signage, perhaps curb bump-outs. I’m in favor of any/all of those and more; planters, benches, trees, bushes, grass, bamboo – bring it on! Putting s#!t in the way will be the single best way to slow traffic. Slowing the traffic makes the street more pleasant to cross and to cycle on, and the more bikes and pedestrians there are, the slower the traffic moved – it is a positive feedback loop.

So, to be clear, I’m not suggesting we close roads to motorized vehicles, but I am suggesting we reclaim them from the tyranny of the automobile. Slowing them and making the cross-city commute a couple minutes longer is a small price to pay for the right to have safer streets for all. After all as CNU’s John Norquist says, we should be learning to love congestion.

Chuck Marohn was recently quoted in Streetsblog, saying “Imagine suggesting that nobody need travel more than even 20 mph in a city….yes, give me highways that allow me to get somewhere quickly, safely and efficiently, but when I get there, I actually want to be there. Let’s make our places worth being in, which may mean slow traffic along with more common sense and a little consideration.”

Often our city streets are a little too much like highways. The default reasoning is we need to get somewhere else, but it is often at the expense of where we are. The result is, as Marohn states, we don’t have any places “worth being in.” And he rightly suggests speed is to blame. We are starting to get a lot right about urban development, but road design remains a major obstacle to attaining livable cities. Let’s make our cities more worthy of our enjoyment. It’s time to make driving a little more like golf…it’s time to put some s#!t in the way.

This post was written by Sam Newberg and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/29/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    In the way

    The thing about Germany is, despite being known for its cars and autobahn, there are only about 65% of the cars per capita as the US. The reason? Germany’s cities are much more compact. (And they don’t give a driver’s license to just anybody like we do here.)

    Five mph is 50% faster than 10 mph. 50% faster is significant if you’re commuting–the time you have on the road is neither here nor there. It’s time wasted. And at 15 mph on an American road, you can drive without hyperventilating (as much) as if a playground is in the middle of the freaking road. Honestly, I look at that picture and hyperventilate.

    Putting s#!t in the way is effective, but doing it in the US the way the Germans do it is ridiculous. Better yet, we should discourage driving whenever possible by making neighborhoods more walkable and public transportation more practical. The tyranny of the automobile is, unfortunately, pretty necessary as it is, now.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/29/2012 - 02:24 pm.

    50%

    I should have said that 15 mph (not 5) is 50% faster.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/30/2012 - 08:51 am.

    Great Observation!

    I was thinking about this last week during one of the many bike vs. car/helmet discussions. They’ve got more bikes and pedestrians in the Europe for the most part and mush fewer problems. Part of the reason is that the cities are simply older, the streets were built 100s of years ago for carts and horses. You can find streets like this in some US cities like Boston’s Beacon Hill and Charleston neighborhoods but the vast majority of roads in the US have been built for automobile traffic, and it shows.

    The great thing about these ideas is they offer a remedy for our screwed up designs.

  4. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/31/2012 - 11:14 am.

    More That Calming

    I support traffic calming measures, and love what has been done on East 38th Street near my son’s south Minneapolis school (Bancroft Elementary). Lanes of traffic have been narrowed and separated by a long island with the express purpose of making the street safer for pedestrians.

    But we must admit that, in addition to designing our STREETS for the benefit of cars, we’ve also designed our CITIES for the benefit of cars. In order to be truly effective, traffic calming must be accompanied by philosophical changes to zoning laws which will allow walkable and relatively self-contained neighborhoods to re-evolve.

    Frankly, that doesn’t seem very likely because we’ve also designed our ECONOMY to favor cars, if only through the rise of big box stores which literally prevent anyone from walking to them.

    Can you imagine 20 small neighborhood Target stores scattered throughout Minneapolis? That type of economical change, absurd as it sounds, is what might be needed to allow traffic calming to be more than just a passing fad.

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