(Part two of a series on traffic calming)

Some cities have actually started to remove several types of “calming” devices and are looking at alternatives. The Portland, Oregon Office of Transportation names David Engwicht as a visionary whose work needs attention.  Staff there says Engwicht’s books Mental Speed Bumps, The smarter way to tame traffic and Street Reclaiming clearly show that ‘traffic is a social problem, not a design problem.’ Engwicht suggests new, radical and creative ways to “achieve an outbreak of civility” on our neighborhood streets.

“I have conducted dozens of Instant Street Reclaiming events in cities all over the world,” writes Engwicht. “We never close the street to traffic or put up barricades. The rationale is quite simple. We are demonstrating how neighbourhood activity and car movement can coexist spontaneously in the same space.  Uncertainty forces motorists to slow down without them even being aware that they are slowing down.”

“Intrigue and uncertainty are twins,” he writes. “Uncertainty, like intrigue, keeps us engaged with our immediate surroundings. Uncertainty causes people to drive slower. The more neighbourhoods that build the social life of their street, and the more prevalent this social life, the greater the uncertainty that is created in the motorists mind even when there is no social activity in the street.”

Signs depersonalize any space, making it feel anonymous, writes Engwicht. Similarly, traffic signs depersonalize the street as socializing space. The subtext of official signs and traffic control devices is that no one in particular owns a space, so motorists no longer have to act like a guest.

Signs also treat motorists as idiots and potential troublemakers, says Engwicht. Take, for example, Keep Right signs. “If we really believe that mo­torists are so stupid they don’t know which side of the street to drive then they should not have a license. Treat people like an idiot and potential troublemaker, and they usually fulfill your expectations.”

How successful has traffic calming been in the campaign to create more public safety?  The Canada Safety Council has some very negative comments to make. Their website says the law of unintended consequences should be taken into account.  To plan and implement traffic calming measures is expensive yet their repercussions have not been seriously studied. Often they are installed as a quick fix in response to political pressure, says the CSC, when other safety alternatives would be more effective.

The CSC says that, for instance, stop signs were originally designed to control right-of-way. All vehicles, including bicycles, must come to a full stop before proceeding but stop signs are wrongly placed in many Canadian cities. ‘Rolling stops’ have become a common practice. Worse, many people drive right through without heeding the signs at all. As stop signs proliferate on side streets, cyclists assume the signs do not apply to them. All this sets a very bad example for children, who grow up knowing that adults do not stop at stop signs. Safety experts and educators fear so much harm has been done, says the CSC, respect for the stop sign as a prime traffic control device is disappearing.

Removing lanes and turning the road into an obstacle course creates frustration, says the CSC, leading to dangerous moving violations. Frustrated motorists make dangerous turns or run red lights. Drivers swerve around speed humps into bicycle lanes to avoid damage to their vehicle. Studies on traffic calming show reductions in traffic volume and speeds plus moderate crash reductions, but they do not assess to what extent traffic, speeding and collisions were diverted to other residential streets or added to roads already congested.

The CSC answer?  Traffic enforcement. Electronic enforcement tools such as photo-radar and red light cameras have proven their worth in many jurisdictions. Their cost is more than recovered from fines, which penalize offenders, not the general population. To use taxes for the greatest public benefit, says the CSC, local governments need an integrated plan for traffic safety that takes into account the community as a whole. Building obstacles to impede traffic is a sheer waste of taxpayers’ money.




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