Why are our highways built the way they are?  What makes driving safe, or at least safer?  Is speed alone dangerous, or is it contextual?

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) is one part research investigation, one part history, one part psychological analysis, one part cultural analysis, and 100% fascinating.  As a fellow amateur transportation enthusiast, I admire Vanderbilt for his drive to self education on the systems we all participate in.

I highly recommend the book to the transportation enthusiast and casual reader alike.  The book does far more than describe our roads and how they work.  Vanderbilt shares dozens of fascinating tidbits that will amuse and amaze you and your friends.  More importantly, he sheds light on human behavior and American culture.  Roads in and of themselves are rather characterless; what matters is how we use them and how those roads shape us as individuals and as communities.

After all, is there really a difference between old suburban and city roads with their right angle intersections and roads and communities developed over the last 50 years with their sweeping gentle curves?  Is one safer than another?  After all, all roads with cars traveling on them are inherently dangerous.  Cars are multi-ton machines carrying delicate human cargo, all while moving at speeds evolution did not prepare our bodies to handle.  Our bodies are not evolutionarily designed to handle the challenges of observing our surroundings at those speeds, or handling the trauma of collisions at those speeds.

It turns out that the old roads are safer, with their definite intersections, because cars are forced to stop and look, rather than casually yield.  Similarly the straight roads typically leading to these intersections provide for better sight lines when looking down the road and anticipating oncoming traffic.  All of this means that our older, pre-automobile designed roads are actually safer – for both the driver and the pedestrian – than the road designed with modern cars in mind.

Vanderbilt peers inside the mind of the driver and exposes just how amazing it is that we can drive at all.  It is amazing what we can see when we are driving, and how we can coordinate our sight and muscle movements at the fast speeds of the interstate.  However, with such miracles come some real challenges.  This book will be sure to make you rethink not only how you drive, but why you drive, and how our policy shapes our communities.

Traffic does not preach and does not lecture.  Vanderbilt’s adventures with bureaucrats, scholars, and business people illuminates what makes driving fantastic, what makes it dangerous, and how our culture is shaped by an activity we largely all take for granted.

 

On a different note, I apologize for my extended absence from this blog.  My last semester of law school took control of my life.  I will be working rather than studying this semester and anticipate dedicating much more time to this blog.  Thank you for your patience and continued patronage.

where_the_sidewalk_ends1

In eighth grade Mr. Chomskey made my class memorize parts of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The poem begins:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

I can still hear that click-clack rhythm of hoofs beating in some recess of my memory.  For those of you familiar with the poem, the tale of two Revolutionary War era lovers torn asunder by King George’s Army, you know that the Highway Man comes to an untimely end on the road in the glow of a midnight moon.

This was my first literary exposure to the danger of transportation, but we all grow up knowing that transportation is an inherently dangerous activity.  Transportation will always be dangerous as long as human actors are making decisions about rapid movement and operating fast-moving and heavy vehicles.  However, there should be an imperative to make transportation as safe as possible.

Two pieces of news strike this chord.  First, Britain has outlawed texting while driving.

Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time. Texting is given special treatment.

I hope that Britain’s action is a lead for federal US legislation.  Some states have already begun down this path, but the feds can outlaw texting while driving as easily as they create a national drinking age of 21.  Simply connect federal transportation (namely highway) money to laws banning texting while driving.  That certainly passes constitutional muster.

Second, Transportation 4 America has reported that 76,000 Americans have died in the last 15 years while walking in or along a street.  The FDA wants to ban summer oysters because 15 people (largely people with liver problems) a year die from food poisoning but this nation has yet to take pedestrian and road safety seriously.

This report also analyzes state and regional spending of federal transportation dollars on pedestrian safety, finding that many of the metropolitan areas in greatest need of improvement are spending the least amount on pedestrian safety projects. Nationwide, less than 1.5 percent of funds authorized under the federal transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling, even though pedestrians comprise 11.8 percent of all traffic deaths and trips made on foot account for almost 9 percent of total trips. SAFETEA-LU created a new safety program and changed regulations to make it easier to use what were once “highway funds” on a wider variety of transportation projects, including public transportation and pedestrian facilities.

At the state and local levels, no state spends more than 5 percent of federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists. This is in spite of a more than 30 percent increase in total federal transportation dollars to states with the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005. The 52 largest metro areas averaged annual spending of federal funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects of just $1.39 per person. The average metro area spends 2.2 percent of their federal transportation funds on projects to improve conditions for walking and bicycling.

I’m not really sure when we will wake up to the fact that we are a multi-modal nation and that our culture of depending on cars to get us everywhere actually gets us nowhere.  The number of deaths to pedestrians is downright unacceptable.  It is a sign that we do not encourage walking enough, that we subsidize driving to an unhealthy degree, and that our development and growth has poorly prioritized the types of communities where people can travel safely without turning on a motor.

Transportation is about getting people from one place to another, and all people should have the right to expect to arrive at their destination safely.  That should especially apply to those taking the least dangerous means of conveyance, their feet.  Or else we may end up metaphorically like the highwayman:

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

My friend David Gasser sent me the following video of traffic engineering, or lack thereof, in a Dutch community, featured on CBS (I am sorry, I could not figure out how to embed a CBS video on WordPress).

The footage (beyond the fact that it is still jarring to see people steer cars on the right side) is rather fascinating.  The segment also reminded me of a post by the Infrastructurist on the same issue (based off a great explanatory post on the Project for Public Spaces).  The Infrastructurist posited on whether or not such systems could work in America and I have been wondering the same thing.

Eric Dunbaugh of the Texas Transportation Institute has looked at the fatality rates on “livable streets”–broadly speaking, those that aren’t mini freeways–in the US and found that they are considerably lower (pdf). Apparently, using street design to wean drivers from highway-style driving habits really does save lives.

The rub, however, is that involves slower diving speeds. As Dunbaugh puts it: “The more basic problem appears to be that safety and livability objectives are often in direct conflict with the overarching objective of mobility, and its proxy—speed.”

We Americans do love our speed. Saying, “We’re going to take this wide smooth inky-black four-lane street with bright painted lines you’re used to–where you’re functionally encouraged to go 15 mph over the speed limit and all you have to worry about is staying in your wide well-marked lane and do what the traffic lights tell you–and replace it with a ‘naked’ street, where you’ll be jumbling around with everybody and just have to be a grownup and go slower and be considerate and observant,” will not necessarily be the beginning of an easy conversation. But it’s certainly an important one.

I am attracted to these ideas on traffic for the simple reason that they have been proved to save lives.  Transportation deaths are tragic and we should do all that we can to decrease them.  However, I am skeptical of this idea ever taking hold in America.  Traffic signs, wide lanes and stop lights are not just part of our culture we seem to be frequently defined by them and consider them birthrights.  After all, consider all the people who you have heard state that they are from a town with two stoplights or that they are near exit Z off the highway.

Moreover, Americans are a confusing bunch who like speed and are not for patience.  In addition, while they don’t want government interfering in their lives, they want “safe” streets with lots of signs and the luxuries of large highways that they do not have to pay for upon each use.  Taking the signs away would inevitably be spun as a dangerous idea of a radical intelligencia and those patsy Europeans.  Perhaps I am too harsh, but I find it difficult to believe that any community would take their signs and stop lights away and trust the instincts of their fellow drivers.

If these ideas are to catch on at all it will occur in new towns or new developments where the streets have not yet been paved and there is an opportunity to experiment.  Of course there is not a whole lot of new residential construction currently occurring, but it is possible that developers and towns will rethink the traditional notions of engineering traffic.  I hope someone gives it a try, because if people see it work in one place, it may catch on in others and lives may be saved.  That is what is most important.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.