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.

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