Vanishing Automobile update #49

"I Want My Commute to Be Slow -- Real Slow and Dangerous."

15 February 2005

A television ad for anti-virus software worries that many computer users are just asking for a virus. "I want my computer to go slow," says someone as an example, "real slow."

Our cities also are vulnerable to viruses that cause them to slow down. To listen to urban planners, you would think that commuters and other urban travelers were asking for this virus. "I want my daily commute to go slow," residents must be saying, "real slow."

The viruses that cause traffic to slow down are variously called "smart growth," "New Urbanism," and "traffic calming." Whatever they are called, the urban planners who propagate them act as though there is some benefit to slowing traffic down. In fact, slower traffic means more congestion, more personal time wasted, higher consumer costs (because of higher delivery costs), more air pollution (because cars pollute more at lower speeds and in congestion), and less patronage for businesses on the slower streets.

Of course, the chief benefit that planners claim for slower traffic is that it is safer. Yet planners have proven time and again that they will freely sacrifice safety to slow traffic down.

For example, Vanishing Automobile update #30 described how planners have encouraged several cities to convert one-way streets to two-way operation. Since we published that article, Portland transportation planner Michael Cunneen has done an extensive literature review on one-way streets.

He found that, when cities turned two-way streets to one-way operation, accidents declined by 30 to 40 percent. Now a few cities have converted some streets back to two-way traffic, and those that have measured the effects have found that accidents increased by -- you guessed it -- 30 to 40 percent. Of course, most of them never bothered to measure the effects, but when Denver did, the planners simply said they "expected" more accidents. Curiously, they never mentioned that expectation in their original plans.

All else being equal, traffic on a two-way street is slower only because the average speed is slower as a result of more delays. The top speed on a two-way street can be just as fast as on a one-way street. If there is a legitimate reason to slow traffic down -- something which is questionable -- this can be done by retiming lights without changing the street to two-way operation. Such a one-way street would be much safer than those planners want, which shows that planners care more about disrupting driving that promoting safety.

Liberty magazine published Michael Cunneen's study (written with a little help from me) in its February issue under the totally non-inflammatory title, "How urban planners cause congestion and death." Unfortunately, Liberty is not available on line. However, a slightly different version, with a slightly more sedate title, has been published by the Independence Institute (280 KB).

Increasing urban dangers by changing one-way streets to two-way operation is not enough for some urban planners. Their latest idea is "naked streets." This means removing all signals, signs, stripes, even the curbs separating pedestrians from vehicles.

According to Hans Monderman, the Dutch planner who is experimenting with this in Amsterdam, the idea is to "make streets safer by making them more dangerous." In other words, if drivers can't rely on signals, lines, or other cues for where to drive, they will automatically drive more safely.

Of course, Monderman presents no data to support his thesis. Despite the fact that his ideas sound like George Orwell's Newspeak, they have gotten the attention of the New York Times (paid subscription required), Christian Science Monitor, BBC, the Toronto Star, and ABC's Nightline even as I write this.

Will naked streets work? Most likely, they will increase both congestion AND traffic accidents. This isn't a guess: Just about everything Monderman proposes to eliminate is there because engineers have found, through rigorous experimentation, that it increases safety.

Anything that slows traffic automatically reduces one form of urban safety by delaying emergency service vehicles. For example, paramedics are intimately familiar with the graph below showing that if they can reach a heart attack victim within four minutes, they have an excellent chance of saving the person's life. After four minutes, the victim's chances quickly dwindle to zero.

As noted in the Vanishing Automobile (p. 352), studies suggest that, for every pedestrian whose life is saved by slowing traffic, more than thirty people will lose their lives because of delays to emergency service vehicles. And this only counts heart attacks, not lives lost to fire, accidents, or other medical emergencies.

Traffic safety is not the only safety that planners are willing to compromise. Last April at the 2004 Preserving the American Dream conference, Stephen Town of the Bradford, England, police department showed how New Urbanism increases crime. In fact, he showed that major aspects of New Urbanism -- minimizing private yards, providing lots of common areas, mixing uses, pedestrian paths, and alleys -- have all been found to increase the vulnerability of homes to crime.

Reason magazine published Town's research (also written with a little help from me) in its February issue. Of course, most of Town's research was done in England. So the main response from New Urbanists is that he "fails to mention a single new urbanist community in the US that has increased crime."

Plenty of U.S. research has shown that, taken individually, mixed uses, alleys, unprotected common areas, and other New Urban concepts increase crime. To my knowledge, no one has yet measured the amount of crime in a full-blown New Urban neighborhood in this country--but that doesn't prove there isn't a problem. We can only hope that Town's article will lead to some good research in the United States.

You can meet both Stephen Town and Michael Cunneen and listen to them speak at the 2005 Preserving the American Dream conference, which will be held in Minnesota's Twin Cities on June 24-26.

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