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Slow Streets: Successful Streets

Speeding has become so ingrained in modern culture that the transportation planning, engineering, and enforcement not only allow, but encourage dangerous driving behavior. It’s implicit support, but nonetheless in need of reform.

  • Planning departments in many municipalities and other agencies use a functional classification system to categorize local arterials as suitable for high-speed engineering, even in residential areas.

  • Engineering departments use analysis methods to prioritize vehicle capacity (throughput) and speed on busy roads.

  • Some police departments even have written policies to only stop drivers going more than 10 MPH above the speed limit.

Speeding isn’t as innocent as we might think.

Speeding is one of the major contributors to traffic crashes. And not just highway wrecks, but cars slamming into each other downtown and in suburban neighborhoods. In urbanized areas, drivers lose control or can’t react quickly enough to avoid pedestrians and bicyclists.

Roughly 100 Americans are killed every day in traffic crashes.

● Higher vehicle speeds increase the likelihood and severity of crashes.

● In 2020, there were an estimated 104,000 pedestrians taken to emergency rooms for crash-related injuries.

Picture yourself driving through a suburban community or the outskirts of a city. You’re probably visualizing two or three lanes going in each direction, and a 45 MPH speed limit sign. As you get closer to downtown, the sign changes to 35, so you drop your speed a little to 40 MPH.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has shocking data that might make you drive differently. If a pedestrian is struck by a car moving at 20 MPH, they’re almost always going to live. But if a pedestrian is struck by a car moving at 40 MPH, they’re almost always going to die. Now think back to your typical driving habits—40 MPH seems like nothing!

When a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle traveling 40 MPH, they have an 80% chance of serious injury or death. When a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle traveling 20 MPH, they have a 10% chance of serious injury or death. (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Busy roads don’t have to be high-speed roads.

A street network can’t be optimized for both vehicle efficiency (i.e. speed) and safety. All the planning, engineering, and enforcement decisions follow the prioritization. Speed or safety.

Speed prioritizes throughput, which in fact denotes that the area you're “passing through” has no value as a place. Safety prioritizes people who are driving and those who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.

Believe it or not, a busy street (even one with lots of car traffic) can serve the public interest and economic development goals without dangerous vehicle speeds. Multilane roadways don't always have to yield high speeds.

Paseo de la Castellana is a busy road in Madrid, Spain. In fact, you might say it’s the signature street in Madrid because it functions as a design axis of the city. As Expedia says, “the spirit of the place is irresistible.” The boulevard is loaded with both static and dynamic appeal. Interesting parks and architecture, and special events and festivals.

A boulevard—a busy road—can be so much more than a pipe for vehicle flow. It can also be an address for housing, businesses, community parks, and neighborhood retail. There are plenty of examples to demonstrate that a roadway with higher vehicle capacity does NOT have to encourage and support high speeds and aggressive driving behavior. This doesn’t have to be a strictly European feature. One incredible outcome of prioritizing a safe pedestrian environment on a street network is that the local economy thrives. People want to be in a place that’s full of life.

Traveler behavior can be planned, engineered, and enforced in such a way that residents and visitors want to flock to your main street. When the speed of traffic slows down to a human scale, it’s suddenly much more appealing to walk, ride bicycles, and use a bus or trolley.

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