Lately the county has been conducting an experiment in traffic calming on the highway that borders my neighborhood.
Well, they don’t call it an experiment. They just call it road work.
And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway either. But being a four-lane divided stroad specifically designed to accommodate fast driving, that’s what it is.
Anyway, the experiment consists of blocking off a stretch of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses over Hogtown Creek. Apparently the creek threatens to erode our stroad’s stability, so things need shoring up.
The posted speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs downhill and the tendency is to pick up velocity due to physics, gravity and the false sense of security NW 16th’s design imparts to impatient motorists.
So it is not unusual for drivers to be doing 45 mph, 50, even faster when they get to the bottom of that hill.
But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane with concrete barriers on one side. And I’ve noticed that motorists, feeling hemmed in, are indeed calming their speed. When I drove it the other day a stack of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. At least until they reached the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again.
This experiment is temporary. And I only bring it up to make an obvious point about city driving.
Northwest 16th divides neighborhoods, parks, schools and churches – places where unprotected human beings frequently need to cross the street. (Some years ago the son of my childrens’ kindergarten teacher was killed on this strode while riding his bike to school.)
Which raises crucial questions. How is it even remotely in the public interest to empower fast driving – 40 mph or more – through the dense heart of a city? Wouldn’t 30, or even 25 mph be more prudent?
Unfortunately, simply posting a more civilized speed limit wouldn’t do much to slow traffic. The physical design of NW 16th and many urban stroads – divided, multiple, broad travel lanes, good lines of sight and so on – provide motorists visual and psychological cues that they may safely drive faster than whatever the posted limit might happen to be.
And make no mistake. Speed is one of the most common denominators in traffic related fatalities. As Streetsblog points out: “Speed management is important for everyone’s safety, including drivers. But it can be especially critical for pedestrians. A pedestrian struck by a car at 40 miles per hour has a 55 percent chance of surviving compared to a 88 percent chance at 25 mph.”
Unfortunately, state and local governments don’t do nearly enough to slow drivers down, according to a new report, “Speeding Away From Zero: Rethinking A Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“Policy makers and the public have largely ignored the issue, even though the proportion of traffic deaths related to speeding has remained steady at about 26 percent since the beginning of the millennium,” Governing magazine writes of the Association’s call to calm fast drivers.
Instead, Governing adds, “Public policy at almost every level of government reinforces the cultural acceptance of speeding.”
And there is a reason elected officials are reluctant to slow cars down. I can imagine the outcry from suburban-bound commuters if our county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety.
“A prescription for gridlock!” our auto-oriented Chamber of Commerce would bemoan. “Throw the rascals out!” voters would cry.
Traffic calming is not an autoAmerican virtue.
Funny thing, though. Gainesville has already narrowed much of its north/south flowing Main Street, and is continuing to do so. Not only has the redesign slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians and cyclists, but we are witnessing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.
What we are not seeing is the dreaded gridlock many predicted. Cars are still moving, just more slowly.
Cities are not suburbs. Urban streets should not be designed like highways. Fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, personal mobility, safety.
It’s a pity this experiment in traffic calming on NW 16th is only temporary. University communities like ours should be living laboratories for experiments in urban quality of life innovation
Imagine what we could accomplish if we actually resolved to make cars behave themselves in our little university city?