The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Why We Need to Slow the Cars

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Accident scene at State and Grand.  Hope she's OK.

It happens every day. An innocent person is crossing the street at a corner when suddenly, a car comes barrelling towards her and kills her in an instant. The driver wasn’t drunk or even texting, so we treat these scenarios as “accidents.” We shake our heads and say, “There was no way to prevent this tragedy.”

Well I call bullshit.

Cars are the most dangerous thing most Americans encounter on a daily basis, and our streets and cities are designed to let this happen. The best way to make our cities and towns safer is to get cars driving slower. I have no problem with people driving 70 mph on the highway–that’s a system intended to move vehicles quickly from one point to another, and pedestrians and bikes are not present in that system. What I do have a problem with is cars driving 40 mph through a neighborhood where children are playing, people are biking home from work or walking to the store. Although we’d be safest without them at all, cars can coexist with bike and pedestrians in an urban environment. But only if the cars are slowed considerably.

Many car drivers get defensive when they hear this sort of conversation, responding with things like: “I need my car to get to work. Why are you demonizing me? or “Why do you hate cars?” or  “Why do you want to take my car away from me? You just want everyone to turn into bike-riding hippies…”

First of all, I’m not here to take anyone’s cars away from them. I completely accept that some people need cars to get to work, or to visit relatives, or for any number of reasons. But what I don’t accept is that thousands of pedestrian deaths every year are simply unavoidable “accidents.” We can change the way our streets are designed, the way drivers act, and the amount of driving that occurs.That change (and even sacrifice, if you want to call it that) must come on the car side of the equation, and here’s why: Suppose I am walking up the block toward the grocery store (a regular activity for me), when suddenly, for whatever reason, I run into another pedestrian. What happens? Maybe we bruise our elbows, maybe one of us even falls over, but chances are, I simply apologize for running into her, and we get up and continue on our respective ways.

Contrast this scenario with one where I was driving a car to the grocery store. If I “accidently” run into a pedestrian with my car, I will probably break some of his ribs, perhaps leave him with brain damage, and, in all likelihood, kill him. My driving has altered someone else’s life (and my own) forever. It is because I was traveling in a car that my carelessness has resulted in a death. A person alone doesn’t have enough weight or force or speed to do that.

A preposterously wide street with businesses and homes on either side

A preposterously wide street with businesses & homes on either side. Note the man attempting to cross the street in a sea of cars. [Credit]

Now let’s enhance the original scenario even further, for the sake of argument: Suppose a 300 pound football player is sprinting along the sidewalk as part of a training exercise. Then suppose that he takes his eyes off the path for a minute and runs smack-dab into a 90-year-old woman with a cane. The football player has just collided with this frail woman running as fast as he possibly can, and what happens? Is her body crushed under the weight of thousands of pounds of metal? Does she suffer irrevocable brain damage? Most likely not. She’ll be very shaken. She may even break an arm. But she will most likely not die.

Even in this extreme example, it’s nearly impossible for a pedestrian to accidently kill another pedestrian by colliding with her. Not so for cars. We see it time and time again: in Massachusetts a child was dead, and her mother and cousin, severely injured after a careless driver on a road far too wide for an urban environment hit them as they crossed the street; in Milwaukee a college student was severely injured when a car hit her as she was riding her bike home; in New York City alone over 16,000 pedestrians and bikers were injured, and more than 150 were killed in a single year by people driving cars. That’s 3 deaths and more than 300 injuries every week. In one city.

This should be unacceptable.

Further exacerbating this problem is the fact that reports on these collisions consistently place blame on the pedestrian while creating distance for the driver. For instance, here is a classic example of a first line in an article about a pedestrian death, just a couple days ago, on the same street where those two children and the woman were injured in Massachussetts (obviously a very dangerously designed road): “A 60-year-old West Springfield woman died after she was struck by a pickup truck as she tried to run across State Street.”

What’s wrong with this line? 1) Vehicles don’t kill people of their own accord, they are driven by human beings. 2) Nothing is written about the actions of the driver, only the woman who “tried to run” across the street. A less biased sentence would read: “A 60-year-old West Springfield woman was killed by the driver of a pickup truck as she crossed State Street.”

A memorial for a biker killed in a collision

A memorial for a biker killed in a collision. [Credit]

So what’s the solution to these deadly “accidents” that plague big cities, small towns and suburbs alike? We will not find the answer in an education campaign aimed at reminding people not to text and drive, nor will we achieve long-term success by simply lowering the speed limit. No, the way we get safer streets is by designing them better. We need to stop building four-lane roads that look like highways through people’s neighborhoods. We need cities with narrower streets, and cars and bikes parked on both sides because what happens when the street is narrow? Drivers are forced to slow down. They become more attuned to their surroundings and anticipate a car suddenly pulling out of a parking spot or a kid walking across the street. You can read more about those ideas here.

The bottom line is: Neither cars nor (most) streets are designed to keep pedestrians safe. Unless cars are operated with extreme care (far more than is currently the norm), pedestrian deaths will continue at their current rate. I do believe we can decrease our reliance on cars, and increase the safety of car-pedestrian interactions, but only if our streets our designed differently and cars slow down.

This change has to come on the car-side of the equation.

#SlowtheCars

(These arguments regarding highways, streets, pedestrians and cars are largely derived from the Strong Towns model. Read lots more here.)

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3 thoughts on “Why We Need to Slow the Cars

  1. Yes, and let’s think about those 53 foot trailers, which are difficult for operators to maneuver on urban streets yet give the road commissioner reason to provide stroads for the truckers to pound to pieces.

    Like

  2. Loved this one. It always puzzles me how one-off tragic deaths are treated as breaking national news, but the killing or maiming of dozens each and every day of the year is accepted as the usual.

    Like

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