Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas doesn’t write that many blog posts, but when he does, they are money. Here’s one he filed from Madison, Wisconsin during a CNU conference in 2011 – Aaron. ]

Let’s start with a specific issue: street design. The Congress doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so I’ve used today to get to know a bit of downtown Madison and critique the design of the streets and public spaces. This didn’t stop me from trolling the online pages of The Buffalo News; during a break this afternoon I spied an article today about sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Author Bruce Andriatch merely scratches the surface of this important issue, falling short of addressing it properly.

But who’s to blame him? A design subtlety that is lost on most non-planners, including Buffalo News columnists, is that sidewalks are a necessary element for safe street design, but insufficient in themselves. If pedestrians are being endangered, the design speed of the road is usually the culprit. Many if not most roads in this country are intentionally designed for much higher speeds than the posted limit. A 30 mph speed-limit sign on a road designed for 50 or 60 mph is a futile—and sometimes fatal—exercise in wishful thinking.

Pedestrian Injury Frequency and Severity Based on Vehicle Speed (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, image from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington)

Here are the sobering facts: at 30 mph, vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal in about 5% of cases; at 40 mph, fatalities are 90%. This is not to mention injuries, which can be devastating in their own right: incapacitating injuries are significantly less likely and less severe at slower speeds.

Therefore, the actual, effective solution involves “traffic-calming” the roadway so that drivers naturally move at slower, safer speeds. There are many methods to accomplish this, used in various combinations according to the specific situation. These include: fewer and/or narrower lanes, planting orderly rows of roadside trees, allowing curbside parking, using brick or other types of pavers for the road surface, curb bulb-outs, employing roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, smaller corner radii, etc.

State Street in Madison, WI employs virtually all of the basic traffic-calming devices, including a narrow roadway, wide sidewalks, and orderly rows of curbside trees. This results in a street that easily accommodates all modes of transportation while being a pedestrian destination—it’s simply a pleasant place to be.

Done properly, traffic throughput is still maintained, with less stop-and-go frustration for drivers, and much greater safety and civility for all users of the roadway, including pedestrians and bicyclists. For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.

This isn’t to say that traffic engineers are malicious—they’re just following a prescribed set of rules. The engineering standards that govern most roadway design were written in the mid-20th century, in the midst of a obsession with the automobile and the high-speed expressway. Higher design speeds were considered safer for cars and drivers. This myopic goal ignored any other users, as well as the physical context of the road itself. That the road might be part of a town or city neighborhood hardly entered into the equation. Under these standards, still in effect today, roads are too-often treated identically to expressways, designed only for the high-speed convenience and safety of cars. What happens beyond the curb or shoulder doesn’t matter.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue, the urbanistic equivalent of Madison’s State Street, employs many of the same traffic-calming methods, but sidewalks are often too narrow, driving lanes too wide, and street trees are often missing or poorly maintained.

The good news is that the rules are changing. The old standards, embodied mainly by the AASHTO highway design manuals, have been superseded by new tools and standards, most recently (and importantly) the ITE design manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, adopted in 2010. Traffic engineers and citizens alike now have a sophisticated set of official standards with which to design roads that serve all users and all contexts.

Incidentally, on May 24, Transportation for America released a comprehensive report on pedestrian deaths. Dangerous by Design studies 47,000 pedestrian fatalities in the US from 2000-2009, mapping them on an interactive web page. Enter any location, and find out details on fatalities, thoroughfare type, etc. Check out pedestrian fatalities in your neighborhood; you may learn something about street design and safety in the place you live.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on May 31, 2011.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Buffalo, Madison (Wisconsin)

18 Responses to “Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas”

  1. John Morris says:

    Great post but not too much to debate.

  2. Joe Beckmann says:

    Old news. Massachusetts Healthy Aging Community Data Profiles of most Massachusetts cities identifies “walkability” with specific walkability scores. (http://www.tuftshealthplanfoundation.org/press/healthy_aging_data_report.html)

    And the stuff is both fresher and more local than 2011 data.

  3. Paul Lambie says:

    Here’s something to debate: Agree or disagree with this statement from the piece: “For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.”

    I don’t know what the design speeds are, but in Indianapolis we have many, many surface streets/roads that have average vehicle speeds of 40-50 MPH. As the statistics bear out, pedestrians usually die when struck by vehicles at those speeds. But many of our proposed bus rapid transit lines are proposed to run on these very streets, where riders will be expected to then walk along sidewalks that are either directly adjacent to, or within a few feet of vehicle travel lanes. How or why do we expect these lines to be successful, and why is there no demonstration of the ability to holistically design our street corridors to be safe for people outside of cars before we contemplate spending billions on rapid transit?

  4. Jim D. says:

    Poorly-coordinated traffic signals are part of the issue. When motorists are frustrated by signals that turn red seemingly at random, they are often tempted to speed up to ‘make the light’ or run the red light to avoid risking further delays. Cities also need to clamp down not only on urban speeding but on reckless jaywalking as well.

  5. urbanleftbehind says:


    Good observation about poorly coordinated traffic signals and their role in encouraging speeding up by motorists.

    Have you observed vehicular traffic behavior at any intersections/along corridors with pedestrian crossings featuring countdown timers? I, as a motorist, have found them quite helpful in assessing whether I have enough time to speed up (yes part of the problem you mention, sorry), simply maintain my lawful speed through the intersection, or prepare to stop (brake gently to the wide line).

  6. Eric Fazzini says:

    Streetsblog has posted a similar graphic before. There’s a great campaign in the UK called 20’s Plenty for Us and there’s a similar movement brewing in NYC.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    I think density and intensity of use matter.

    I suspect this will be an unpopular opinion: Outside the urban core of newer/further west/further south cities, 40 mph is a necessity for cars or buses to actually get somewhere in a reasonable time.

    (Please, spare me the “building it wrong for 100 years” rhetoric: our cities are what they are today, and to be productive, those of us who live in non-dense cities with non-active street frontages have to traverse non-dense areas fairly quickly. And sadly, in Indianapolis, it is those non-dense areas where most pedestrian deaths occur. It isn’t the speed that kills, it is the lack of proper pedestrian infrastructure as Paul L. points out above.)

  8. John Morris says:

    “Please, spare me the “building it wrong for 100 years” rhetoric: our cities are what they are today, and to be productive, those of us who live in non-dense cities with non-active street frontages have to traverse non-dense areas fairly quickly.

    I agree that almost every city has an area where 40mph or even higher is OK.

    Sort of a chicken & egg problem. Many cities are/ were built wrong and desperately need to bring residents & pedestrian life to low density dead zones & former industrial neighborhoods, like Pittsburgh’s Strip District (or Atlanta’s Old 4th ward). But people who move to those places risk being killed by people speeding through them.

    Lower speed limits are a critical part of infill development.

  9. John Morris says:

    I think the declining number of residents in Indy’s core demonstrates that letting people speed through the “donut” isn’t exactly helping the urban economy.


  10. John Morris says:

    I give some props to Cleveland here. When we visited a few years ago, the long traffic signals on mostly empty downtown streets annoyed us. But, now the downtown is on its way to 1400 residents it seems less silly.

  11. John Morris says:

    Sorry, I mean 14,000 residents.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    Oh, John. We have that “high speed arterial” argument fairly frequently on the Indy Development blog on SSC.

    Lots of things killed the “first ring” outside of Downtown Indy, but the 35mph arterials (which in fairness are probably designed for 40-45) aren’t the smoking gun.

    IMO, it was a combination of racism and the lack of geographic constraints (no lakes, big rivers, or mountains) to prevent Indy from spreading outward like pancake batter poured on a griddle.

    One of the things I frequently note in discussions on this topic is that metro Indy has fewer miles of freeway inside its outer belt than its fellow Midwestern growth champions (Columbus, Ohio and MSP). The big arterials necessarily replace some freeway lane-miles inside the loop. (Snide aside: for such a “progressive” place, MSP sure loves their urban freeways…five north-south and three east-west more-or-less complete transects.)

  13. John Morris says:

    Not an expert on Indy, but the stats indicate something is going wrong in the inner ring and one should be open to change.

    If it seemed to be working, that would be one thing.

    Cleveland has that Downtown to University Circle speedway. Pittsburgh has the Strip, Allegheny Circle & Oakland to East Liberty speedways. In all cases, infill will be related to calming that.

    I think old timers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn remember when it was a speedway for garbage & fuel trucks. It still has that problem,

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    John: obsolete housing product and low overall housing costs make those first ring neighborhoods problematic to fix up. They are IMO the result of “hands-off” free market policy: obsolete housing slips down the scale from “starter home” to “rental home” to “slumlord” by the working of the market; building new suburban subdivisions is the free market answer because Indy is not constrained geographically or by commuter congestion.

    Clogging the arterials seems like a good policy solution, but it would just damage the next ring out, where the desirable non-downtown neighborhoods are, by increasing commute times to near-suburban levels for the high-income residents who remain inside the beltway.

    The model that works is concentrated applications of money at a sub-neighborhood (several blocks) level. When HUD dollars are involved, it is lower-level gentrification: driving out the poor and the underclass to establish working and middle class people in their place. (See the previous guest post by Pete Saunders regarding comprehensive community development as practiced under the LISC “quality of life” model; some people, given a “hand up” by social services, do achieve better lives in place.)

  15. Eric Fazzini says:

    Downtown Indy is one giant one-way couplet east and west. Too many one way streets in general that move dangerously fast through urban areas like down Delaware past my beloved Goose the Market.

  16. Chris Barnett says:

    Every major city’s downtown is full of one-way streets, and Indy is no different.

    There are really only four long arterial pairs: Washington/Maryland (east-west downtown only); NY/Michigan (east-west just north of the north-south divide); Illinois/Capitol (north-south just west of the city’s centerline); Delaware/Pennsylvania (north south just east of the centerline).

    Note that Goose and the rest of the Fall Creek Place neighborhood reconstruction happened decades after the one-way conversions of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and nobody thought reconversion would be necessary to the success of the area. Likewise, Ivy Tech and The Children’s Museum nearby grew up around the Illinois-Capitol pair.

    The Indiana Convention Center, White River State Park, Victory Field, Marriott Hotel complex, Circle Centre Mall, and loads of other Warehouse District reinvestments have developed on the Washington-Maryland corridor. IUPUI grew up around the NY-Michigan pair, as did the former RCA Consumer Electronics manufacturing site right in the middle of the Near East Side.

    My point: the presence of 30-35mph arterial pairs (though engineered to 40-45) has not prevented significant investment and reinvestment, so it seems really hard to argue that they simultaneously cause disinvestment.

  17. Paul Lambie says:

    Chris, isn’t it true though that the only area of those four one-way pairs that truly have significant pedestrian activity and street life is the Washington/Maryland pair through downtown where there is enough congestion that vehicle traffic rarely surpasses 20MPH?

    IUPUI, despite its location, is one of the least urban college campuses I’ve ever seen. The Fall Creek Place neighborhood (and Herron Morton) is relatively thriving in spite of the one-way streets, but they are exceptions to the rule, and they’d probably be much more vibrant with slower vehicle traffic.

    New York and Michigan, and Illinois and Capitol are simply unenjoyable places to be, again with the exception of a few blocks in the Warehouse District where traffic on Illinois is congested and slow. Coincidence?

  18. Alex Wagner says:

    State Street in Madison doesn’t allow cars (except for taxicabs or if you live in an apartment on State Street), so it’s simply inaccurate to say it “easily accommodates all modes of transportation.” Usually it’s just buses and bikes.

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