Beware the lure of traffic calmingA post on the dangerously seductive concept of traffic calming that can turn a 1.5 mile drive into 40 minutes from Otis White's Urban Notebook on Governing.com. Otis doesn't have permanent links, so I post the full content. My thoughts at the end.
It's definitely a bad sign when your city has to mitigate its mitigations.
Remain Calm, Please
Chaos Theory and Traffic Engineering
If you’d like to learn the intellectually challenging field of physics known as chaos theory, here’s a suggestion: Hang out with traffic engineers. You’d find that, like chaos theory’s “butterfly effect,” small changes in traffic in one place have huge ramifications elsewhere. And you’d find other mind-twisters, like the notion that nothing in transportation ever truly gets fixed. In fact, as soon as one thing is fixed, nearly everything around it will need fixing, too. Perfect example: traffic-calming efforts on Los Angeles’ Westside.
Background: Traffic calming refers to a series of things cities do to slow motorists and discourage “cut-through” traffic — commuters who veer off highways and through neighborhoods to save a few minutes’ time. You’ve seen these “traffic mitigation” projects in recent years: speed bumps, narrowed streets, “bump outs” (jutting sidewalk extensions), four-way stops, turn restrictions and so on. And they work: When commuters can no longer zoom down a side street at 40 mph and instead have to creep along at 20, they stay on the freeways.
For years, people in L.A.’s Cheviot Hills, a quiet neighborhood where houses start at $1 million, complained about commuters using their streets as shortcuts to nearby Century City, the gigantic office and retail development. So L.A.’s traffic department pulled out every traffic-calming trick in its book to redirect the commuters. Good news: It worked. Traffic on the ironically named Motor Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street, dropped by 20 percent after bump-outs were installed and turn restrictions imposed. Bad news: It has made driving a nightmare for some residents.
Take Chuck Shephard’s recent afternoon drive from his law office in Century City to his son’s baseball game at the Cheviot Hills recreation complex. It’s less than a mile and a half from office to the ball field; Mapquest says it should take three minutes to drive. But it took Shephard 40 minutes because of all the restricted turns he had to navigate. “People have become prisoners of Cheviot Hills,” his wife complained to the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t leave in the morning or get back at night.” Result: Many in the neighborhood are demanding that the city mitigate its traffic mitigations.
Not everyone in Cheviot Hills is unhappy, mind you. Those living along Motor Avenue are pleased that they can now safely back out of their driveways or cross the road on foot. One said the traffic calming measures have made her street “more like a neighborhood and less of a highway.” Still, angry residents elsewhere have voted out pro-calming members of the neighborhood association board and are demanding that the earlier fixes be fixed. Problem is, as one longtime activist told the Times, “If you really talk to a traffic engineer, they’ll tell you they’re out of tricks.”
Footnote: Realistically, what can be done to make traffic work better? Answer: Have less of it. America's freeways work wonderfully well when they're not at capacity. Problem is, we're driving more and over longer distances and have no stomach for building enough new lanes to keep up. Ultimately, then, the solution is for people to drive less by living closer to work, car-pooling or taking transit. Until then, every strategy, from traffic-calming to toll lanes, merely shifts the problem around, it doesn't solve it.
Not mentioned here, but even more serious: I've seen other studies that show substantial increases in ambulance and police response times in neighborhoods with traffic calming devices, and minutes definitely count when it comes to heart attacks and strokes. I also believe there have been some successful lawsuits along these lines.
I think Houston has avoided most of this problem, although I still run into some mildly annoying speed humps from time to time. I think they're leftover from the Lanier administration. Not sure if new ones are still being added today.
His footnote is in the right direction, but a little trite. Peoples' schedules are crazy enough these days to make carpools a nightmare. Job changes have gotten more and more frequent, and people naturally want to stay in the same house and community where they have ties/roots if at all possible. Combine that with a two-income household that can really only be close to one job, and you've got a recipe for long commutes.
Getting back to traffic calming, I found a great quote that sums up Otis' post:
"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." ~ H. L. Mencken