Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Beware the lure of traffic calming

A 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.

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.

It's definitely a bad sign when your city has to mitigate its mitigations.

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


At 10:52 AM, July 27, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I just don't buy those surveys. They don't reflect people's actual behavior. We have express HOV transit service from all over, yet few choose to use it. It's like that hilarious Onion article with the headline "97% of area commuters support transit for others" - i.e. hoping it'll clear the freeways up for them.

I'd also bet the majority of the convenient communities vote doesn't want to move into the city to pay more for an older and smaller house. It means they'd really like it if their employer would move out to a nice suburban office building right down the street from their idyllic master planned community.

At 12:16 PM, July 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things that traffic calming does (when done properly) is to improve pedestrian safety. Reducing the speed of traffic on neighborhood streets makes it safer for people who are walking.
And while I am sorry that it took Chuck Shepard 40 minutes to drive the 1.5 miles to his son's baseball game, he might consider walking or bicycling next time. That's part of the whole point: we have given over too much space in our urban and suburban environments to motor vehicles, and it is not safe for anyone else to use the streets. Striking a balance on our neighborhood streets may mean that it becomes more inconvenient for motor vehicles to drive on those streets, but if that comes with improved facilities (and safety) for other modes, it's a fair trade-off.

At 1:10 PM, July 27, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Some of this can be solved without calming devices. Putting more police in to give speeding tickets and putting in more sidewalks tend to be less intrusive than speed humps and such, but succeed in keeping people from cutting through.

For example, Buffalo Speedway is still relatively safe and not too congested, even though many people use it as a cut through to avoid Kirby, because it has lower speed limits, lots of police, and good sidewalks.

At 1:55 PM, July 27, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

dennis sellin,

And while I am sorry that it took Chuck Shepard 40 minutes to drive the 1.5 miles to his son's baseball game, he might consider walking or bicycling next time.

In the middle of summer that might not have been much of an option for a middle-aged attorney. It may also be that he needed to return to the office afterwards, or go somewhere else later, or he might just be in bad shape. Walking or biking can often be pretty inconvenient for people for reasons unrelated to traffic.

At 3:54 PM, July 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am suprised the author would trot out emergency response time for stroke and heart attack victims in this discussion and not mention who benefits the most from these traffic calming measures, the elderly and children.

"...other studies that show substantial increases in ambulance and police response times in neighborhoods with traffic calming devices... I also believe there have been some successful lawsuits along these lines."

Ah yes...the old burning baby argument...spiced up with a bit of sue-your-community legal advice. Nice. Perhaps you could share the toll-free number of some law firms that specialize in fighting senior-center and school pedestrian crosswalks. Perhaps there is a firm in Century City could help.

If emergency response times were an issue, perhaps access to defibrilators, new sprinkler codes and revised community police efforts could be improved.

Such measures would not necessarily increase the risk for non-motorists.

Children in Oakland, CA with a speed bump on their own block have a two-fold reduction in risk of being hit in their own neighborhood, but they also had a 2.5-fold lower risk of being hit in front of their own home.

Source: A Matched Case–Control Study Evaluating the Effectiveness of Speed Humps in Reducing Child Pedestrian Injuries
Am J Public Health, Apr 2004; 94: 646 - 650.

To be sure, there are winners and losers with traffic calming designs. But with these measures, the losers typically measure their loses in minutes, not lifetimes.

At 9:23 AM, July 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duh! If the "middle aged attorney" is fat and out shape he needs the 1.5 mile walk even MORE. Sweat happens - do we think that there is a reason that people weren't as fat and LAZY from 1900 to about 1960? They walked more (biked some) and rode or drove less.

Traffic calming has as its foundation residential neighborhood owner's safety and property value in mind. If the pendulum swings too far the oher direction i.e. toward make the property so troublesome to get in and out of that it impairs its value then you see a back lash.
I can almost promise you that it is never the residents of a cut through street who complain of traffic calming but those who want to use there street to cut through. (I do agree that turn restrictions cause more frustration than the physical barrier methods that actually work better anyway) (see: www.trafficcalming.org).

Even better: all you "cut through" impatient speedsters, pay attention for just a few weeks how you drive in your own neighborhood vs. one you don't live in - I promise you that you probably get slower and more cautious the closer you get to home (which proves that NIMBY applies to how you actually drive also).

At 9:45 AM, July 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis Sellin, Jack, and others:

I'm very glad that everyone is perfect and no one has any physical handicaps on Planet Utopia where you live. But me, I've had three knee surgeries and still need replacements - I'm not physically capable of walking long distances. Is your solution simply that all but the young and healthy be eliminated?

At 10:01 AM, July 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An extra 30 seconds on your commute wouldn't kill you, anonymous. no one's saying everyone but the healthy should be eliminated, and no one's saying that everyone should walk. let's not get hysterical and blow things out of proportion.

At 1:09 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Duh! If the "middle aged attorney" is fat and out shape he needs the 1.5 mile walk even MORE. Sweat happens - do we think that there is a reason that people weren't as fat and LAZY from 1900 to about 1960? They walked more (biked some) and rode or drove less.

Well, I wouldn't want to meet with my attorney and have to ask "geez, what's that smell?" It's a good policy to avoid excessive sweating in the middle of the day.

Also, walking 1.5 miles in the heat, and then sitting in the heat to watch a softball game, is a good way to get heat exhaustion. It's also uncomfortable. Even a person in good shape is probably wise to avoid it.

Moreover, as the other anonymous notes, many people have bad knees, bad backs, etc, by the time they reach middle age which prevent them from walking long distances with the ease that a young man might. There's a good chance that walking or biking simply wasn't realistic for this guy.

At 4:01 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger C. Siegel said...

I happened to see this page, and it struck me that most posts assume the city will stay the same -- except for the addition of traffic calming. Many environmentalists believe that traffic calming is just one tactic that is needed to make our cities more pedestrian and transit oriented. To to put the discussion in context, I tried to write as brief a description as possible of how our cities should be transformed (which turned out to be 600 words), and I posted it on http://preservenet.blogspot.com/. I wrote it after reading this discussion of traffic calming, so I am mentioning it here, even though it is not specific to Houston.

At 9:16 PM, July 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Owen -

RE: Also, walking 1.5 miles in the heat, and then sitting in the heat to watch a softball game, is a good way to get heat exhaustion. It's also uncomfortable.

Remember where this story is set - Cheviot Hills in west LA, not Death Valley. During the month of July, temperatures in the adjacent neighborhood of Culver City (where I could find weather data) topped 80 degrees only 4 times. Many days had highs in the low 70s. Spending an afternoon walking or biking to and then watching a softball game in that weather is a gift. Nothing uncomfortable about it...

At 8:24 AM, November 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Los Angeles in the neighborhood in question (Cheviot Hills). The 40 minute commute is false. It has never taken me more than 5-10 minutes (even in the rain). The mitigation controversy was started by a group which wanted to take over the homeowners association. The mitigations have reduced thousands of car trips per day through the neighborhood and the vast majority of residents suppport it.

At 8:29 AM, June 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading opinion of another as it always broadens one's horizons. I am a licensed professional engineer with just under a decade of experience. I ran the largest traffic calming program in a southern state for almost three years before taking an another position. I knew have completed many studies of various traffic calming methods from education and enforcement to standard engineering designs to my own creations. My goal had always been to create an improved environment for all road users: drivers, residents, bikers, walkers, everyone. I found if everyone involved in the process was just a little unhappy with the result it was the best result.

I was a little disheartened that a person would spend 40 min in a car driving 1 mile when they could have walked in 10 min and probably gotten much needed exercise. To me the problem is author didn't consider this point.

Multi-model is the solution. Our infrastructure is 10 years behind. By the time a capacity issue is identified, put on a list, then funded a decade has gone buy. Add 5 more years to build it.

People should do what's right for them and not be told they can't drive and must walk or bike but, we must build for those who want to do both. Thanks for reading.

At 1:10 PM, October 07, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Motor Avenue has always been the connecting street between Fox and MGM (now Sony) studios. It is not a 'cut-through'. It is a thoroughfare. It always has been. The fact that a neighborhood sprung up next to a busy street doesn't change the purpose or value of Motor Avenue. The 'problem' is borne of the fact the people screaming about the traffic have lots of money.

The complaints about the Cheviot Hills neighborhood are similar to those from people who move next to LAX, then fight the airport about excessive noise. Last time I checked, the airport and Motor Avenue were there first.

What do they always say about real estate? Location, location, location. To the people of Cheviot Hills: if you don't like the location, move. I will continue to take the shortest path to work (at Fox) down Motor Avenue on the public street that my tax dollars support, regardless of your efforts to privatize that street. Want to restrict traffic through your neighborhood? Move to a gated community.


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