This man wants to put the squeeze on drivers. And save lives.
Jeff Speck, the best selling author of Walkable City, has recently been making a strong case for the narrowing of “main streets” – the busy collector streets in cities across North America. Speck advocates redesigning the driving lanes on these streets from a 12 ft standard width to 10 ft.
Curious about how the concept would apply, the Institute for Quality Communities at Oklahoma University noted that only 6% of streets in Oklahoma would meet Speck’s width guidelines.
Speck may be the most visible voice for narrower driving lanes but even technical authorities are coming around. The Urban Street Design Guide of NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials – a U.S. organization) says “lane widths of 10 feet are appropriate in urban areas and have a positive impact on a street’s safety without impacting traffic operations.”
Here in Greater Victoria, our group has noted for some time that wide streets deliver fast cars, difficult crossings, and no real benefits to the places they intersect. Doing a quick check based on Speck’s 10 foot criterion finds many of our main connector streets (typically classified as arterials by traffic engineers) need to go on a diet. 10 feet translates into about 3 metres. If we allow 2.5 metres for parking lanes on either side, and 3 metres for two driving lanes, the standard connector street should be 11 metres wide. Many of ours are 13 or 14m.
Take, for example, Cook Street south alongside Beacon Hill Park, and Oak Bay Avenue east of Fort St.
Here’s a look at Cook:
The City of Victoria recently lowered the speed limit on Cook from 50 km/h to 40, in a desire to slow cars down. Unfortunately, posted signs have little effect on behaviour.
What does change driver behaviour is the design and environment of the roadway. Oversimplified, if we create wide open sight lines and big expanses of asphalt, drivers naturally get the “all clear” signal to step on the gas. Intuitively, we would think that clear sight lines for drivers are safer than cluttered, complicated sight lines, right? That’s what engineers have always believed – it’s become a mantra.
What Speck shows is that the opposite is true. Drivers slow down when things get “busy” – when parked cars are close, when there are multiple pedestrian crossings, when sight lines are unclear. To quote Speck, “On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?”
Slower cars get in fewer accidents and, perhaps most significantly, when they do collide with a bike or pedestrian the damage is significantly reduced. Low speeds save lives. Narrower lanes slow drivers down.
Let’s take another look at a local arterial, Oak Bay Avenue, which runs from near the bay it is named for, in Oak Bay municipality, west into the City of Victoria and then changing name (as we love to do here), becoming Pandora Avenue. Here’s what a typical travel pattern looks like on Oak Bay Avenue, courtesy of Google Street View.
Another shot of the same scene:
Now when we look at situations like this, it becomes apparent that we can improve two things at once: slow vehicles down (for the safety of all travelers), and give people on bikes a safer zone. That is accomplished by what is known as “parking protected bike lanes” or “floating parking.” Move the parking lanes away from the curb, so that they narrow the driving lane. Give the bikes the 1.5 metres between the parked cars and the sidewalk.
Not only are bikes separated from moving cars in that design, they are less likely to be “doored” – given that fewer passenger doors are opening than are driver doors. And there is a business benefit: cyclists, who like pedestrians are moving at a slower speed and can actually see storefronts as they pass, are better exposed to the retail environment along the street.
Here’s a sketch of that design.
And here’s a real life application.
So there it is: an opportunity. This safer street design is also, on many streets, a very economical fix. On streets with no corner bulb-outs, there is no or virtually no actual concrete and asphalt to be changed. Street markings have to be changed, and some posts or other barriers to prevent parking cars from cheating into the protected bike lane.
The safety argument should be compelling enough. But we can also add a values discussion to these decisions. We need to shift from seeing streets as only serving the movement of vehicles (‘more and faster is better’) to seeing streets as serving the community. People walking from a residential neighbourhood like Fairfield to the city’s major park should not be (as in the photo below) having to push strollers alongside fast moving vehicles. Vulnerable bikes and people on foot need greater physical protection than we give them.
Let’s reimagine our streets.
A practical next step to do that is to run a number of pilot projects: from one day to one year demonstrations of what redesigned streets can do for our neighbourhoods.