I learned in the course of my Commerce Cabinet Crisis blogging that in some ways, the original sin of traffic engineering turns out to have been committed at the Department of Commerce back in the 1920s. Before there were cars, obviously, there weren’t rules regulating where cars could and couldn’t go. But when cars were invented, a potential safety problem emerged. A car might strike and kill a pedestrian. Clearly, cities were going to need to cope with this. Cities could have responded primarily through measures designed to restrain the behavior of drivers, so as to render their vehicles less lethal to ordinary citizens living their lives. But instead, in part at the urging of the Commerce Department, they decided in the name of “safety” to start putting draconian restrictions on the pedestrians. Thus, even in a very walkable city like New York or Washington, any given street is separated into a “not allowed to walk here” portion (the road) and a “not allowed to drive here” portion (the sidewalk) with the no-walking portion much bigger than the no-driving portion.
You can see the sort of mentality that thinks we should avoid traffic “accidents” (typically caused by illegal, non-accidental behavior on the part of the driver) by restraining pedestrians still on display in the attitudes of MPDC Officer David Baker as described in the Examiner. He says the big problem is that pedestrians need to pay more attention and stop listening to iPods as they cross intersections. How about if I keep walking around the city listening to music and the cars stop speeding? Well, he says that’s not a big problem (via):
Some vehicles do speed through that busy crossing, Baker said, but most average 34 to 37 mph. The speed limit there is 30 mph. As he surveyed the site with his radar gun, Baker said he watched pedestrian after pedestrian stroll by listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones, crossing against the walk signal and stepping into the crosswalk in anticipation of a walk signal.
If the speed limit is 30, then anyone driving 34-37 miles per hour—which is most drivers, according to Baker—is speeding. A cop sitting there with a radar gun should try to stop them.
Even better, we actually know a lot about the intersection between road design, human psychology, driver behavior, and vehicle speed. The road could be re-engineered so as to encourage drivers to actually obey the speed limit. Evidence suggests that this will be more effective than relying on direct enforcement that, by necessity, can’t always be in place.