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With fat lanes, traffic engineers kill in the name of safety

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Contrary to perceptions, the greatest threat to pedestrian safety is not crime, but the very real danger of automobiles moving quickly. Yet most traffic engineers, often in the name of safety, continually redesign city streets to support higher-speed driving.

Photo by the author.

This approach is so counterintuitive that it strains credulity: Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.

Even my old South Beach neighborhood, known for its walkability, was not immune to this sort of thinking.

If you have seen the remake of La Cage Aux Folles, you might remember the lively streetscape of Espanola Way, where Robin Williams buys an elaborate birthday cake for his partner. Follow that street two blocks west, and you will find that already-narrow sidewalks have been cut in half in order to widen a roadway that functioned perfectly well before. Why? Because the standards had changed—from walkable to not.

I have never heard a proper explanation for the creeping expansion of America's street standards. All I know is that it is very real, and that it has a profound impact on the work that city planners do every day.

In the late nineties, I was working on the design of Mount Laurel, a new town outside of Birmingham, Alabama, that was modeled on that city's most successful prewar neighborhoods. We had measured the streets of Homewood, Mountain Brook, and the city's other best addresses, and planned our thoroughfares with the same dimensions. We were then told that our streets did not meet the standard, and our engineering firm was unwilling to stamp the drawings for fear of legal liability.

I remember one particular afternoon, when we convinced the County Engineer to tour these great neighborhoods with us in our van. Perhaps anticipating our consternation, he gripped the door handle with white knuckles and shouted "We're gonna die!" as we motored calmly around the narrow, leafy streets of Mountain Brook. I'm pretty sure he was joking, but his ultimate pronouncement was clear: we had to re-engineer our streets with a higher design speed.

This logic—that higher design speeds make for safer streets—coupled with the typical city engineer's desire for unimpeded traffic—has caused many American cities to rebuild their streets with lanes that are 12, 13, and sometimes even 14 feet wide. Now, cars are only 6 feet wide—a Ford Excursion is 6'-6''—and most Main Streets were historically made of 10-foot lanes. That dimension persists on many of the best, such as ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. Yet, many cities I visit have their fair share of 13-footers, and that is where much of the speeding occurs.

For me writing this, and you reading it, it is undoubtedly clear that building wider lanes would cause drivers to speed. After all, if highways have 12-foot lanes, and we are comfortable negotiating them at seventy miles per hour, wouldn't we feel the same way on a city street of the same dimension? Yet, in the bizarre parallel universe of the traffic engineer, no such relationship exists. Motorists will drive at the speed limit, or slightly above, no matter what sort of drag strip we lay in their path.

As with induced demand, the engineers have once again failed to comprehend that the way they design streets will have any impact on the way that people use them. By their logic, just as more lanes can't cause more driving, high-speed lanes can't cause high speeds. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the second great misunderstanding that lies at the root of most urban degradation today. Widening a city's streets in the name of safety is like distributing handguns to deter gun violence.

Just in case you think I am making this up, let's turn to the calm analysis of Reid Ewing and Eric Dumbaugh, professors at the University of Maryland and Texas A & M, respectively. In their 2009 study, "The Built Environment and Traffic Safety: A Review of Empirical Evidence," they assess the situation this way.

Considered broadly, the fundamental shortcoming of conventional traffic safety theory is that it fails to account for the moderating role of human behavior on crash incidence. Decisions to ... widen specific roadways to make them more forgiving are based on the assumption that in so doing, human behavior will remain unchanged. And it is precisely this assumption—that human behavior can be treated as a constant, regardless of design—that accounts for the failure of conventional safety practice.
How costly is this failure? In another study, presented at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Rutgers professor Robert Noland calculated that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year.

We can only hope that these studies eventually have an impact on thoroughfare engineering as it is currently practiced in the typical American city. Currently, engineers still deny their stamp of approval to streets configured without "adequately" high design speeds. "We're afraid of being sued," they say.

Some day, I might get up the nerve to respond as follows: "Afraid? You should be. Now that we've publicly presented to you that narrower roads save lives, we are going to sue you when people die on your fat streets."

There is some good news. Thanks to the labors of the Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit focused on making more livable cities, we have made a start in changing the standards. The CNU teamed up with the Institute of Traffic Engineers to create a new manual, "Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares," that recommends street lanes of 10 and 11 feet wide. With the imprimatur of the ITE, this book can now be waved at planning meetings in support of more reasonable standards. I just wish that "11" wasn't in there.

Another cause for hope is the growing "20's Plenty for Us" movement that, having taken the United Kingdom by storm, is just beginning to win followers in the US. Recognizing that only 5 percent of pedestrian collisions at 20 miles per hour result in death, vs. 85 percent at 40 mph, the British have introduced 20 mph speed limits in many of their cities.

There are currently more than 87 "Twenty's Plenty" campaigns in the UK, and about 25 British jurisdictions, with a combined population of over six million, have committed to a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas. In June, 2011, the European Union Transport Committee recommended such a rule for the entire continent. It is easy to imagine 20 mph becoming a standard throughout Europe in the near future.

On this side of the pond, Hoboken, New Jersey, may be the first city to have instituted a "Twenty is Plenty" campaign. Unfortunately, in true Jersey fashion, the 20 is just a suggestion, while higher official speed limits remain in place. As I write this, New York City is pioneering some legitimate 20 mph zones.

These developments are important—but not as an end in themselves. As any London pedestrian will tell you, a 20-mph sign does not a 20-mph driver make. Most motorists drive the speed at which they feel comfortable, which is the speed to which the road has been engineered. "20's Plenty" is most useful as a first step to slower design speeds. Once 20-mph zones proliferate, we may finally be able to convince the engineers to design 20-mph streets.

Speck's book comes out on November 13. You can pre-order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first excerpt.
Jeff Speck is a city planner who, through writing, public service, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design. As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Mr. Speck oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and created the Governors' Institute on Community Design. Mr. Speck spent the prior 10 years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., and currently leads a boutique design consultancy based in Washington, DC. 


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While I agree with the ideas here, there is something you have not considered: the maneuverability of large vehicles like trucks and buses.

Large vehicles cannot make turns from narrow lanes. Some compromise needs to be made to accommodate them.

by goldfish on Nov 7, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

I'd agree with almost everything here. Unforatnely traffic calming, rather than reducing the actual lane, usually involves putting signs, bikes, various road furniture, speed bumps and what not in the road. *

Traffic engineers have done us great service in clearing up rural roads. Cities much less so. It is in the suburbs that it hard to draw the line.

* street parking makes great traffic calming.

by charlie on Nov 7, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

Very true.

They were repaving cul-de-sacs in my suburban neighborhood recently, so everybody had to park along the road, narrowing the road significantly. Speeds dropped immediately to reasonable.

I was on Curacao, where they pretty much don't do road signs. So I had no clue what the speed limit was. But every time I did see a speed limit sign, I was driving that speed. So somehow they managed to design their roads in such a way that the speed is limited by the design. Great!

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

The headline is definitely a turn off as it suggests more over the top hyperbole often engaged in wrt to subject like this.

However, the excerpt doesn't really reflect the tone of the headline. I thought the piece was good and think the headline does it a disservice.

by HogWash on Nov 7, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

I'm amazed at some streets in DC after they add a bike lane (I'm thinking S st. NW in particular) how wide they really were beforehand.

In the suburbs there are cul de sac neighborhoods with a typical one entrance/exit approach and the interior roads are still 30+ feet wide.

by drumz on Nov 7, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

While I agree with the ideas here, there is something you have not considered: the maneuverability of large vehicles like trucks and buses.

The solution to this problem is obviously smaller trucks and buses.

by oboe on Nov 7, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

Or the same size trucks and buses that you drive more carefully.

by drumz on Nov 7, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

Oboe +1,
If you've ever been to Europe and seen the mini-sized fleet of trucks that service those medeveal town centers, you'll see that necessity is the mother of invention. Let's design for humans, not for cars.

by Thayer-D on Nov 7, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

@oboe and @Thayer-D: pretty sure that suggesting the US adopt Euro car sizes is a non-starter. Whenever I chat Europeans they almost always express envy for the size of American vehicles.

by goldfish on Nov 7, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

You might be right, but didn't Obama just mandate the feul efficiency of cars go up to 50mpg at some point in the not too distant future? Whenever I chat with Americans, they almost always express envy for the beauty and livability of European cities. We don't have to accept the status quo if there's a smarter choice.

by Thayer-D on Nov 7, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish: Whenever I chat Europeans they almost always express envy for the size of American vehicles.

Clearly, you've never chatted with me.

It is true that many Europeans are amazed by the size of American cars. Whether that amazement is positive or negative remains to be seen. Surely there are people who'd love to ride larger cars. But there are also many that would have no clue what to do with all that space. Also, considering European fuel prices and road sizes, large cars are not practical in Europe.

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

Moreover, there is a lot of room at the margin so that we don't have to worry about car widths for a long time.

by drumz on Nov 7, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, agree that fuel price is an important reason why cars in Europe are so much smaller.

Consider Sweden. They have more space there, the roads are wider, but they also have medieval cities and the gas is just as expensive. The cars there are American-sized.

by goldfish on Nov 7, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

"Large vehicles" also include emergency vehicles like fire engines. Narrow streets and tight turning radii can severely impede the movement of such vehicles. Alexandria had to build a new fire house in Potomac Yard after it was found that the constricted street layouts that were approved for that development would cause unacceptably long travel times from the closest existing station. Maybe smaller fire engines are a realistic alternative but that option didn't seem to be on the table in Alexandria.

by jimble on Nov 7, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

@ jimble:Narrow streets and tight turning radii can severely impede the movement of such vehicles.

Yeah, that must be why cities in the rest of the world burn down constantly.

@ goldfish:Consider Sweden. ... The cars there are American-sized.

Random highway shot from Stockholm:

View Larger Map

Looks like any European highway to me. Not like and American car filled highway.

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: Volvos, not Fiats. QED.

by goldfish on Nov 7, 2012 4:47 pm • linkreport

As an engineer involved in designing and operating narrow streets in an urban environment, let me say that this over-the-top demonization of engineers does not help your cause.

There are a host of issues contributing to the problem of wide streets, and it's more complicated than blaming the city engineer. These issues include state design guidelines that are difficult to obtain waivers, planners' visions of wide boulevard and parkway-type streets that were implemented decades ago, fire codes and insurance policies that take the choice of purchasing smaller vehicles out of the hands of local fire chiefs, zoning codes that discourage or prohibit the type of development that reinforces the goals of a narrow street, general lack of funding for infrastrucure, a lack of education and support on the issue from the residents, and the requirement of a serious political commitment to the ideals of narrow streets to weather the firestorm that will happen when streets are narrowed. It's not impossible to narrow lanes and streets, but it is not as simple as getting an engineer to change a number on a set of plans.

If you want to convince engineers that narrowing streets is a good thing, stop being confrontational and bring cold, hard facts and numbers to the discussion. Offer to help with gathering political and resident support, approach the myraid of other agencies and governmental bodies to make appropriate changes to their codes, policies, & practices, ask the engineers how you can help them make their decision easier. But do not put the sole blame of 60 years of urban design on the backs of engineers, who may be misguided and not educated on the latest studies but are trying their best to keep the public safe.

by An Engineer on Nov 7, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

Alexandria had to build a new fire house in Potomac Yard after it was found that the constricted street layouts that were approved for that development would cause unacceptably long travel times from the closest existing station.

I sat in many a meeting with city staff and residents and read the reports. Constricted street layouts was never mentioned as a reason for the new firehouse. Response times (travel times as you say) was the major reason cited by staff. Many of the residents felt the *real* underlying reason was that city staff felt they could get a shiny new toy (firehouse) from the developers as the data used for response times was utter bunk.

by Delrayizen on Nov 7, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

@An Engineer, well said.

Interesting and a positive development that the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism partnered together on the publication. Maybe we should engage both progressive sides of the equation affirmatively...

by Some Ideas (another engineer) on Nov 7, 2012 6:51 pm • linkreport

Maybe Speck was slagging traffic engineers, but to my mind, they're only doing thier job. Beyond the mini firetruck discussion, I think the main point is only that cars will go faster if you give them more width to swerve and will take corners faster if given an overly generous radius.

The crack on engineers might be that they work in a linear fashion, never cross polinating their problems with extraneous issues and thus say things like "but are trying their best to keep the public safe". By ensuring a safer drive, you are putting the pedestrian's at greater risk.

by Thayer-D on Nov 7, 2012 7:52 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish:Volvos, not Fiats. QED.

Yeah, Swedes ride in the cars they make: Volvos. But those are not large cars. They'd count as mid-size in the US. Volvos don't come near the size of Hummers, truck or SUVs. And Fiat does not define small. They make big cars as well. Through Chrysler, Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo.

by Jasper on Nov 7, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: I drive a Volvo. It was large enough -- over 3500 lb -- to have a 7% excise tax when I licensed it in DC. By any US measure, it is a large car. It sure costs enough to keep it gassed. By weight and length, it is bigger than my old Jeep Cherokee SUV.

When I visited Sweden, I found that the comparably large cars they drove was remarkable. They drive bigger cars than nearby Denmark.

by goldfish on Nov 7, 2012 10:18 pm • linkreport

Curious what Mr. Speck's thoughts are on designated city truck routes. Necessary for city industry and some commerce. What's an appropriate lane width to accommodate trucks?

by Froggie on Nov 7, 2012 11:56 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the mention of the 20's Plenty for Us campaign in the UK.

Actually we now have 168 local branches across the UK and already 9m people live in cities committed to or already having 20mph as the default for all residential roads.

See for a list of local campaigns or for our page of briefing sheets explaining all the advantages.

And by all means we don't mind that being 20's Plenty for U.S. as well.

Best wishes

Rod King - 20's Plenty for Us

by Rod King on Nov 8, 2012 4:00 am • linkreport

The requirement by the MUTCD to paint a center line may be similarly problematic. Center lines encourage faster driving and send a subtle message to pass cyclists and pedestrians on the roadway with minimum clearance. From the MUTCD:
10 Center line markings should be placed on paved urban arterials and collectors that have a traveled way of 20 feet or more in width and an ADT of 4,000 vehicles per day or greater. Center line markings should also be placed on all rural arterials and collectors that have a traveled way of 18 feet or more in width and an ADT of 3,000 vehicles per day or greater. Center line markings should also be placed on other traveled ways where an engineering study indicates such a need.

by Jim T on Nov 8, 2012 8:07 am • linkreport

Re: Commercial Trucks

Two things will happen as the result of narrower streets. Smaller trucks will need to be used for some commercial activity, and since smaller trucks are less efficient, it was ever-so-slightly increase the cost of things in DC. Second, some large trucks can make turns by taking up two lanes and putting a sign on the back of the truck saying "this truck makes wide turns".

Re: Fire trucks, etc.

It's possible narrower streets would slow them down. So will the greater density that a more walking friendly city would result in. So, you might need an extra fire station or two but given increasing density, you probably aren't changing the ratio of fire trucks to people.

Re: Engineers

Engineers don't run society. The powerful do. Politicians, the rich, etc. are the ones to blame/influence.

by Falls Church on Nov 8, 2012 9:12 am • linkreport

Smaller commercial vehicles are not necessarily safer, and they are certainly less efficient. Also, the size of trucks used in urban applications is mostly engineered around alley and loading dock limitations, not standard road widths.

It takes many more smaller vehicles to carry the same weight and/or volume load. If you cut the carrying capacity in half, you don't half the size of the total truck and load. You end up with more vehicles on the road. Is that safer?

Truck weights have been addressed in the latest transportation bill, with funding provided to study the impact on safety and road wear.

by CJ on Nov 8, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

"and since smaller trucks are less efficient, it was ever-so-slightly increase the cost of things in DC. "

You know what else is inefficient? Small organic farms, until you factor in the threat to our monoculture huge farms that could go down with one small bacteria. Also, don't forget to factor in the environmental degredation of overuse of fertilizers and pesticides when whole regions are suseptable to droughts. On and on... The point is there are many factors that never get plugged into the "efficiency" equation, something engineers are known to do through no fault of their own. The efficiency of large trucks is countered when you think of the costs of running an economy dominated by large vehicles and what impact they have on the urbanism designed around their efficiency. What about moving bulk on train and re-creating the warehouse districts from which smaller vehicles could branch out instead of relying too much on 18 wheelers for both long hauls and shorter trips. This isn't an attack on large vehicles per say as much as it's a call to re-think the "efficiency" mantra businesses promote when anything external effects their own bottom line, regardless of other bottom lines through-out society.

by Thayer-D on Nov 8, 2012 10:19 am • linkreport

The inefficiency of smaller trucks is not due to the extra gas they use. It is from the extra driver, which costs orders of magnitude more than the gasoline that is burned.

by goldfish on Nov 8, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

I'd be sympathetic to the "traffic engineers are people too" sentiment if there were any evidence that evidence would change their ingrained habits and mindsets. In my opinion, traffic engineers should be required to live for 6 mounts automobile-free as part of their educational curriculum and take additional 3 month auto-free sabbaticals every 5 years as part of their continuing education. Traffic engineers represent windshield perspective in everyday action and they deserve a large share of the scorn they get. And yes, that includes responsibility for dead pedestrians and cyclists who were just trying to get across their damned car-only, high-speed traffic sewers.

by Greenbelt on Nov 8, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: "The inefficiency of smaller trucks is not due to the extra gas they use. It is from the extra driver[s]..."

From another perspective, this is a feature: using smaller trucks creates more jobs.

by A Streeter on Nov 8, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

is a fat lane the opposite of a "HOT" lane?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 8, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

While I agree with the ideas here, there is something you have not considered: the maneuverability of large vehicles like trucks and buses.

The solution to this problem is obviously smaller trucks and buses.
Smaller trucks and buses that carry LESS goods and LESS people, meaning MORE of them will have to be needed to carry the SAME amount of goods and people, meaning MORE fuel burned, and MORE air pollution. Not to mention more traffic congestion.

Sounds like a plan!

by ceefer66 on Nov 9, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

I haven't measured the lanes, but I invite you to take a look at 22nd to and 25th streets from L to N Street, N.W., in the West End. Traffic on these streets is heavy, but there is very little spare room. Some of them (24th and 25th) are two-way, with two parking lanes. On 25th, it is impossible for a car to pass a truck if there are parked cars on both sides. 24th is slightly wider, but the hotels and cab stands basically reduce it to one lane of traffic much of the time.

by Mike Sullivan on Nov 9, 2012 10:20 pm • linkreport

creefer66, Smaller wehicles are certainly more inefficient unless you reduce the need for larger vehicles in long haul trips, ie. rely more on rail for bulk and use more warehouse distribution. Also, consider the superior manuverability and therefore speed of a smaller fleet. Granted these efficiencies wouldn't come to bear until more of our fabric was retrufitted to these smaller standards, but some feel these are small prices to get the benifits of a more walkable and safer enfivonment. That's where the "pain" of the status quo goes down. We shouldn't design our roads with delivery vehicles as the primary criterion of ther geometry.

by Thayer-D on Nov 10, 2012 6:38 am • linkreport

somewhere in Georgia, an ex-President sleeps better at night because he's no longer History's Greatest Monster (TM). Thank you, traffic engineers, for lifting the load off an old Southern gentleman.

by Kolohe on Nov 10, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

In the 1970s and 80s I worked as an EMT and Paramedic in new Orleans. Residential streets are narrow and one-way. Parking is allowed on both sides. This was fine for getting through if people parked their mid-size or small cars close to the curb, However, most vehicles were large cars or vans. There were always vehicles that didn't park as close as possible to the curb. Vans with wide mirrors often parked nearby on opposite sides of the street.

We couldn't use modular ambulancrs for those areas of town. We had to use smaller vans. Even with smaller vans, more times than not, we would need to back up and take another route. We carried a pole that was the width of the ambulance and the non-driver woule sprint ahead to measure to see if there was enough room to pass. We had to fold-in our mirrors to get through. Often, even this wasnt sufficient and we would need to reverse out of the bottleneck. Time was lost resetting the side mirrors. Time was lost by backing slowly with the sprinter walkeng slowly backwards to monitor the path. Almost always we needed to stop the ambulance in an intersection so that we could open the doors to get out of the cab. Almost always we were forced to park several blocks away and carry equipment to the patient. Getting the patient to the hospital required that this be repeated. However, with two-person crews, there was no one to be outside the vehicle as a guide. From the time advanced paramedic care became available, except for stroke patients, those who were ill could be properly cared for on the return trip or at the scene. Those who were injured, often didn't survive. Minutes matter.

It appears that wide streets can create emergencies and narrow streets can
make a bad situation worse. There are pundits on both sides who will not listen to other viewpoints. Instead of these deniers we need to find people who can creatively address both problems. The two positions ( wide streets+speeding or narrow streets+deadly delays ) must not be the only options.

by dwl-sdca on Nov 11, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

Sorry for the typos above. I was typing on a tablet while traveling on a train.

by dwl-sdca on Nov 11, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

Here in China, road standards bring wide roads and large curb radii. When you combine that with lax parking enforcement, you end up with people parking on every curb and parking at the curb radii. It shows how excessive these standards are here: even with the illegal parking, traffic flows fine on many streets, and no one has any problem turning either.

by Michael on Nov 12, 2012 5:18 am • linkreport

"bring cold, hard facts and numbers to the discussion"

We did. (Did you read the citations?)

Traffic engineers aren't listening. This is particularly a problem at the state level; city traffic engineers may be willing to read the latest studies, but state traffic engineers seem to be slavishly addicted to the "wide roads, wider and wider, we don't give a damn about pedestrians" attitude. I've seen this repeatedly in upstate NY.

DC is a weird special case (no state government).

Wide streets kill people. Narrow streets are a good idea. Regarding the ambulance issue? Your problem , as you describe it, was that you had streets which, after people park on both sides, are too narrow for a CAR. The elimination of parking on one side of the streets would have dealt with this problem immediately.

As for fire trucks, there is absolutely no reason for them to be as long and non-maneuverable as the typical firetruck is today. It is a dysfunctional excess of misdesign. Yes, this might mean a requirement for separate ladder trucks and hose trucks, and two trucks to each fire.

by Nathanael on Nov 18, 2012 7:44 pm • linkreport

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