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Some 20-MPH Streets Are Safer Than Others

Forget speed limits—the key to slower roads is design.

Wes Craiglow

Wes Craiglow, a city planner for Conway, Arkansas, describes the small college town where he grew up and now works as “young and progressive.” But last year he’d noticed that Conway—home to about 60,000 residents in the Little Rock metro area—was overbuilding a lot of its residential streets. So he found an example of an overbuilt street, and another of a “right-sized” street, and patched them together into the above meme.

Craiglow’s point is that the design of a street, more so than any posted speed limit sign, invites drivers to go fast or slow. It’s a critical message at a time when cities around the U.S. and the world are turning to Vision Zero and 20’s Plenty campaigns that stress the safety advantages of slower traffic. As the Strong Towns blog noted in picking up the meme: “We can't regulate our way to safety.”

“Regulation may not be the best means to the end,” Craiglow, who originally posted the image to his Tumblr page in August 2014 and recently reposted it to social media, tells CityLab. “In fact design—the actual framework—is probably a more responsible, cost-effective, and meaningful method to get the same end.”

The top street in Craiglow’s meme is Remington Road. The street, located in a new suburban development, is an incredibly wide 36 feet curb-to-curb—the same dimensions as Conway’s minor arterials, which have two 12-foot travel lanes and 12-foot turn lane. “We built a minor arterial in a single-family residential area,” he says. The block is a full quarter-mile between intersections, inviting cars to speed from end to end, and the driveways hold about four cars each, meaning there’s no street parking to calm traffic.

”People’s normal reaction is to drive faster,” he says. “You take away the trees, you take away the sidewalks, and you have created a racetrack environment.”

In contrast, the bottom image shows Hunter Street, located in what Craiglow calls “one of our oldest neighborhoods.” Hunter is 20 feet edge to edge—just wide enough for two 10-foot lanes, which are considered far safer than 12-foot lanes. It has short blocks of 300 feet and no curb; instead, cars and trees line the street edges. The combination of parked cars, a tree canopy, and more pedestrians sends drivers a “wonderful psychological message” to slow down, he says.

Craiglow takes motivation from the Jane Jacobs’s line: “The point of cities is multiplicity of choice.” He says that for too long now urban planners have provided only one choice, and that it’s time for them to show city residents the full “buffet” of living options. Some people will choose to live in the top photo, sure. But many will choose to live in the bottom photo. Still others will prefer a dense, mixed-use environment downtown.

“We need to create that,” he says. “And everything in between.”

As for how to improve the street-planning process, Craiglow suggests it’s time for traffic engineers, who tend to put car movement above all else, to share the stage with smart designers. “We have to drive home design, and what design means to our community,” he says. “We have to tell the engineers: You have to ride shotgun for a little while. You’re still in the front seat. You’re going to navigate. We’re going to do it together. But you can’t drive all the time.”

H/t: Strong Towns

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