Sunday, November 2, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 02 November edition: Suburban road diets, en masse

About those three girls killed in California last night. The speed limit on that residential street is 45, though it drops to 25 right at that corner. 45? Are you fucking kidding me? FORTY-FIVE is the speed limit in a residential area? If it's posted 45, then what's the ambient speed? 55? What constitutes "speeding", then? 60? 80?

The article says the speed limit there is 35, but a quick look on StreetView shows a 45 sign just a block away, followed immediately by a sign for the school zone. The girls were killed crossing the street in front of the school (which had closed for the day).
StreetView link:,-117.8523303,3a,75y,90h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sKAc3XqZK7V-Pu4FoVxuuOw!2e0

In the news story, one estimate is that the car was going 70 mph (twice the incorrectly stated 35). Double 45 would be 90. How fast do you need to be going to throw a human body 100 feet, as happened here? Whatever the number, how does anyone justify traveling even close to the posted limit in a residential area, adjacent to a school? Some of this is stupidity by design. Four, five lanes across? Those sidewalks are amazingly narrow, with no separation between them and the street, and beyond that, have utility poles and stabilizing wires sharing that space. Seriously. Knock out an entire lane of street in both directions, and drop the speed limit to TWENTY-FIVE for that main drag. Thirty, tops.

I've driven all over suburbia, growing up in metro Buffalo, living in Pittsburgh 30 years, and being sent all over to Sunnyvale CA, Beaumont TX, Orlando and Daytona Beach FL, Tucson AZ, and many other places. They're all much the same. Suburban main drags are posted way too high, ambient speeds are much faster, and the cops don't even care until you're 15 over. Always and always, the traffic engineers, from bottom to top, talk about "improved traffic flow". That's code talk for Push-As-Many-Cars-Through-Here-As-Possible-As-Fast-As-We-Can. Which, sorry, is just plain fucking wrong. SAFETY is more important than speed.

Why do we build roads this way? Why is it public policy that we do so? Lives and the living of it does appear to matter, at least sometimes, but we're not consistent about it. We've gone out of our minds about one person dying of ebola, but we routinely kill five people a day in vehicle collisions in every city in the country, and outside immediate family, nobody gives a flying fuck. They're forgotten by the next rush hour's newscast.

It's not just design, but practice. I see this in my own neighborhood. Perrymont is posted 35, and I can't count the number of times the county has repaired or replaced the guardrail by the dogleg turn at the bottom of the hill. Downhill on a 7% grade, with a dogleg turn at the bottom, hourly, people floor it coming down off of Perry Highway. They must be on the high side of 50 as they pass the end of my street, only 150 feet from that dogleg curve. Never mind that speed kills, what seems to matter is that speed thrills.

I used to think Babcock Boulevard, on my routine trip to work, was pretty chill, but I get the most grief on that half mile stretch, just outside Millvale from Rita's Ices to the Shop & Save. It's posted 35, but outbound it's just gone up from 25 so people see that 35 like it says 85, and inbound, it opens up into a flat, level stretch just after a tight S-curve, so people see it and think "dragstrip"!

In the 1980s, when some significant noise started being made about repealing the national 55 mph speed limit, I started noting the statistics for traffic deaths during holiday weekends, which always spike. Almost without exception each fatality occurred on a local road where the speed limit was 45 or less. Every holiday, every year, for years and years. Most fatal wrecks happen on local roads, and always have.

So there's speeding, and insanely high posted speed limits. Not the same thing, two almost separate arguments, but unarguably interconnected. The very idea of driving the speed limit, anywhere, is so foreign. Speed limits are usually set by the rate of travel that 85% of people would go, absent a sign. So, by default, speeding sets the speed limit.

I propose the exact opposite. Decide what the proper speed should be for each road segment, without any regard to demand, set the speed limit to that, and change the number, width and shape of the lanes so that people would go that speed, absent a sign.

In Santa Ana, Fairhaven should be one lane each way, with provision for a center turn lane. Eliminate that outside lane, extend the sidewalk a couple of feet, maybe even with a grass separator. No parking. Possibly recover some of that space for a bike lane, much as I don't care for them. I'm sure everyone there will howl about losing a driving lane, and having the speed limit lowered by almost half. But really, too bad so sad. And same goes for nearly every other suburban four/five-lane street in the country, particularly ones that scream through the center of a residential area.

Our roads are death traps, by design. Design them differently (by changing the design specs), get people to drive a reasonable speed without having to police it (by making them less amenable to speeding), and make it possible not to have to drive in the first place (by making them safer to walk or bike). We can care. We can change. We just have to decide to do it, and hold state departments of transportation to that.


  1. Originally a rant on Facebook, I question the sanity of our suburban road designs and speed limits thereon, and propose changes.

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