Saturday, October 06, 2007

People Don't Really Like Cars So Much After All

Conventional wisdom is that Americans love cars. I'm sure most people like to drive somewhat. But as much as we may like driving our own cars, we don't really like anybody else driving theirs, especially on "our" streets!

In the last few days I've read that residents of San Mateo's 3rd Ave, which connects downtown with the freeway, are out waving "Slow" signs at drivers speeding by. And SJ's Willow Glen neighborhood is equally tired of being used as a shortcut, and residents are asking the city for more enforcement, a ban on trucks, and traffic calming measures.

Official responses to concerns over neighborhood traffic are mixed.

Much modern development, especially of the posher sort, is laid out with twists and cul-de-sacs, and even gates, that make streets unusable for passing through, essentially just extensions of residents' driveways. The streets are quiet and safe for pedestrians and kids on bikes (though ironically the layout makes it pretty much impossible to actually get anywhere without a car).

These streets may be plotted and even paid for by developers, but nothing gets built without a stamp of approval from city hall, so this pattern acknowledges that traffic in residential streets is something to be avoided--for some residents, anyway.

On the other hand, if you live in an older neighborhood, officialdom's attitude seems often to be that if you're foolish enough to live on a street where people happen to want to drive, that's your problem. Consider SJ Councilman Forrest Williams' fatalistic response to the Willow-Glennians' pleas:

You can't slow the cars, you can put stop signs, traffic lights, speed bumps -- people have this mentality. Twenty-five mph signs aren't going to make a difference. You could put 50 mph signs and they are still going to speed.

Neighbors seem to disagree, and it's pretty clear that improved enforcement and traffic calming do work, where there's political will.

What does all this have to do with transit?

First, I've long suspected that a lot of the perceived speed and convenience advantages of driving comes down to the fact that we tolerate unsafe driving. If you make full stops at stopsigns, leave a safe stopping distance between you and the car in front of you on the freeway, actually treat pedestrians as equal users of the road--in short, don't let the fact that you're behind the wheel keep you from acting like a human being--you may find that riding a bus or train is a much more relaxing way to get around.

This issue goes beyond the actions of individuals. Traffic engineers themselves too often are willing to sacrifice safety for throughput. And there are vested interests in this status quo. Carless in Seattle has an interesting post about the struggle to improve safety on a single street.

Second, it's a good argument for our cause: make transit work so that we can make driving sane again, take back our streets, and make them safe for kids to cross.

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