Cities Can’t Be Pedestrian- and Car-Friendly

Like it or not, they have to choose.

I promise I won’t turn this into a ‘pedestrians rights’ blog, but, while putting together this post I stumbled across the following figure:


If you keep car speeds under 30 mph, pedestrians don’t die. Above that, dead people. Realistically, to do that, you would have to set speed limits at 20 mph. Most cities won’t do that, and even if they would, depending on the locality, they can be overruled by the state departments of transportation. Based on my own experience in Boston (consider this ‘artisanal data’), when bike lanes were installed on Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay, drivers complained about having to drive slower due to narrower lanes. And now, they do drive at lower speeds. Which is much safer for the residents of the neighborhood.

So there’s a fundamental conflict between people on foot and those in cars. And we should also realize that setting speed limits in crowded urban areas is essentially deciding how many struck pedestrians will survive collisions–or die. Yet, when traffic patterns are discussed at public hearings (I’ve attend these sorts of meetings–yes, I need new hobbies), pedestrian fatalities are rarely discussed and never so bluntly.

Maybe it’s because we call these ‘accidents’, when, these, in reality, are predictable outcomes*.

*With some variability and stochasticity.

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13 Responses to Cities Can’t Be Pedestrian- and Car-Friendly

  1. SimplyOn says:

    FYI, there is a good episode of the 99% Invisible podcast that I recently listened to that relates to this and the history of speed limits in cities, The Modern Moloch, Episode 76.

  2. some guy says:

    So are you then also in favour of better cycling infrastructure?
    I’m dutch and in the Netherlands in the 1970s an action group campaigned for better infrastructure under the slogan:”Stop the child murder”.

  3. Leo says:

    Not as cars exist now, but if you use publicly-dispatched, self-driving, electric vehicles, then I would disagree. I guess what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t have to choose. One of the things which really bothers me about pedestrian-friendly cities advocates is they don’t take into account those of us with mobility impairments which make it impossible for us to walk. I love the idea of returning to walkable urban areas, but we need to accommodate both the young and healthy, and the disabled.

    • Tiercelet says:

      I fail to see how this is relevant to this post. A 20 mph speed limit shouldn’t impact a Rascal scooter.

      Sure, lots of things change if you assume that our cities should be designed around an all-perceptive, self-driving, accident-proof, publicly dispatched, electric vehicle that doesn’t exist and won’t for at least another ten years. In the mean time–as a serious question–are there a lot of pedestrian advocates who want to eliminate mobility scooters from public right-of-way? I certainly don’t see why there’d be a problem integrating them with pedestrian traffic if they’re traveling at pedestrian (or even cyclist) speed.

  4. some guy says:

    @Leo, then what do you think of: ?

    • Leo says:

      I think those Dutch cycle-tracks are fantastic! That’s exactly the kind of dual-accommodation I’m talking about. In the city I live in, we have a trails program which is similar. It utilizes old railroad and river tow paths to allow cyclists to get around the area easily. The only problem — only bicycles are allowed on the trails. No powered wheelchairs, no electric scooters. IMHO, that’s not only short-sighted but discriminatory. Of course, so are our Medicare regulations which make it impossible for someone to get a powered assistive device unless they’re totally unable to walk, or can afford it entirely on their own. Even being able to get around with a cane or walker in your home disqualifies you. Why would a disabled person ever want to go outside?

      (Thankfully I’m not quite to that stage yet.)

      • dr2chase says:

        What city do you live in? Around here (Boston, Cambridge, surrounding burbs) the paths/trails are variously multi-use, which can be a bit of a pain at times, but if they were wider it would be less of an issue (10-12 feet is the rule, and that’s not enough on weekends. Note that 12 feet is a single modern lane for auto traffic).

        On the one I ride often, the Minuteman Trail, there’s a little bit of everything. I’ve seen people in motorized wheelchairs, blind walking with a cane, dog walkers, parents with strollers, kids learning to ride bikes, joggers, rollerbladers, and various people on bikes, some commuting, some doing the training-ride thing. I think I saw a Segway once, but I’d happily ban those. With all that, my default speed on the home (slightly downhill) leg is 19-20mph. The main thing you worry about is width.

  5. Jim Sweeney says:

    I’ve read about “traffic calming” as practiced in the Netherlands (although I never observed it in any of the cities I’ve visited). The point was to keep traffic moving at about 30 km/h (18 mph), with all participants, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, expected to be aware of their surroundings and keep themselves safe. A typical strategy would be to plant a tree in the middle of the road. It might work.

    • somedude says:

      That’s not entirely true. That only happens on local access roads with low volumes of traffic since only the people who need to be there are there. On through roads traffic is separated.

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