NYC and London lower speed limit to 25/20mph, Adelaide freaks out about 40kph. Why? (Part 2)

NYC and London lower speed limit to 25/20mph, Adelaide freaks out about 40kph. Why? (Part 2)

…continued from yesterdays post…

Are there better ways of attaining a lower speed limit?

There are many studies that have given evidence to support the claim that merely lowering the speed limit on roads doesn’t work. If a road looks like it can safely support 60kph, motorists will drive at 60kph (or a bit more for good measure), regardless of the posted limit. Indeed, in most places in Australia and Canada where space was plentiful when the roads were built, the roads are wider, straight, and encourage a higher speed compared to places like London and New York City. This study, the Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, comes to that conclusion.

The operating speeds on a road can be controlled via modification of the physical environment. Modification of the physical environment can induce vehicle operating speeds lower than 50 km/h. Posting of speed limit signs alone will not reduce vehicle operating speeds.

Quite right. The only speeding ticket I have ever had was nearly 20 years ago, only a few weeks after getting my license. The road was dead straight, long, and 2-3 lanes in each direction with no parked cars. Tedious, actually. 50kph felt like 20kph on that road, and most traffic did 60kph anyway. I got pulled into a speed trap, ticketed, and sent on my way. I still feel like 50kph on that road is unnecessary. There were (and still are, I’d have to assume) speed traps set up there all the time, which seems a bit unfair, but you’d think people would learn. But maybe that’s got nothing to do with it…

New York and London lower speed limit to 25/20mph, Adelaide freaks out over 40kph.

Straight, lengthy, boring. Hard not to speed.

Conversely, London and NYC have older roads and far less space, which makes driving more difficult anyway. The environment doesn’t temp you as much to go faster. That doesn’t stop people from speeding and driving recklessly, but the road layout itself doesn’t encourage it like a straight, wide open road does.

So, I think the main problem with this issue might be perception. Just as cycling isn’t actually as dangerous as it seems to be, slowing down a bit isn’t actually as slow as it seems to be. From the Monash study referenced yesterday, we find that over a 10km journey, reducing the speed from 75-70kph only added 34 seconds to the journey, while lowering the speed from 45-40kph added 1:40 to the journey. That’s nothing, but from the steering wheel that feels, like… forever (someone needs to create a sarcasm font).

The environment is important. Like I already said, my journey to work is much more pleasurable when I don’t have to rush, and it has become even more enjoyable since I have found a nicer route via back-roads and cycle paths I only just realized were there. The route is probably a couple of minutes slower some days, but it’s worth it for both the safety and enjoyment factor, plus, because my surrounding environment is more relaxed, I’m more relaxed, and speed isn’t my primary focus.

How would you achieve this for motorists? That’s quite a difficult question. Unless you are driving fast or through a complicated environment, driving is pretty boring. If you have ever had to make a long trip and found yourself getting tired, it’s usually a combination of a lack of stimulus, with a lulling effect from the passing lines on the road and the world around you. As soon as you enter an environment where the road starts to bend in all kinds of directions, or you’re caught in a white-out, or there are people everywhere, all of a sudden you perk up as your attention required.

This is to say, as the Nova Scotia study suggests, that we need to change the environment to suit the desired speed. Traffic calming measures. Narrower lanes. Chicanes. Speed humps. Pinch-points.

Here in Adelaide, the roads encourage a higher speed much of the time, but we have had a couple of engineering disasters that have been wonderful examples of how the environment dictates the speed of traffic.

Last year two separate stretches of road in the Adelaide CBD were redesigned and resurfaced (Victoria Square and Hindley St) with pavers that weren’t quite what anyone was expecting. They were ludicrously slippery. The media had a field day with it for months, but the immediate solution was a lower speed limit (temporarily to 10kph!). Hindley St goes right through the University of South Australia, which, as you can imagine, is heavily trafficked by pedestrians. The idea was to largely pedestrianize the area and lower the speed anyway, but they got more than they bargained for. Nevertheless, it’s a perfect example the built environment dictating lower speed limits.

Elsewhere, in the re-developed area of Brompton/Bowden, the idea was to make it a place where people didn’t need a car, and so walking and cycling were encouraged through the built environment. The following is from the IWP Discussion Paper, found here:

Achieving low vehicular speeds of 30kph or less was seen as a priority for streets in the Bowden development. The designed environment would not enable car drivers to drive much above the 30kp/h by employing the following features:

  • tree plantings along the edges of pedestrian environments and in the centre of the street

  • landscaping areas protruding unevenly into the vehicular space, thus deflecting what would otherwise be a straight vehicular path

  • frequent slow points introduced (by extending landscaping plantings even further) where a vehicle has to give way to in-coming traffic

  • vehicle travel zones on “local” link streets was limited to 5-6 metres width

  • kerbside place activity encouraged by ‘street meeting places’ and plentiful seating.

More can be found here. I’d been through there a while ago when it was just starting to be developed and remembered it as being quite a step forward for Adelaide. When I rode through there yesterday to have a quick look again, it didn’t strike me as being terribly amazing, but the road network did present as one that is more balanced for all people. They concept is there, though, if nothing else.

So, the built environment is a significant factor in achieving socially responsible speeds (and more inclusive communities), but the more primary matter is that of convincing people why that is important in the first place. You see, only an idiot would deny that slower speeds mean safer streets. Where you get a difference of opinion is in how slow is too slow. The desire to travel as little as possible and therefore as fast as possible doesn’t only apply when there is a time restraint. People are rarely happy to drive at a leisurely pace even when they have all the time in the world. Strange as it is, even when people are specifically driving at a leisurely pace, they can still get upset when they are held up from driving at the leisurely pace that they dictate. Generally speaking, travel, for most city dwellers, is something that is a necessary evil, and one that should be over and done with as soon as possible. What is really striking and worth thinking about (but not at the moment), is that this attitude is most prevalent for those using cars.

Most people don’t drive fast because they don’t care about the consequences. Most people drive fast because they believe their speed to still be safe enough. It seems logical, then, that we need to convey to motorists that a desired speed is safe enough by convincing them either through the physical environment, or through emotional, logical, psychological, etc. reasoning that actually makes sense to them and that they can get behind.

In other words, road users have to be personally invested in maintaining the best speed for the conditions, or you will never get the desired result.

Changing the physical landscape is easy (the physical process, not the political one). There are any number of ways to achieve this, but the trick is to integrate it into the environment in a natural way rather than a big fast road with a low speed limit, essentially wagging a finger at drivers. It has to look like a benefit, or at least look neutral, rather than a punishment for drivers.

We have to get into people’s heads. Without genuinely getting people on board with slower, safer speeds, it will never happen.

You will never, ever, have an easy time lowering speed limits when you first introduce the idea to the general population, regardless of the method used. Not without something drastic happening that causes people in that community to be scared not to, like in the Netherlands in the 1972/73 when nearly 10 people a day were dying on the roads, and children at the rate of more than one a day.

People need to be personally invested on some level if they are going to get on board with something. That’s why campaigns like this don’t work:

Yes, A) is the right answer, but B) isn’t going to happen to me. It’s simply not relevant until it actually happens. “I’m a safe driver, so why do I need to creep along at 4okph?” What we don’t anticipate is of no relevance to us and won’t change our behaviour, yet urban streets are full of opportunities for things we don’t or can’t anticipate.

So what do we do? We need to be realistic in our approach to road safety. If you are going to build roads that support fast driving, you are going to get fast drivers. We need to make adjustments to our roads, where necessary, to ensure that the built environment reflects the behaviour that is expected. You can’t just put speed humps on a freeway, and you can’t build a freeway through a neighborhood.

The 85th percentile has been a common method of setting speed limits across the world for years. The idea is that the speed limit on a given road is roughly what 85% of people will drive on it without a set speed limit. It is the speed that the road will naturally sustain. Some people think it’s the devils work, and many people think it makes sense. I say that focusing on the theory is missing the point, and that the problem is the road. It is necessarily true to say that the actual speed that most people will drive at, is the speed that most people are driving at. If that’s the case, what does it matter what the posted speed limit is? Seems sort of irrelevant, no? The road is the problem.

Oh, sure, there definitely are some, if not many, roads where sufficient traffic calming measures would make for a ridiculous street, but that’s where we move from immediate physical deterrents (eg. speed humps or chicanes) to serious social or financial deterrents, and possibly speed cameras to enforce them and creative signage to make people consider the realities of their surroundings.

Build segregated spaces for incompatible road users for the benefit of both, and, equally as important, get the message across that it is for the benefit of both.

Build infrastructure that gets into the psyche of road users, where the intention, benefits, and reasons of the designs are obvious for all community members.

Design policy and laws that reflect this, including repercussions that match the importance of the reasons behind it. No one should ever be able to kill a pedestrian crossing at a cross walk, with the lights, while driving a van with a suspended license, and “be sentenced to probation and a nominal fine“. That’s not right.

You know how to get into someone’s head? Fear. That’s what people pay attention to. News corporations makes their living from this.

You know how to make drivers afraid to speed? No, not danger. Not personal danger, or even the potential that they are a danger to others. You need the fear of getting busted. Financial danger. The loss of their license. Jail time. In short, meaningful consequences.

Combine all of the following things and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a self policing population that presents a significantly lower risk to themselves and others:

  1. Educate all road users about the law, but also about personal responsibility, because the law won’t always prevent a car from driving into you. There is no use being in the right if you are dead. Education is the start, but it’s really only the start. It also needs to be present throughout the next two steps.
  2. Design safer roads where the rules are a secondary reason why people don’t drive too fast. If the road looks like it’s inviting you to drive fast, people are going to drive fast. There are many ways to make people drive more carefully without compromising efficiency. Roundabouts are better than stop signs, but a mini-roundabout, where the centre-circle is sometimes just paint in the middle of an open space, invites people to drive straight over it, while a proper, tight, roundabout keeps traffic moving while making it difficult to drive too fast. Introducing elements like the experimental bicycle-priority roundabout in Zwolle takes this a step further. If people still want to drive too fast into the roundabout, put a speed-hump at its entrance. There are things we can do that are more passive but just as effective as police sat at the side of the road with a speed-gun.
  3. Put in place penalties that mean something. If you can cheat the system and get away with it, or pay a price that has no real effect on you personally, then you actually benefit from cheating the system. Lawmakers need to examine the things they are trying to defend or promote, and if it is important, then people should have a real reason not to do something, and that reason needs to be strong enough to over-ride the belief that they can get away with taking chances. Are you campaigning for your city to achieve Vision Zero status sometime in the future? Do people have a strong enough incentive to help you get you there? If your response to a pedestrian being hit and killed by a motorist on the sidewalk is a small fine and up to 30 days in jail (but probably not even 1), do you think you’ll ever get there?

If #1, and #2 are put into practice properly then you’ll have very little need of #3, and the rest will follow.

Let me hear your thoughts.


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