Durham News: Opinion

John Killeen: Make Pedestrians a Protected Class

John Killeen
John Killeen

Speeding cars on narrow local roads is common in Durham’s neighborhoods, where people – whether with strollers, wheel chairs, bicycles, or dogs – also travel in the road.

It doesn’t matter if a driver lives on the same block or is visiting from New Jersey, too many of us behind the wheel don’t observe personal space while driving in neighborhoods.

Methods for dealing with this typically include lowering speed limits, adding more signage, more policing, and traffic calming: radar trailers, traffic circles, curb extensions, and the humble like.

But changing or disincentivizing irresponsible behavior is still at the root of the need. It seems improbable that we would do much to reward good deeds or simply make it illegal to drive like a jerk. However, it does make a lot of sense to develop clearer mutual expectations among the diverse users of our streets.

Currently, neighborhood roads are stratified in a hierarchy of volumes, speeds, and levels of access. Broadly speaking, we have local roads, intended for accessing residential areas; collector roads with somewhat swifter speeds, signaled intersections and intended to get motorists from home to the main regional roads; and then arterial roads for higher volume and higher speed, intended to move more cars faster toward regional centers of commerce and employment. (For more about these classifications visit the Federal Highway Administration website: http://1.usa.gov/1DygWF3.)

But these are all levels of service from the perspective of automobile efficiency. What is a successful level of service in each type of road for pedestrians, or cyclists?

How can urban roads guarantee fair access to each type of user instead of elevating motorists above all others? And how can the “local” road, which constitutes the majority of all roads in the network and serves our walking, working, recreating neighborhoods, answer our needs better than simply being “classified by default” as not arterial, not collector?

A global leader in addressing this is, unsurprisingly, Holland. The Dutch road hierarchy, like ours, is ranked by the intended volume and speed of traffic. But as it does so for cars, the Dutch system defines the types of guidelines and protections each other class of user has on local, collector and arterial roads. It is refreshing in its simplicity, because it adds people to a car-oriented perspective of public infrastructure and protection under the law. (For more about this framework and some fun photos of Utrecht roadways go here: bit.ly/1ADxUNg)

In fact, residential districts in Holland rank automobiles as “guests” on the roadway, behind walkers and cyclists in priority of service. Not – as has been the case for so long – defaulting them above pedestrians.

Though there are few sidewalks in my neighborhood and many places in need of them may not see them for some time, we continue to reasonably expect pedestrians of all ages and abilities to use the streets in front of their homes. With no formal protection of what we socially consider their preferred status, kids play four square, parents stroll their little ones, and people in wheelchairs travel back and forth from their homes as well.

Our hierarchy of city roads still doesn’t adequately manage the friction cars create with everything slower and more destructible around them. But by establishing clearly as a community that our neighborhood (local) roads prioritize high levels of service for people on foot, our existing range of traffic calming solutions and enforcement strategies could go a lot further toward managing the behavior of motorists.

You can reach John Killeen at john.patrick.killeen@gmail.com or on Twitter @JohnPKilleen.