Bad urban design makes for poor living conditions and when cars are involved it can mean lethal conditions. As people know all to well, the last century’s bizarre love of the automobile has given us a lot of issues that we need to deal with today. Some solutions are really complex (like climate change) while others can be solved easily through simple design tweaks. One fast and easy way to save lives is to lower the speed limits on cars. Another simple solution is to stop designing our streets to allow cars to travel at high speeds. Cars kill, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Many people fear that slowing the speed limit in urban areas will dramatically increase journey time. However, average road speeds in cities are more determined by the frequency of intersections than speed limits. A safer speed limit can achieve more uniform speeds and reduce dangerous midblock acceleration, while adding little to overall journey times. Research from Grenoble, France has shown that a speed limit of 30 kmph (18.64 mph) rather than 50 kmph (31 mph) only added 18 seconds of travel time between intersections 1 km (.62 miles) apart. Lower speed limits may even reduce congestion in some cases, as they reduce the likelihood of bottlenecks. This has been observed in Sao Paulo, where lowering the speed limit on major arterials reduced congestion by 10 percent during the first month of implementation, while fatalities also dropped significantly.
More people live and work in cities than ever before in the history of humanity, as a result the transportation pressures on these urban centres as equally increased. In North America, the last century focused on making cities for cars instead of for people and as more population density increases in cities the urban design can’t keep pace. Making cities for cars has led to a really problematic situation. We know the future of cities is in human-scale design instead of car-scale design and the transition has been hard. In the USA cyclist fatalities have increased by 25% and pedestrian deaths by 45% since 2010.
The solution for safer cities exists and places are already implementing better design practices. You can make an impact today by getting rid of your car or just driving less.
Strategies vary from one city to another. Boston, for example, has reduced the city speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25 mph. Washington, D.C. is improving 36 intersections that pose threats to pedestrians and enacting more bicycle-friendly policies. These cities still have far to go, but they are moving in the right direction.
There are many more options. Manufacturers can make vehicles less threatening to pedestrians and bicyclists by reducing the height of front bumpers. And cities can make streets safer with a combination of speed limit reductions, traffic calming measures, “road diets” for neighborhoods that limit traffic speed and volume, and better education for all road users.
North Americans love cars and that love is literally killing us, and I don’t mean through car exhaust I mean by directly killing people. Over 60 people were needlessly killed by drivers in Toronto in 2018. This is obviously the fault of careless driving, but it’s also the result of a hundred years of pro-car policies (this includes everything from subsidies to the oil industry to high speed limits), which cities outside of North America are reversing.
It’s clear to urban planners and people who live in cities that the age of the car is coming to an end. This is really good life-saving news! Over at Outside there’s a piece comparing New York to how other cities are leading the charge to a pro-person transportation network.
London New Yorkers suffer from a bad case of exceptionalism; “This isn’t [insert lesser city here]!,” we cry whenever someone proposes a new idea. “That shit ain’t gonna fly in this town.” And yes, some of these other cities are somewhat diminutive compared to our mighty metropolis of over eight million people. But you can’t say that about London, a fellow global power that’s equally huge in population and cultural and commercial clout. Sure, they’ve got their car-addled road ragers just like we do, but they’ve also got cycling superhighways, motor-vehicle-congestion pricing, and soon, an ultra-low emission zone. Here in New York, the best we’ve come up with so far is “Gridlock Alert Days,” which is basically a handful of days a year we politely ask people not to drive. Tokyo In New York City, space is at a premium, and this is some of the most expensive real estate in the country—yet we give away much of our curb space for private vehicle storage. This glut of cars has a seriously negative impact on our quality of life. Yet if I owned fifteen cars I could park them all out on the street for free, and while some might say I was simply exercising my rights as an American, what it really makes me is an asshole. But in Tokyo (another gigantic global power city), you can’t even buy a car without showing proof that you’ve secured a parking space for it—and you can’t fake it either, because overnight parking is illegal.
Firefighters are making cities harder places to live in, this might seem like an odd thing to read. It’s counterintuitive since we’re used to thinking blindly that the firefighters (and EMS as a whole) have our best interests at mind. In North America, fire fighters are blocking initiatives to make cities more livable because of the size of their trucks. Places want to add bike lanes, widen sidewalks, add housing, and other civic enhancements but this makes it harder for massive trucks to navigate streets. The solution: make fire fighters buy smaller vehicles. Smaller response vehicles can also help with life saving too!
Another potential safety improvement: Don’t send a truck unless you have to. In the U.S., only 3 to 5 percent of fire department calls nationally are related to building fires, according to the report. Dispatching a 80-ton fire-fighting vehicle to respond to a possible heart attack doesn’t necessarily make sense. American cities could take a page from international peers that use smaller vehicles—even motorcycles and bikes—to respond to less-urgent medical calls. (And perhaps to those poor kittens caught in trees.)
Navigating cities can be a challenge for anybody with mobility issues due to a lack of infrastructure and poor communication. Decades of efforts to improve urban design have made a positive difference while more recently apps for mobiles have come into existence. Not all solutions are valued by everyone, but the upward trend of making our neighbourhoods more accessible is a thing we should all appreciate.
People have been crowdsourcing accessibility data far longer than apps have been around. Disability activists have been drawing maps by hand for decadesto prove the need for curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, signage, and other features that make public access possible, particularly for wheelchair users. In cities such as Berkeley, California, and Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, environmental audits, mapmaking, ad-hoc design practices, and “guerrilla urbanism” have enabled wheelchair and power-chair users to get around otherwise inaccessible cities by, for example, fashioning curb cuts from found materials.