Traffic Calming: What does it say about us?
This is Winston Rd. It’s not a collector or a through street. It has five speed humps in 4/10 of a mile. Why? Because some motorists would use it as a secondary cut-through to escape the speed humps on their primary cut-through. And because the people who live on the side streets in this neighborhood speed down this street to get to theirs.
Traffic calming is a social indicator
Speed bumps, pinch-points and the like have long irritated me. Not because they slow me down—I don’t speed—but because they’re a painful reminder of the hyper-individualism, selfishness and disrespect that plagues our communities and our traffic culture. And worse, they’re symbolic of our society’s unwillingness to solve core problems, instead opting for inadequate band-aids to control the symptoms while the disease rages on.
Traffic calming is a hardware solution to a software problem.
—John S. Allen
Worse, most of these pseudo-solutions have unintended consequences that disproportionately punish the innocent.
Traffic calming that punishes cyclists
Yes, yes, I know, traffic calming slows motorist speeds. But, in my experience, it also creates unnecessary and uncomfortable conflicts with motorists. Physical traffic calming does not solve the core attitude problem behind the behavior, so it simply creates new behavior problems.
Speed bumps: A well-designed speed hump is not a problem for a cyclist. We hardly notice them. Fast cyclists can sometimes make use of good speed humps to ride the speed of traffic (this works best if the motorists maintain a constant speed between the humps). Bumps and badly-designed tables (like the brick-like-things Orlando uses) are not so kind. They are bone-jarring—far more uncomfortable for cyclists than for the guy sitting in a cushioned bucket seat on 4 fat tires with shock absorbers. All he has to do is slow down. We get jammed at any speed, and we weren’t the ones causing the problem that warranted the device in the first place!
Another common problem I’ve had with speed bumps stems directly from their inadequacy to “calm” traffic. Many motorists insist on trying to gun it to pass me between the bumps, even when I’m maintaining a consistent average speed that is no less than what they are capable of. Why? Partly because they have a mental defect that makes them have to pass a cyclist no matter what and partly because motorists speed between speed bumps to make up for the lost time of having to slow down for them (this is especially true on Orlando roads where the speed domes require speeds much lower than the speed limit). I have lost count of how many times I’ve had a motorist race past me between bumps, then cut back in and slam on the brakes in my face.
Neck-downs and medians: My first real experience with these gems was on Kewannee Rd. Kewannee is a major bike route for groups and solo cyclists. The road is wide. Left alone, the lanes would probably be shareable. Unfortunately, Kewannee is also a cut-through for motorists trying to avoid traffic on arterial roads.
So, first came the white lines (far enough in to appear as though the space to the right is a bike lane, but not far enough to actually be one—no matter, cyclists don’t know the difference). I suspect this was all part of the junk science nonsense about visually narrowing the lane to calm traffic. You can be set straight on that BS here.
Much like determined 2-year-olds, cut-through drivers aren’t so easy to deter. So the next solution was to add a bunch of concrete structures to physically narrow the lane at regular intervals. These had the cute feature of routing bicycle traffic from the substandard gutter lane into an actual gutter. Don’t you feel special?
I cannot remember if they originally had a sign indicating that space was for bikes (it’s been a long time), but it was quite clear, especially when the paint was fresh… and before the gutter filled with sand and grew its own ecosystem. I’ve seen less-insulting applications of this type of traffic calming, but it has the same problem—debris accumulates where street sweepers can’t get to it.
On the south end of Kewannee, medians were used to narrow the lanes. Bicycles were not rerouted here, instead a white curb was placed in the gutter lane. That’s probably necessary, since gutter riders would be sideswiped if they rode through the pinch in that space. However, if they’re not paying attention, they’ll get a rude surprise.
Aside from the dumb design, these regular pinch points create overtaking problems for motorists, which then increases their frustration and, likewise, the burden and discomfort for cyclists. A cyclist, or group of cyclists, riding upwards of 15mph really has to claim the lane for the entire length of the road. So, between the curves, the oncoming traffic and the pinch points, motorists get stuck behind cyclists. It looks to them like the cyclists should move over into that “bike lane,” but doing so will only cause them to get trapped there as they come upon the next obstacle. Motorists get mad at the cyclists and either harass them or take stupid chances with unsafe passes. I’ve seen a lot of close calls and flared tempers on that road. One evening, a motorist slammed on the brakes hard enough to lay rubber, narrowly avoiding slamming into one of the medians. For a moment, I was afraid he was going to try to cut back in and wipe out our small group.
I really don’t appreciate being pitted against cut-through motorists, who are already a hostile and disrespectful species.
Bricks: Traffic calming with snob appeal. Bricks are the most insidious traffic calming device in Central Florida. Their rampant use shows a blatant disregard for bicyclist level of service (BLOS) and bike route connectivity. Winter Park is the worst offender, but other communities like Sanford and Orlando are doing it, too.
There are different kinds of brick around here. A lot of old neighborhood streets have original brick. In fact, a lot of paved roads in Orlando are paved over the original brick foundations.
The old brick tends to have an undulating surface with little mounds and dips, but the actual bricks are worn smooth and the space between them is filled with mossy vegetation. These roads are not ideal for cycling, but they’re not as bad as they might seem. You have to pick your way around some of the mounds and dips, but the surface isn’t jarring.
The new brick, OTOH, is purposely designed to be jarring. In addition, it’s rarely laid properly, so it gets loose and forms nasty depressions and upheavals. Most applications of the new brick are virtually impossible to ride on. Some applications, like Lake Sue Blvd./Pennsylvania Ave., are so horrible I avoid driving my car on them. Many residents of these streets are also finding that they create a tremendous amount of noise and are accelerating the deterioration of the tires on their cars.
What’s so cruel is that this traffic calming method is quickly eating up the quiet connector streets that have long been bicycle routes—official and unofficial. Most of the roads through Winter Park that I traveled a decade ago from Maitland to Orlando are now unrideable. I’ve had to divert to less desirable and less direct routes.
It’s pretty hard to promote active transportation in a city that insists on systematically destroying low-volume bike routes. (And they had the nerve to apply for a BFC award. What a joke.)
Bad pavement is a similar, but more passive-aggressive, form of traffic calming. Basically, they refuse to fix a bad surface because the rough ride slows motorists. It’s also brutal for cyclists, but, hey, who cares. Winter Park would do this for years and then eventually rip it up and brick the street.
Gratuitous stop signs: It’s pretty well known that stop signs are a sought-after speed control device. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why neighborhood stop sign infestations are annoying to cyclists. But before we go off on the popular cries for special cyclist-specific permissions, let’s take a look at the other consequences of the misuse of stop signs. Here are just a few:
- Reduced safety due to poor compliance by all users
- Loss of meaning of the device
- Loss of caution and awareness at intersections with no controls
- Increased speeding between stop signs
- Increased emissions and noise
For more on this, see Multi-way Stops – The Research Shows the MUTCD is Correct!
Roads that go nowhere: Of course, the ultimate design solution to the cut-through problem is to design communities from scratch with short, curvy streets that end in cul-de-sacs. That’s why bicyclists can’t get anywhere in the suburbs without riding on 6-lane highways.
So, where does it end?
Derbyshire Rd. connects to Kewannee and is part of the Great Neighborhood Cut-through Route. It has lane-narrowing paint, speed bumps, pinch points, medians and terrible pavement. It sees long lines of traffic every morning and afternoon.
The determination to speed eventually overrides whatever forms of discomfort traffic engineers throw at it. Motorists just figure out how to outsmart the stuff. Or they slow down on this street and drive faster on the next one, or find a new neighborhood cut-through. So the next street, and the new neighborhood, then has to be treated.
At some point, we have to stop throwing band-aids at our diseased traffic culture and start working toward some real ATTITUDE change. It’s not bad enough that all this expensive traffic furniture doesn’t solve the problem, but it creates problems for the very people who are part of the solution!
There is only one thing that will change behavior—relentless and aggressive law enforcement. Get your police departments out there and collect some revenue. Let’s reverse the money stream—make the speeders contribute to the taxpayers rather than having the taxpayers bear the burden of paying for traffic calming devices.
I don’t know what it will take to change attitudes, but there are ideas out there worth trying. Changing the attitudes behind this behavior would have a cascade effect on other behaviors that plague the gentle users of the road.
I particularly like the ideas from the folks at Creative Communities. In any case, this is a job for social engineering, it’s not going to be accomplished with concrete, bricks, white lines or red octagons. It’s certainly not going to be accomplished by decreasing comfort for bicyclists seeking quiet routes.
More than anything, it requires us all to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of community we want to live in. Once of the reasons the law enforcement solution is unpopular is that bad behavior is tragically normative. The community has no stomach for hefty fines and relentless speed-”traps” (<— the words we use speak volumes), because most people fear they would be caught.
Speeding through neighborhoods is essentially adolescent behavior. The problem is most Americans carry it well into adulthood. It’s time to grow up and consider something larger than ourselves and our momentary impatience.