Neighborhoods Try Traffic Calming

By Linda Lutton

CHICAGO (ANS) -- When residents of the Edgewater neighborhood complained that morning commuters were using the neighborhood's alleys to avoid heavy traffic on local throughways, city councilwoman Mary Ann Smith went out to have a look.

The 16-foot-wide alleys running through city blocks are supposed to be used by residents, not commuters. But as Smith recalled, "The traffic was so incredibly heavy that there was a guy out there selling newspapers -- in the alley."

Edgewater isn't alone. According to the American Automobile Association's June report on "road rage," there are more cars on the road than ever before, and the drivers are often not too well behaved. The AAA has documented a 51 percent increase in aggressive driving incidents in the last seven years. Each year in the United States, 6,000 people are fatally hit by cars, and more than half of those deaths occur on neighborhood streets.

So Edgewater residents, and neighborhoods across the country, are embracing a strategy to take back their streets. It's called traffic calming, a concept that physically alters the design of streets to slow down car traffic and encourages harmonious, shared use of roadways.

For instance, in Edgewater, after more than two years of study by neighborhood leaders, the city installed landscaped curb bulbs which extend the sidewalk into the street and traffic circles which force cars to slow down to maneuver around them. Speed humps -- paved three-inch buildups that extend the width of the street -- traverse the alleys.

"What we wanted to do was slow the traffic down," said Andrés González, a block club president and lifelong Edgewater resident, who has seen people cut through the neighborhood at high speeds, ignore stop signs, and even ding other cars in their efforts to get where they're going. "If they wanna drive through our neighborhood, at least let's get them to drive respectfully."

While traffic calming might not be able to change a driver's psychology, studies indicate that it does work to reduce motor vehicle speeds and accidents.

In Portland, Ore., the number of accidents at intersections where traffic circles were installed went down an average of 58 percent -- and some intersections experienced 70 and 80 percent decreases, according to a study.

In Toronto, where a traffic calming policy for residential and arterial streets was adopted in May 1994, a report found average speeds dropping from above the posted speed limit of 40 kilometers per hour to around 30 kilometers per hour.

"Traffic calming as a mode of dealing with neighborhood street design is something that's really blossomed in the last 10 years or so," said Hank Dittmar, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit initiative supported by nearly 200 environmental organizations.

"It's a reaction to traffic engineering practices that focused on increasing the speed and throughput on streets to the exclusion of all other activities," he said. "So pedestrians were defined as traffic interruptions, and the needs of local businesses for cars to go slower so people could pull over and stop and shop were ignored."

Traffic calming began as a grassroots movement that Dittmar says has now entered the thinking of traffic engineers, and its principles are even being incorporated into new street design.

It is also extending beyond cities.

In Middleburg, Va., population 560, residents formed the Route 50 Corridor Coalition with neighbors from two smaller towns. Coalition members, opposed to a plan that would expand Route 50 to four lanes and bypass the towns, came up with their own proposal, which would maintain Route 50 at two lanes and traffic-calm the stretches of roadway that run through the towns.

"We just felt that there was a better way," said Susan Van Wagoner, chairwoman of the coalition's steering committee. "In the beginning we didn't know what it was, but we did the research."

The traffic calming plan they produced calls for raised intersections and medians to break up people's line of sight. It also calls for curb bulbs and paving the parking lane with different-colored material to make the road appear narrower, which encourages people to drive slower. Van Wagoner said the plan is attracting attention from citizen groups, transportation planners, traffic engineers and public officials from more than 30 states.

Traffic calming has not been warmly embraced in all communities, however. In San Luis Obispo, Calif., there was such vocal opposition to traffic-calming devices that the city removed them. Among the opponents were bicyclists, who argued that techniques to narrow the road to slow cars actually put cyclists at greater risk. There was simply less road to share.

Traffic-calming devices "directed cars over to the right, where a bicycle rides," said Bob Garing, a retired San Luis Obispo civil engineer who's logged more than 100,000 miles on his bike. Garing also voiced a common complaint -- that emergency vehicles have difficulty getting in and out of the neighborhood and maneuvering around traffic-calming devices.

According to Edgewater's councilwoman Smith, most of the complaints have come from people who are frustrated at being slowed down. "People dislike them for exactly the right reasons," she said. In Edgewater, residents worked with the fire department to determine dimensions for the devices, while emergency vehicles retain the right to drive over all islands and curb bulbs if necessary.

While Edgewater and other communities are beginning to tame road rage, that isn't the only reason traffic calming has been implemented.

In Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, where a drive-up drug trade flourished in part because of the community's proximity to a major expressway, cul-de-sacs were installed to make the neighborhood more circuitous and less attractive to drug buyers accustomed to easy-in, easy-out access.

While Commander Claudell Ervin of the local police district could offer no data to confirm the observation, police have told neighborhood residents that the cul-de-sacs have helped lower the area's crime rate.

Posted August 26, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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