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(VIDEO) When you design roads so people can go 80 …

… people will want to go 80. And if you force them to go 55, they will get angry:

(The video is from 2007, but I thought it was really interesting. h/t VeloBusDriver)


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It seems the video might be, at least in part, a case for repealing speed limits. But I think it’s much more interesting from road design point of view.

Think back to the so-called “road diet” debates of so long ago (okay, it was like a couple months). The goal of these projects — such the ones on NE 125th, Nickerson and Stone Way — is to design the road so that people naturally drive the desired speed, which is 30 mph. A four-lane highway design encourages speeds far in excess of this speed. Basically, people naturally drive as though it is a 40 mph street (which means many go even faster than that). This is not safe for anyone. On the Interstate, you have that same idea, except expanded.

But, wide roads are the standard. Charles Marohn, a self-described “recovering engineer,” reflects on roadway design decisions he made when he was starting out as a traffic engineer:

When they answered that a wider street would make people drive faster and that would be seem to be less safe, especially in front of their house where their kids were playing, I would confidently tell them that the wider road was more safe, especially when combined with the other safety enhancements the standards called for.

When people objected to those other “enhancements”, like removing all of the trees near the road, I told them that for safety reasons we needed to improve the sight distances and ensure that the recovery zone was free of obstacles.

When they pointed out that the “recovery zone” was also their “yard” and that their kids played kickball and hopscotch there, I recommended that they put up a fence, so long as the fence was outside of the right-of-way.

When they objected to the cost of the wider, faster, treeless road that would turn their peaceful, front yard into the viewing area for a drag strip unless they built a concrete barricade along their front property line, I informed them that progress was sometimes expensive, but these standards have been shown to work across the state, the country and the world and I could not compromise with their safety.

In Seattle, bike riders and the mayor are bearing a large portion of driver anger that is really just pushback against a change in road construction standards. We no longer want to build roads that are wider and faster at the expense of safety, and we need to reign back some of the mistakes that were made decades ago. When I see in the video above stacks of cars with drivers angry because they are being forced to drive the speed limit (some even passing dangerously on the shoulder), it’s not all that unexpected. Safety was not the first goal of that highway project. It was built for speed, and people are attached to their “right” to speed.

Egregious speeding is criminal. But systemic, natural speeding is a design problem. I hope people are giving the Mayor McGinn and SDOT credit for doing the hard, mostly thankless work of slowly changing our city’s road design culture. It’s not popular to be the one car on the freeway driving 55.


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2 responses to “(VIDEO) When you design roads so people can go 80 …”

  1. doug

    Almost everything about modern roadway design, especially highway design, is designed to encourage speed. This is why it seems like going 60mph on a freeway feels unbearably slow, when in reality it means your 2000lb+ car is traveling at 88 feet per second.

  2. Gomez

    Seattle’s design and topography is conducive to slower speeds. When driving in Las Vegas… yeah, going 45-60 mph on the city streets feels totally natural, and going 35 feels unnaturally slow due to the wide streets and sprawling layout. But on many streets in Seattle, going past 35 feels uncomfortably fast, and going 50-55 on the freeway feels totally acceptable due to the narrowness of the streets.

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