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Do conventional road designs put Americans who walk or bike at risk? Rep. Larsen requests Federal study

Rep. Rick Larsen. Image from WA Bikes
Rep. Rick Larsen. Image from WA Bikes

US Representative Rick Larsen has teamed up with two other members of the US House to look into whether American conventional road engineering standards are putting people who bike and walk at disproportionate risk (spoiler: Yes).

Specifically, Larsen (WA-2, much of western Snohomish and Skagit Counties as well as Island and San Juan County), Peter DeFazio (OR-4) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting a report on how many engineering encourage speeding:

Furthermore, we are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

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The requested study should “investigate the trends and causes of these roadway fatalities and the challenges associated with improving pedestrian and cyclist safety. In particular, we are interested in information about the relationship between vehicle speed and roadway fatalities, and how roadway design speeds and other common practices may exacerbate this problem,” according to the letter.

With more and more communities around the nation looking beyond often problematic conventional design guides and toward design guides like NACTO that focus on complete streets, this study could help inform USDOT’s renewed interest in biking and walking safety.

“Because of the great advocacy in cities like Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Anacortes, it makes total sense that Representative Larsen would lead on walking and biking safety,” said Blake Trask of Washington Bikes.

This is the second time this week that a legislator from Washington State has made an impact on biking and walking safety at the national level. As we reported previously, Senator Patty Murray added a non-motorized safety performance measure to the Federal budget.

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17 responses to “Do conventional road designs put Americans who walk or bike at risk? Rep. Larsen requests Federal study”

  1. Merlin

    Wow! this is great news.

  2. Adam

    Good on him.

    But as far as I can tell, he’s just sending a letter. How does stuff like this work? Is anything actually going to come of this?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Yeah, from what I understand, this pretty much triggers the GAO to look into the request and come back with a report answering their questions.

      1. Adam

        Well good then.

        At the very least it will give one more study that cities can then ignore. At the very best it could help drive actual change.

  3. RDPence

    Definitely an issue worth examining. I was shocked when I first saw the full expanse of the new Mercer Street through South Lake Union ~ nearly twice the width of Aurora Avenue. A huge, sad barrier separating the community from the lake. The intersection of Mercer & Fairview is larger than what you find in the suburbs.

    I hope the new leadership at SDOT will start adding some urbanists to its design staff. God knows there weren’t any when the Mercer corridor was designed.

    1. Peri Hartman

      This is a tricky one. It’s no bigger than before, really, when you consider that it was 4 lanes eastbound and 3 westbound. It was just split into two streets. The current arrangement might work a bit better when it’s totally complete.

      However, having to cross such a major street is not pleasant.

      Second, traffic moves too fast. Yesterday, I was cycling in the right lane and someone in the left was, perhaps, going 60mph, smoke pouring out the back from heavy acceleration. He considered mercer a segment of freeway. After all, it’s straight, the lanes are wide, and the lights green. Why not go fast?

      The city’s idea of complete streets is, obviously, incomplete.

      1. I think getting rid of Broad and establishing a continuous two-way bike route mostly a block north of Mercer will prove to be big improvements when it’s over. The at-grade crossing of Aurora at Thomas should also be a big win, though I don’t think that will happen until the Battery Street Tunnel is closed.

        Unfortunately the new section of 6th Ave N will probably end up more like an interchange than the local street we need. That’s one thing I think can truly be called a disappointment, as opposed to an inevitability. The intersection between 9th Ave N and Roy will be another if we don’t get a better way to turn from NB to WB there. And it’s disappointing that there wasn’t a plan for a bike connection from the future Westlake Cycletrack in this from the start. Maybe bike advocates could have got one if we’d made noise at the right time.

      2. RDPence

        I think if and when the Bertha tunnel project and Mercer Street are completed, we will look at all the concrete poured, especially including the interchanges at both ends of the tunnel, and see something much more appropriate for a suburban auto-oriented environment. And undoubtedly more concrete than was there prior, under the old configuration. Complete streets are still something SDOT has not figured out.

    2. Cheif

      I absolutely hate mercer but work in slu. It seems like the least painful place to cross is on Terry. Keep left _using extreme caution around the trolley tracks_ and you usually get to the front since car users are all going right turn to the interstate.. it’s no big deal to sit through a light cycle, then choose your turn right (to join up with eastlake eventually) or left / straight for westlake and dexter. Regardless it’s pretty stupid they dumped so much time and money into such a truly poorly thought out and outdated facility as the “new” mercer mess. People consider mercer an extension of the freeway because it was built like one, apparently straight out of a city planning manual from the ’50s.

      1. Dan

        Is the bike sensor “T” still placed midway between the rails at terry and mercer? I used that route when it was still the old mercer and laughed out loud at the clueless placement of that sensor. I believe i even took a pic and sent it to the city. It made me wonder if any planners employed by the city or its construction partners are active cyclists or pedestrians.

      2. Josh

        RCW requires marking signal sensors where they are, but doesn’t require optimizing their positioning for cyclists. Most sensors are designed for cars, with bicycle detection an afterthought.

        That’s especially true on the streetcar route — design consultants recognized the rails were extreme hazards for cyclists when the SLU line was in the planning stages. Their preferred solution was to ban bicycles from the route. So of course the sensor positioning isn’t bicycle-optimized.

  4. Allan

    Seattle is badly marked compared to some other cities and it would be easy for a new person in Seattle to make a mistake or even get lost. Speed limits are too high in many places. Traffic in Seattle is too hyper. People have to learn to slow down and stop rushing around and taking chances with other peoples lives. I admit to driving 5 over the limit on I5 to Portland. I know my car wastes a lot of gas at 75 mph. My gas mileage would go from 24 mph to 28 mph if I were encouraged to drive slower on that trip where there are no pedestrians or bicycles. If we all did that it would be a massive savings for the country as a whole.

  5. David

    We do not need speed reductions or road diets or traffic calming..
    Just ban all cars and be done with it..
    The sooner all cars are banned the sooner we will all be safer.

    1. Cheif

      In the mean time it would help if automobile usage were only people who were properly trained and faced actual repercussions if they cause problems.. It’s not like we hear about commercial aviation pilots plowing their planes into crowded sidewalks especially often, and there’s probably a reason for that.

      1. Karl Johnson

        Hear, hear! It is SO dismaying to have car driver after car driver either negligently or purposefully kill, injure, or maim pedestrians and cyclists and almost always get less than a $200 fine, if that. Clearly the message is lives don’t matter, getting there the fastest is paramount, and don’t worry about who you hurt or kill in the process.

    2. Doug

      Are you serious?

      That’s not going to happen. It’s stupid to even hope it will happen. It would cause many problems. It’s a non-solution.

  6. […] (PDF) US Representatives Rick Larsen (WA-2), Peter DeFazio (OR-4) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) ordered last year. Essentially, these Representatives saw that people walking and biking in the US are not seeing the […]

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