Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Streets, cars, pedestrians, accidents: streets as anti-social spaces

Montgomery County's Action Committee on Transit released a brief press release yesterday, because there were 3 accidents involving 5 pedestrians all before 9am yesterday morning:

What Will It Take for the Montgomery County Police To Tell Drivers To Obey the Law?

Five pedestrians were struck by drivers in three Montgomery County incidents yesterday (Tuesday) morning before 9:00 am. All three collisions occurred where the pedestrians had the right of way.

Yet county police responded with a press release entitled "Police Remind Pedestrians To Be Careful." Nowhere did the police tell drivers to obey the law, which requires drivers to yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and in marked and unmarked crosswalks.

The three incidents:

- A mother and her two children were struck on the sidewalk at Gaithersburg Elementary School.
- A pedestrian was struck crossing Wisconsin Avenue in an unmarked crosswalk at Chelsea Lane in Bethesda.
- A Watkins Mill high school student was struck in a marked crosswalk on the way to school.

14th Floor Gallery Looking North on Rockville Pike (Close-Up)According to the Bethesda Patch, "These incidents come less than two weeks after a car struck a stroller carrying a three-month-old baby in an accident on Arlington Road."

It's not really surprising, because in a suburban jurisdiction especially, motor vehicles are "King of the Road."

Right: Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, Flickr photo by Dan Reed.

Note though that while the photo indicates what we think are typical suburban driving conditions, especially on big arterials, the reality is that the incidents in MoCo yesterday were mostly in places with more "normal" spatial conditions.

This is still a wide road, but the roadside conditions are more hospitable than in the photo above.
Wisconsin Avenue and South Chelsea Lane, Bethesda

2. At the National Bike Summit last week, one of the presenters was Adonia Lugo, who is finishing her dissertation in anthropology, with the topic of what she calls "human infrastructure" as opposed to the "physical infrastructure" for bicycling in Los Angeles.

She talked about streets as "social spaces" and how with the development of automobility, streets were reshaped as places primarily for cars, with speed being the most important criterion for defining movement priority and primacy. (My interpretation, not her words.) I like the phrase "streets as social spaces" a lot.

3.  Relatedly, Atlantic Cities has a piece "The End Of The Car?: What the Steamship and the Landline Can Tell Us About the Decline of the Private Car," that quotes Maurie Cohen, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, making a point I've made for awhile, but he references sociotechnical systems change theory. From the article:

We often think of the car as having arrived with a flourish from Henry Ford around the turn of the last century. But the history of the automobile actually dates back more than a hundred years earlier to steam-powered vehicles and the first internal combustion engine. Early prototypes of the car used to blow up, too. People were afraid of them. You had to acquire a special skill set just to operate them. And then there were all the networks we needed to develop – roads, gas stations, repair shops – to make cars feasible.

“We tend to focus on the car itself as the central element,” Cohen says, “and we fail to recognize that it’s not just the car.” Like any ubiquitous technology, the car is embedded in a whole social system. In this case, that system includes fuel supply lines, mechanisms for educating and licensing new drivers, companies to insure them, laws to govern how cars are used on common roads and police officers to enforce them. In the academic language of socio-technical transitions theory, all of that stuff is the regime around the car.

“People who are part of that regime get up in the morning, put their shoes on and reproduce that system on a daily basis,” Cohen says. “So that system also has a profound ability to beat back any challenges to it.”

That's what we're dealing with in terms of dealing with sustainable mobility when the dominant planning and cultural paradigms are based upon auto-mobility.

4. I was surprised to see an article in the local paper (I think the Washington Post but at the moment I can't find the article) about how (DC's?) police department is going to change its accident investigation process, so that pedestrian and bicyclist considerations are given equal prominence during the course of an investigation. Typically, unless the operator is impaired, motor vehicles are presumed to have the right of way--rightly or wrongly--in investigations.

I was pleased to see this, because doing a broader kind of accident analysis was behind the recommendation I made in the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan:

Develop a coordinated accident analysis program designed to identify and correct problems that may lead to a disproportionate number of pedestrian and/or bicycling accidents. Participants could include the Traffic Analysis and Traffic Enforcement personnel from the police department, as well as other county and state agencies as appropriate.

(Although the original language of this recommendation specifically mentioned the County Department of Public Works, the County Office of Planning, and the State Highway Administration as agencies that should be involved in this process.)

At the Bike Summit, I met a DC resident who used to work as a traffic analyst in the Austin TX Police Department's crime analysis section, and I hope that we can interact more going forward as I have a lot to learn from her.

5.  And people concerned about this issue need to familiarize themselves with two great publications:

- PEDSAFE: Pedestrian Safety Guide and Countermeasure Selection System
- BIKESAFE: Bicycle Countermeasure Selection System

6. Traffic safety is probably too important to leave it to the Police Department in any jurisdiction to be in charge of the messaging and the development of marketing and other promotional materials.

I mentioned the Share the Road of Canada/Ontario ad campaign about bicycle-car safety in another entry. While the ads are about bicyclists not pedestrians, they directed to motor vehicle operators and make the point that more than being competitors for scarce road space, bicyclists are people just like them.

Everybody walks, and that reality can and should be acknowledged and emphasized in traffic safety campaigns.

The Share the Road bicycle safety campaign could be extended to include the pedestrian mode as well.

One of the problems with driving is that it separates you from the environment, cars are more like "anti-social spaces," and so anything outside of the car can be considered "the other" and "lesser" and "unimportant."

An ad campaign about streets being not just for cars but for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users too, is definitely in order, but it needs to be done by truly creative marketing types, based on social marketing practice, not developed by police officers tied up in Kohlberg's Stage 4 of moral reasoning.

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