Crossing the Street is Like Dodging Bullets

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Sadly, the unique thing about this incident is not the death of a child (children getting run down and killed by vehicles happens ALL THE TIME), the unique thing is the reaction to this specific tragedy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the speed on Highway 198, which runs right through Delaware Park bisecting a number of community amenities and neighborhoods, to be reduced to 30 mph. His directive included the following:

While law enforcement agencies are still investigating the circumstances surrounding this terrible crash, it is clear that immediate action needs to be taken to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians on the portion of the Scajaquada Expressway that passes through Delaware Park. 

For this reason, I direct you to immediately lower the speed limit on this section of the roadway to 30 mph, install speed messaging boards, and construct park-appropriate guard rails to protect pedestrians.

These actions are to be taken as the Department of Transportation continues to investigate long-term solutions to prevent further tragedies on this part of the Expressway.

This administration will continue to take every available action we can through engineering, education and enforcement to avoid crashes like this in the future.

This might seem logical to many of you, but I want to direct your attention to a nuance that demonstrates a confusion widely shared by those who design and manage our transportation systems. The governor directed the state’s department of transportation to: (1) lower the speed limit and install the signs that indicate that, and (2) build guard rails. In the language we use here at Strong Towns, Cuomo is saying (1) make Highway 198 more like a street and (2) make Highway 198 more like a road.

Stop firing bullets but also put up protective barriers.

The question we should be asking here is this: Does Buffalo want Highway 198 to be a road or a street? Is it a connection between two productive places (road) or is it a platform for building wealth (street)? If it’s a road, which it seems like to me, then lowering the speed limit is the wrong thing to do. With the way this highway is engineered for high speeds, an artificially low speed limit will create a dangerous situation with some people driving the posted speed and some people driving the design speed. The larger that gap, the more dangerous it will be.

If it is a street and this is going to be a 30 mph stretch (which is still too fast), then the roadway needs to be redesigned so that the typical driver only feels comfortable when driving at safe, neighborhood speeds. That means narrowing lanes, tightening curves, and adding trees and other elements that create edge friction. Lowering the speed limit might be good politics—it is an action that can be taken immediately to give the veneer of doing something—but it’s not good policy, even as an interim step, and especially not in the absence of any other design changes.

So, how about the guard rails? Again, if we’re building a road where the goal is moving cars quickly, then the guardrails are a decent interim step, but long term, something more robust to keep people and traffic safely separated is necessary. Note that the governor called for “park-appropriate” guard rails, which I take to mean guard rails that won’t harm the view of the park as seen from the driver’s seat. If that’s the case, then we’re confusing the purpose of a park here just as badly as we’re confusing the purpose of a highway. Urban parks are not aesthetic amenities for passing motorists. There’s no return on that investment. Urban parks are meant to provide value—improve the quality of life—to people living within walking, biking, or transit distance of the park. If we’re doing it right, that value should be reflected in the value of the tax base, the real creation of wealth. 

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