What’s the First Sign of a Safe Street?

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Now, fast-forward to the town I currently reside in. I don’t see children out running around, even in the summer. There are so many possible internal and external factors that play into this absence of youth mucking about that go much further than street design. But I can’t help but wonder if the streets play a significant part in why I only see the neighborhood kids congregate on the porch before going inside.  

Even for myself, the streets in my current neighborhood don’t feel safe. It’s a bigger town than I grew up in, yes, so there is more of a chance that a car will drive by. However, I’m not convinced that’s the reason these streets feel unsafe when I walk across them. I’m in a pretty quiet neighborhood on the edge of downtown and cars hardly ever drive by where I live. But when they do, it’s much faster than 15 mph. 

The streets in this residential area are quite wide. They’re wide enough for cars to park on the side and two other cars to pass by each other with some good wiggle room between. Honestly, It’s great for those cars. The drivers don’t have to think at all about hitting another vehicle—there’s plenty of space. They’ll always have a quick and easy shot down the road to their destination. And when I’m driving, myself, I find it very easy to speed through without even realizing it.

Strong Towns Founder Chuck Marohn says in his book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: “For streets, where we need complexity in order to build a productive place, traffic needs to flow at a neighborhood speed (15 mph or less is optimum) to make human habitat that is safe and productive. To achieve this on a street, the street design needs to shift drivers from the passive awareness of System 1 to the mental state of heightened engagement found in system 2.”

These systems refer to functions of the human mind as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is an automatic, fast reaction system. We don’t have to pause to come up with a solution in System 1, we simply just know it (like 2+2=?). In System 2, we engage a much more complex side of the mind which calls for more focus and mental effort.

A street will naturally be safe if it is designed for drivers to activate the System 2 of their mind. The streets in my childhood neighborhood accomplished this with narrow lanes and some street trees. 

“People generally do not speed because they are deviants,” Chuck writes. “They speed because driving is a passive activity, one that almost never requires the driver actively to concentrate or be mentally engaged to perform.”

The first sign of a safe street is when you see children thriving in an environment that adults also find comfortable. Drivers will be careful when the design of the street tells them to be that way, and once that feat is accomplished, people and cars have the chance of living in harmony together. 

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