Taming Traffic for More Livable Cities

By Tooker Gomberg, Montreal, Canada.

Calming traffic liberates people.

Here’s a New Year’s Quiz: If the police asked you and your neighbours what your biggest policing concern was, what would the answer be?

As a city councillor in Edmonton a few years back, I was shocked by the response. Throughout the city the greatest concern was speeding and reckless driving.

So how about this for a New Year’s Revolution (sic): take back the streets!

For thousands of years streets have served many different functions, only one of which has been transportation. Streets have been places for meeting friends and neighbours, for playing, for strolling, etc. These days, with so much concern about speeding and reckless driving, why not recall, and learn from, the way things were.

Only in the last few decades have streets have been turned over to loud and dangerous trucks and cars (the #1 killer of kids in our cities). The current approach seems to focus almost exclusively on engineering the streets to move more and more motor vehicles as fast as possible from A to B.

But attitudes are changing. Strong grassroots citizen’s movements in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, are pushing for traffic calming measures to slow down the traffic and make street space safe for kids, cyclists and others. Whole neighbourhoods are being transformed for the better. Slowing down traffic not only makes for safer neighbourhoods, it also results in reduced pollution and considerably quieter communities. Interest is also growing in North America as communities try to put the community first, and traffic second.

How do you calm traffic? Talk with your neighbours. While on Edmonton City Council I was impressed by a group of elementary school kids who informed me of close calls they had with speeding cars near their school. I suggested that they prepare a report and a map, highlighting the problems and suggesting solutions.

The kids knew what the problems were, and they intuitively knew the solutions. At a follow-up meeting with myself, the students, teachers and Transportation Department staff, the students suggested specific locations where traffic signals and other improvements were needed to make it safer for them to cross the streets to get to school.

These kids were so enthusiastic about their solutions that they even offered to hold a bake sale to pay for the changes. The offer seemed to melt the hearts of the traffic department staff such that they agreed to undertake the required improvements – at the city’s expense.

This is not an isolated case. In a growing number of western cities parents are pushing for “Safe Routes to School”, where certain streets leading to the school are traffic calmed, making such routes safer for kids to walk or cycle to school. (More traffic calming info can be found at: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/, and from the Conservation Law Foundation’s booklet “Take Back your Streets. How to Protect Communities from Asphalt and Traffic”. Tel. 617-350-0990.)

Over the past few months I have been meeting with a group of citizens in Montreal who are keen to take back their street. They figure that there is plenty of room on their street for more trees, space for kids, maybe even some urban gardens. I’m pushing for a winter festival with a snowoman building contest, and the street could be flooded for ice skating!

Traffic calming aims to slow down the traffic, recognizing the principle that a wide road is an invitation to drive fast. One of the main techniques is to narrow the road while putting various barriers in the way so that drivers must slow their speed. Sidewalks can be widened, speed humps (extended speed bumps) installed, additional trees planted, space for bicycles assured. Small traffic circles can be installed in the middle of intersections, a popular technique in Seattle, Washington, as well as in Portland, Oregon. The roadway can even be painted in different ways, or a variety of pavement surfaces can be used to give the impression that the space is not for the exclusive use of cars.

Traffic calming also recognizes that there are many other users of the roads besides cars. In North American communities it’s not unusual for 30% or more of the population to not drive. Large groups, such as the elderly, the poor and youth, are disadvantaged when a transportation policy is focused almost exclusively on the driving public.

It’s also not unusual for 40% of city space to be given over to moving, storing, and repairing cars. With so many people not using cars, or using them only occasionally, perhaps its time to abandon the windshield perspective. It’s time to take back the streets, and rediscover the joys of living together and sharing public space.

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