Traffic: A Social Problem Not a Design Problem

engwicht.jpgBefore the commenters begin giving DOT its well-deserved pounding in response to my previous post, I offer this provocative excerpt from David Engwicht’s book, "Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic."

Let me be frank. Traffic is first and foremost a community problem and residents have no right expecting politicians, engineers and planning professionals to fix it for them. Hold on to your hats. I will have something to say to the politicians engineers and planning professionals in a moment.

I have worked in neighborhood after neighborhood where residents were asking the city to spend large sums of money to slow down one of their neighbors. I once chaired a meeting of residents that were asking the city to spend $250,000 to slow speeding motorists. When I asked how many motorists were causing the problem, an elderly gentleman said, "Five, and I can show you were everyone of them lives."

Asking your city to spend lots of money on forcing you and your neighbors to drive slower and less often seems like a huge waste of your hard-earned cash — especially when you could have the same result, at absolutely no cost, by simply shaking hands with your neighbor and agreeing that you will all act like guests in each other’s neighborhoods. The solution to traffic problems in neighborhoods is not more speed bumps. The solution is an outbreak of civility that slows our rampant individualism. And that is a cultural challenge, not a physical design challenge.

  • Anon

    That’s a wonderful sentiment, but until New York becomes Oslo and the U.S. becomes Sweden, we are going to need physical traffic calming measures (including speed bumps and bollards) to tame drivers. And as far as I know the highly civil Scandinavians and Netherlanders use plenty of traffic calming.

  • It would be difficult to shake hands with every single one of your neighbors in a city of 8 million, wouldn’t it?

  • Charlie D.

    Traffic calming is indeed solving a symptom of the problem of people who are too hurried and have little respect for the environment in which they are driving (i.e. neighborhoods). Getting to know each other and socializing with neighbors could certainly help to change this, but in many cases there is a problem of not enough public spaces to encourage this. When neighborhoods are designed as traffic sewers instead of public places, it becomes difficult to foster an atmosphere of socialization which would allow people to slow down in many ways.

  • I think the sentiment still applies though on many scales and is what currently is contributing to and creating the cities safest and best streets and intersections. Allan Jacobs, a great student of street design, says the following:

    “The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.”

    “Most of the great intersections and streets I’ve observed could not be built today. But based on real accident records, they are not more dangerous than currently ‘normally designed’ streets and intersections — and have similar if not higher throughput.”

    By the way, Engwicht was one of the fathers of modern traffic calming, but has since largely abandoned what he now considers a “negative” approach to addressing these issues in favor of the these “mental speed bumps.”

    Full disclosure – PPS is the US distributor of Mental Speed Bumps.

  • ddartley

    His point is true, and so are the obvious retorts that “the people zooming up my Avenue are not my neighbors, so I can’t chat with them very easily.”

    Yes, cities still ought to implement traffic calming, and if those things result in more liveable, walkable streets and more street life, THEN his idea of shaking hands to further improve things will come more easily.

    But he’s absolutely right in general: in my little, private attempts to make streets safer, I have found, like the old wives tell us, that honey works much, much better than vinegar (because drivers and city officials are indeed often on the same level as “flies”).

  • This might work in some close-knit communities or in fairly small towns, but more than 90% of the cars that travel on my streets do not originate from my area.

    What we do need to create is a national ethic of yielding to pedestrians. All cars, trucks and cyclists should face high penalties for “failure to yield”.

  • Dan

    In these situations self interest is a very strong motivator. That’s why we have traffic lights at busy intersections, and parking meters, and laws about driving. The social compact that we enter into in order to live in a civil society guarantees, quite well, certain behaviors but not others. There’s a limit to what we can reasonably expect other people to do without any kind of tangible incentive or disincentive. For example, we have signs that post the speed limit but we also have state troopers pulling people over. Without both of those things we would not be able to enforce the law(or control motorists). Such is the nature of traffic calming, we need both the sense of community that commits us to behaving well towards our fellow citizens as well as incentives to guard against reckless self interest. Just think about if you’ve ever done something “just this once” or because no one was looking.

  • The effect of “mental speed bumps” is not just on residents and civility, but on all who pass through an area. It is the friction, intrigue, level of uncertainty that causes traffic to go slower.

    You have to actually read the book!

    Engwicht says, “safety is maximized when false sense of security is minimized. …Because unless we also make the social life of the street more controlled and predictable we will simply create a false sense of security. …Make our travel environment feel less predictable and we will travel slower.”

    Perhaps a follow-up study to TA’s “Traffic’s Human Toll” study ( could look at “Human’s Traffic Toll.“ The TA study replicates in NYC Donald Appleyard’s findings from the 70s in California, that show the volume of the street determines the amount of social life from a number of indicators. Perhaps if we looked at streets with the same capacity in the TA study, that we could see if there is a negative correlation between speed and the social factors uncovered.

  • Sean

    There’s a guy in a Ford F-150 who, as far as I can tell, never travels down my street at a reasonable speed.

    When I’m out front on my lawn, I put my arms up to him (and other zip-critters) to indicate “What’s up with that?” (A suprisingly more effective gambit than clear disapprobation.) He sees me, looks sheepish, and slows down.

    A stranger? No. He’s the dad of my son’s classmate. He’s the guy who invited me in for a drink on Halloween. He’s a pretty active presence in the neighborhod.

    All that personal connection. All the clear messages that he should slow down. And he still doesn’t.

    Wait, that’s not true. He once stopped in front of the house to compliment us on the paint job.

    People get in their cars to get out of the neighborhood, both in the physical and the psychic sense.

  • Lane Wyden


    Try this:

    Dress up like Merlin in drag, stand the middle of the street and wave your “traffic taming” wand like an oxycontin addled cheeba monkey.

    that might help.

  • All the comments seem to miss what I consider an obvious application of this principle that would work in many many neighborhoods: by reducing NIMBY politics, neighborhoods could start sprouting retail and service outlets — and such a sprouting would mean less need to hurry through one neighborhood to get to that other neighborhood to shop.

    When most neighborhoods are self-sustaining, then traffic is largely a factor of major events and commute-related.

  • Exactly! The problem is that we are not only ignoring the obligation to support and build the destinations, but by just focusing on moving traffic, we are degrading and isolating our existing destinations and the communities they anchor. Perhaps the purpose of cities and urban transportation planning is to connect a maximum number of destinations with a minimum amount of travel.

    While cities are actually designing streets based Engwicht type ideas in many parts of the world, most notably in Holland and Germany with Hans Monderman as the leader (PPS is doing this in the small City of Lindsay, CA), The principles still apply to NYC and the below mentioned Flatbush Ave.

    Like Broadway in Manhattan, Flatbush’s intersections are generally some of the most unfriendly and dangerous in the city, and could potentially be some of the nicest and most livable destinations if conceived as such. If they were designed and managed to support and connect destinations they could look and feel very different.

    The paradigm shift as it applies to NYC and these major streets is to think of the street itself as public space and manage it to support the many small and larger destinations it is meant to connect.

    While real and perceived pedestrian safety issues are likely the cities greatest blight and deserve infinitely greater attention, making DOT defensive about safety and liability will not ultimately bring about this shift. We need to refocus transportation planning on creating and connecting destinations.

  • CB

    Indeed you are right .. but
    what to do about the transients?

    The real problem is the value our society puts on streets. Its public, its free, therefore it is not valuable ..

    in our economic model we have to make it scarce or very expensive to be valuable, respected etc..

  • I disagree. We don’t have to make it scarce, we have to embue residences with a sense of _ownership_. Then, it’s not _a_ street… it’s _their_ street — precious and rare.

  • * residents

  • JK

    What are you guys smoking? Flatbush Ave has plenty of destinations, a good retail, housing, walking, transit mix. It’s a bustling, vital NYC neighborhood. The problem here is not the land use, zoning or lack of “destinations.” The problem here is a major arterial which is tasked with carrying too much traffic. As a result, pedestrians lose — and motorists don’t win much either. There seems to be a serious problem scaling up Engwich’s ( the freaky looking dude in the pic?) psychic ownership ideas into NYC neighborhoods with population density of 10,000 to 20,000 per square mile and arterials carrying 8-10,000 vehicles an hour.

  • JK – I think you may be missing the point. The idea is to transition Flatbush or NYC streets from what you state as the problem by asking for more from our streets, not less. As Engwitch himself discovered, the transportation reform movement has not and is not going to make any fundamental shifts by suggesting less, particularly through the past “negative” strategies, that he himself used to promote.

    The shift is to talking more about access than mobility, great streets more than “complete streets” and indeed destinations and Placemaking as the best catalysts for growing use and experience for various forms of alternative transportation – not just alternative transportation infrastructure as an end in itself.

    The transformation for streets like Flatbush can perhaps best be brought about by looking at their value and potential to support destinations, weather with improved retail, better designed intersections, or more actively managed public spaces and community institutions. For instance, the avenues many institutions like Long Island University, BAM, BPL, Prospect Park Zoo, etc. are indeed there but seriously limited by the design of Flatbush. The many smaller and larger (GAP, Atlantic Ave., etc) intersections of Flatbush are all designed to optimize the experience of cars, rather that the experience of people and communities. Certainly, all along the avenue, the land use, retail design and street life have all been forced to adapt to the traffic environment. If we plan for these destinations, uses and users in mind, we would inevitably come to a very different end. Starting with traffic, on the other hand, is dead end!


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