We all know that feeling of driving down an empty road with gentle curves and hills. Suddenly we are going 140 kmph. It’s “easy driving” syndrome and no matter the posted speed limit, we don’t remember how we got there. It feels out of our control. Much like I lose track of time and possessions, I often lose track of my speed. And though I have never received a speeding ticket in my 10 years of driving, I admit that “easy driving” does happen to me.
It’s hard to explain this to the RCMP, though, or to homeowners who are tired of having traffic zooming in front of where their grandchildren are playing. School zones have been effective in some areas, but what about other streets?
While I don’t know of any recent accidents in our communities caused by speeding (at least off the highway), I believe traffic calming creates a more livable community. But I don’t think more speed signs are the answer. What’s needed is more traffic calming. Traffic calming is like magic: it makes drivers subconsciously want to drive slower, instead of faster.
I was first inspired by this idea after meeting David Engwicht, an urban design guru from Australia. His theory was that pedestrian traffic and car traffic are inversely connected. The faster cars go, the fewer pedestrians, and the more walkable a place is, the fewer and slower the cars.
While we are blessed to have mostly paved roads now, most of them do not have sidewalks or walkable/bikable shoulders nor do they encourage shared road space. They are technically functional but are not cleared of sand or painted in a way that would let others know that’s where bikes or pedestrians belong. Furthermore, there is no barrier between walkers and drivers. Once again, a subconscious deterrent.
Engwicht explained how drivers (much like pedestrians) respond to road design. The narrower the road or the lane, the slower drivers are likely to go. The more activity on either side. the less likely they are to speed.
Cheap traffic calming methods include painting more pedestrian walk routes onto the roads or adding permanent road narrowing devices that still allow all types of vehicles through, but subconsciously make us a little more cautious.
The base of the problem, Engwicht says, is that residents have retreated psychologically from their street, and each retreat has been an invitation for traffic to go faster. This may have started with parents asking their kids to stop playing on the roadway and to instead play on the sidewalk. As a result, motorists went faster in the street. So the parents told their kids not to play on the sidewalk and to play in the yard or at the park. This invited motorists to go even faster.
This is not to say that the parents didn’t feel a genuine sense of threat. However, by choosing to retreat rather than confront the threat, they gave an open invitation for traffic to go faster, which caused further psychological retreats from the street: no longer using the sidewalk for adult socializing; no longer walking or allowing their children to walk; the elderly and disabled no longer using the street as their outdoor meeting place. Traffic automatically slows if residents begin reclaiming their street and bringing back these traditional functions.
Most motorists have a fixation on their destination and getting there as quickly as possible. The more predictable and boring the space they pass through the greater this fixation and the greater their desire for speed. However, an environment that contains high levels of intrigue and unpredictability breaks this ‘fixation’ and causes the motorist to engage mentally with the environment they are passing through, Engwicht says. This shift of mental focus automatically causes the motorist to slow down. One example of street reclaiming Engwicht gives is to get children to give a friendly wave to motorists. This taps into the intrigue factor. The motorist wonders if they know the person, or why the person is waving. Their attention moves from future anticipation to engagement with the present moment, and they automatically slow to absorb that moment. The same phenomenon happens if there is something new and engaging in the street, like a new sculpture or someone reading a book on a chair on main street.
Engwicht’s opinion is that standardized signage and use of standardized road markings should be reduced to a minimum as they create predictability and contain no intrigue. They also reinforce that a street belongs exclusively to motorists. Messages can be conveyed to motorists in a much more creative way than by using these standardized devices. This not only helps slow traffic but creates urban environments which are richer and more stimulating.
So instead of spending money on new stop signs or simply shaking our fists at speeding cars, let’s kill two birds with one stone and create a more friendly outdoor environment for pedestrians, which in turn will influence the behaviour of those prone to “easy driving” – all of us at one time or another.
Read more about David Engwicht’s ideas at www.creative-communities.com