what do drivers think?

As I was walking this afternoon, crossing 19th Street at S Street, with the light, a woman very nearly ran me over. She was looking only at opposing traffic, and decided she could make the left turn if she accelerated. She was not looking at the crosswalk or at me. In fact, I’m pretty sure she would not have seen me until I was on her hood. She only noticed me because I screamed at her as I jumped back to avoid being hit.

This is a story that anyone who walks could repeat, it is not in the least unique. I have probably 150 almost identical instances since moving to Sacramento 11 years ago. And it is not unique to Sacramento. Traffic violence is everywhere, almost all the time.

But as I continued my walk, I wondered what goes through the minds of drivers who almost kill people. In many cases, they blame it on the person walking, for having the effrontery of being on the street in front of their car. I know this because they often start the screaming, directing invective at me.

But what about the others? Do they drive more carefully, with more attention to surroundings? Do they refrain from accelerating into dangerous situations? Do they slow the fuck down? Probably, for a few days. I imagine some of these drivers are actually quite shaken by the realization that they almost killed someone.

I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t last, though. They must slide back into their old reckless ways. If this were not so, there would be much more careful drivers on the road, and much less traffic violence. But there isn’t.

I suspect almost every driver on the road has come close to killing someone before. Some drivers, many times. Some drivers have killed people walking. After all, killing someone with your vehicle is seen by law enforcement and courts as a whoopsie, unless you are very drunk.

Note that I define traffic violence as any driver behavior that intimidates people from walking or bicycling. The driver doesn’t have to actually kill or injure to have the (desired?) effect.

solving traffic violence with: yes, and

It is common among many transportation advocates to posit that we can only really solve the traffic violence problem by redesigning roadways to reduce the opportunity for drivers to speed, and many other driver behaviors which endanger walkers, bicyclists, and other drivers (not to mention sign posts, street furniture, and business fronts). It is true that we have designed our roadways to encourage fast driving, and to passing through rather than stopping, which is to say mobility instead of access. All of this is true. Everything from roadway design standards (federal, state and local), traffic law, signing, widening, and removal of street trees, makes roadways more dangerous and less usable by anyone not in a motor vehicle. So, yes, we need to redesign roads.

Yes, and. At the same time, we need to hold drivers accountable. The focus on fixing roads tends to ignore the contribution of reckless (sociopathic and psychopathic) driving to traffic violence. Every decision to go faster than is safe, to fail to yield to walkers, to pass a bicyclist too close, to use your motor vehicle to intimidate others, to disrupt people’s lives with intentionally loud exhaust and sound, to make unnecessary trips, is a decision. It could be decided otherwise.

I acknowledge that the trend towards blaming roadways, and the engineers who designed them, is a reaction to law enforcement using traffic law as an excuse for pretext stops, where the intent is not traffic safety but the identification and oppression of people of color and the poor. That is demonstrably true, for anyone who reads the research data on traffic stops, or for anyone out on the street paying attention, for that matter. So I am absolutely not advocating for traditional law enforcement, and in fact think that law enforcement has no place in Vision Zero efforts.

But there are other ways of holding drivers accountable. Automated traffic signal enforcement is already in place, though at far too few locations. Automated speed enforcement could be in place if CHP and other law enforcement agencies stopped killing it at every legislative session, with complicity of our windshield perspective governor. Automated enforcement of failure to yield to pedestrians is more complicated, but achievable. I continue to believe that it is a small though very significant portion of drivers who most egregiously violate the law, and kill the most people. If we can control those people, then we can eliminate much death and destruction. Not all, but most.

But how do we control those people? In my experience, most of those people are high income, entitled people, driving expensive cars and SUVs. They are often the people that others consider leaders in business and government. These are not people whose behavior will be controlled by a traffic ticket. We must up our game on them. First, base fines for violation of traffic law on the value of the vehicle being driven. That has the advantage of removing the valid concern about the effect of enforcement on lower income people. Second, impound the vehicle after a certain number of tickets. Third, confiscate the vehicle, sell it off, and use the proceeds to improve roadway safety.

So, after three rants about drivers (red-light-running bullies, Yield to walkers? Nah., and this one), I’ll go back to roadway design. Yes, that is where the ultimate solution lies.

speed limiting NOW!

If you read the news at all, you will already know why motor vehicles needs to be speed limited. The carnage grows every day, and egregious speeders and drunk/high drivers slaughter innocent people on the streets, on the sidewalks, and inside buildings.

So, I’m going to ask that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttiegeg and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Steven Cliff immediately start the process of rulemaking to require always-on speed limiting devices on all new motor vehicles, and retroactive activation on all vehicles that were built with that capability, and implementation for all motor vehicles within 10 years. I hope that Congress passes legislation mandating this before NHTSA finishes its rulemaking process, because we can’t really wait for that process.

So, Pete and Steven. Will you do what is necessary, right NOW, or will you kowtow to the car-dominance industry and let things go on, let the slaughter continue apace? Now is the time for y0u to show leadership.

Slow Transportation (part 1)

Recently I was emailing a friend about a Slow Food gathering, and facetiously used the term “slow transportation” for getting there by train rather than flying. But the more I thought about it, the more the term resonated with what I believe in and what I work on. I have not heard, so far as I’m aware, the term used anywhere else, but I think readers of this blog will immediately resonate with it as well. What follows is a first attempt to pin down a working definition of Slow Transportation.

I am going to break this topic up into several posts, but at the end I’ll make it available as a single document in case that is of use to you.

1. What is wrong with our present transportation system?

I am going to keep the list short and succinct because I think most readers of this blog will either already be aware of the issues, and/or will agree that these are the problems. Entire books have been written about each of these issues!

Note: Don’t be depressed by the list of problems below. I promise I won’t leave you there for long.

  • transportation accounts for a significant part of greenhouse gas emissions (37% in california, 26% in the US, and 14% worldwide) as is therefore a major driver of climate change
  • we have emphasized mobility over access, the ability to get somewhere – anywhere, rather than the ability to get to places we want to go; there is an incredible amount of aimless driving, just for something to do, running a small errand to take up time and fill an empty life; only about 15% of car trips these day have anything to do with commuting to work
  • the convenience and low cost of driving has encouraged the separation of functions, where we live, work, recreate and socialize, diminishing the value of each place; though this has started to reverse, we are so far down this road (literally) that it will be hard to bring these back together
  • privately owned motor vehicles isolate people rather than bring them together
  • traffic violence is inherent in a system based on private motor vehicles; even when people are not killed and injured by the drivers of motor vehicles, they are still intimidated out of the public space, knowing they are at risk there and are being actively discriminated against
  • our cities, counties and states are either already insolvent or on their way to insolvency, in part due to the fact that we do not have and cannot ever have enough money to maintain the transportation infrastructure we have already built; though roadways are the worst of this, it is also true to some degree of transit systems, and most certainly our air transport system
  • our current wars are in significant part about oil, oil wars; if you don’t think this is so, ponder the fact that the former head of Halliburton, an oil exploration and facilities company, got us into the Iraq war and Halliburton was the prime contractor for that war; it is not just the US with guilt and blood, most of the wars today are at least in part about oil
  • we transport our food long distances, disconnecting us from the source, the soil, and the people who grow it; industrial agriculture is both dependent on and a driver (literally) of our unsustainable transportation system; again, this is starting to reverse, but we have lost much of the smaller farmer and small processor capacity of our country, and it will take time to rebuild
  • the housing affordability crisis is in part due to a focus on housing costs without considering the transportation costs; the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T calculations indicates that much of the current housing stock is unaffordable because it is located so far from jobs and amenities; it is not really the urban areas (so much in the news) where housing is unaffordable, since transportation costs there are so much lower, but the suburbs and exurbs
  • our transportation system takes up too much of our wealth, particularly in the preference for mega-projects like new bridges and freeways, and inattention to small projects that would have greater benefits; there are plenty of things we could be spending transportation money on instead; I dont’ want to minimize the value of transportation investments, but to ask that they have the a similar social return to other things we could spend on
  • our transportation system takes up too much of our space, not just with roadways and interchanges, but with parking garages and parking lots and on-street parking; as a result of all this space devoted to one mode of travel, the private vehicle, everything must be further apart, thereby requiring even more driving, in an ever-downward spiral
  • our transportation system both encourages and depends upon greenfield development, which leads directly to loss of wildlife habitat and agricultural lands; we already have enough housing stock, but a preference for heavily subsidized greenfield development leads to abandonment and neglect of the sufficient housing stock we already have; greenfield development must stop, now and forever
  • there are so many externalities to private car use, costs that are borne by other individuals and society as a whole, that it really amazes me that we even allow private car use
  • we have reached peak car; peak does not necessarily mean the greatest number of cars or the greatest vehicle miles traveled, but it means the point of diminishing returns; the costs are now overwhelming the benefits and nothing we do can change that, except to walk away (literally) from dependence on motor vehicles

“The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.” —James Marston Fitch, New York Times, 1 May 1960