City Driving Is Supposed to Be Terrible

April 20, 2015
city driving urban congestion traffic

City Driving: A Tale of Tortured Patience

The light changes, but the cars moving from left to right in front of you have not quite cleared the intersection, leaving your path partly blocked. They got stopped waiting for people to cross the street in front of them from the previous light cycle, and you’re stuck trying to figure out if they will pull the rest of the way through the intersection or whether you’ll be waiting another whole set of light cycles just to make it to the next block.

Cars in the lane left of you are zooming past, and you’re looking for the opportunity to swing over to get around the car blocking your way and then swing back into the right hand lane. To do so feels risky, but the idea of being trapped here is making you feel something like claustrophobia. You can feel other cars behind you in your lane looking to do the same thing. They lean against you with a pressure that sets your nerves on edge. It feels like you’re stuck in a theater that’s burning to the ground around you, and you can’t figure out how to open the door to freedom. You’re angry at the car blocking your way, the pedestrians that slowed them down, and the bus that forced you to yield as it pulled away from the curb. If not for that stupid bus, you never would have been stuck at this awful light in the first place.

You glance to your right and see the countdown timer on the pedestrian crossing signal is ticking down the last few seconds. This means the light is about to change, and you’ll be stuck here for another five minutes just like you feared. But, at last, the car blocking you is able to crawl ahead enough to clear the way and you dart forward through the intersection just as the light turns red. The path in front of you is well clear now, and you make the most of it by punching the gas.

Of course — because there is no justice in this world — the light at the next block turns just in time to stop you. You get to do this all over again. On the highway you can travel more than mile a minute and do it safely and legally. Here, you can’t even go a couple hundred feet a minute.

What a waste of time.

This, more or less, was my experience last Thursday evening in Minneapolis. I made what became an ill-advised driving trip to Target and ended up fighting both the last of rush hour and Minnesota Twins traffic.* I hated it. I hated it so much. But part way through my slog through the city, an unexpected wave of calm came over me. I realized something that I hope to call upon any other time I find myself in a similar situation.

This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. I shouldn’t be able to race through the streets with so many people walking around.

Driving through any reasonably busy city area should be terrible because it’s the only way to keep people safe. It may seem like small comfort when you’re running late, but if you understand why this is necessary it might bring you a measure of calm the next time you find yourself crawling through traffic lights and dodging buses, pedestrians, cyclists and other cars.

The Scariest Part of Living in the City

As a pedestrian, my primary mode of travel, the thing that scares me the most about living in the city is not overhyped fears like muggings or assault or pollution or, I don’t know, terrorism or whatever. It’s cars and the people operating them. I have close calls with drivers far more often than I care to think about. And by close calls, I mean quite literally jumping out of the way of cars turning into me as I cross a street, leaping backward as a car hurtles through an alley, or watching closely to see if that driver trying to turn right on red is going to check to their right to see me trying to enter the crosswalk.

A big part of the reason for this is the feeling of safety. Risk compensation is what happens when we adjust our behavior to what we perceive as safe, regardless of attempts to enforce rules like speed limits. Things that make city driving safer such as wide roads designed for fast driving, seat belts, and airbags have the unintended effect of making drivers less risk averse.

In general, people who are texting while driving or holding a cell phone in one hand while trying to turn are not bad people acting maliciously. They simply feel safe enough to do so. It’s an easy intellectual leap to make. Yeah, I know it’s against the rules, but I got this. To at least some extent, drunk drivers have the same logic made much worse by the impairment in judgment that increases the likelihood they will feel safer than they are.

This road is in the heart of downtown Columbus, OH and it is eight (8!!) lanes wide.

This road is in the heart of downtown Columbus, OH and it is eight lanes wide. Eight lanes!!

When you design almost exclusively around making drivers feel safe, that’s what you get: one set of users feeling safe to the exclusion of others. As a result of that, those theoretical other users like cyclists and pedestrians do not materialize. It’s not as simple as saying that no one wants to bike or walk;  it’s that they do not feel safe enough to do so. This is risk compensation in the opposite direction.

We’ve built infrastructure under this model almost exclusively for the last 60-ish years, including retrofitting many previously dense city areas to accommodate it. This seems like the real cause for why drivers get frustrated dealing with city traffic. We’ve built so many roads and highways where driving is so convenient and the only reasonable choice, we do not adapt well when suddenly driving is not the only or easiest option.

But we have not done made this kind of driving possible everywhere, and I don’t think it can be credibly argued that doing so would be a good idea. Here are three quick reasons why.

  1. It makes walking and cycling — by far the least expensive modes of travel to use and to build for — even less desirable and scary than they already are. Wide roads with fast-moving cars are much more dangerous than nervous drivers.
  2. It ruins places. Places where people like to walk are that way because the walk itself is pleasant. This place is pretty nice to walk in. This one is not. Walkable areas are also more valuable.
  3. It is prohibitively expensive. The cost of infrastructure is astronomical, and we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to. Has your state department of transportation ever said it has more money than it needs for roads? What’s more, doing so often creates “induced demand,” meaning the problem returns. We will never, ever be able to simply build our way out of traffic congestion and still afford the infrastructure that supports it.

Speed Kills, Especially Pedestrians

What we need is more places where drivers are likely to perceive the true risks of city driving, if not for themselves then at least for others. Washington Avenue through downtown Minneapolis provides an example of a place that would be much safer if we could signal to drivers the true level of risk.

Taken during rush hour at the intersection of two of Minneapolis's most important streets.

Taken at 5pm on a Wednesday at the intersection of two of Minneapolis’s most important streets. Cars wait at a light in the distance, but a huge amount of unused capacity remains.

I’ve talked about this before. Washington’s number of lanes varies, but nearest me it’s six lanes wide. It is never congested apart from maybe an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and occasionally for major events. Even then, almost all that congestion is due to the accordion effect and not to the actual road capacity or total demand being out of whack.  See the picture at left for an example.

When the road is not congested, which as I’ve said is the vast majority of the time, it becomes extremely spacious for drivers. The speed limit is 30 MPH, but cars certainly appear to be moving much, much faster most of the time. I’d bet people regularly hit 50 trying to make lights. When it is busy, drivers become highly frustrated. It feels like the rules of the road have suddenly changed because in some ways they have.

This creates an incredibly dangerous situation. My neighborhood has lots of people moving around on foot or on bicycles year round, and these are the most vulnerable users of our shared road space. We’ve all heard the expression “speed kills.” It’s true for drivers, but it’s especially true for the rest of us. See the chart below.

Courtesy of PEDS Atlanta

Courtesy of PEDS Atlanta

If you’re driving 30 MPH, which in Minnesota is the typical residential speed limit, you have a roughly 50/50 chance of killing a pedestrian in a collision. At 20 MPH, we achieve 90% survival while at 40 MPH we hit 90% fatality.  I want slower speed limits in areas with people walking, but I know that’s not enough. City driving must be unpleasant to keep everybody, including drivers, safer.

I don’t want you to feel terrified or anxious as a driver, but I do want you to feel cautious and wary. When you’re driving through a busy area, I do not want you to feel as safe as when you’re on an interstate. It’s not because I hate you or I hate cars. I’m not trying to make you late or ruin your day. It’s because people live in and visit these places. I might be walking around, (or your kids or your friends or your parents) and if you feel too safe, I’m probably not safe at all.


*So in a way, Target is doubly responsible for how irritating this was because the Twins stadium is called Target Field. Maybe it was part of a vast conspiracy to torment me for quitting my job? Probably. Vast conspiracies are happening everywhere all the time. THE TRUTH IS IN FRONT OF YOU, SHEEPLE.**

**I do not, in general, believe in vast conspiracies. They’re mostly nonsense, and the NSA agrees with me.

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