• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    The middle of the road / Is trying to find me

    Okay, good thing I’m not dressed for work yet, because this crack by Simon made me snarf. He’s referring to PRC crackdowns on Chinese citizens who go to casinos over the border:

    There’s actually no need for casinos in China. If they want to gamble, they’ve got roads.

    That, in turn, put me in mind of an article that ran in Salon last spring by one Linda Baker, whose civil engineering legacy will be to have proffered the following paragraphs without a trace of irony:

    As it turns out, I’m far from the first person to think along these lines. In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It’s called “second generation” traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and — of all subjects — evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it’s a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty*. In practice, it’s about dismantling barriers: between the road and the sidewalk, between cars, pedestrians and cyclists and, most controversially, between moving vehicles and children at play. [Now, what kind of fuddy-duddies could stir up a controversy about that?–SRK]

    For the past 50 years, the American approach to traffic safety has been dominated by the “triple E” paradigm: engineering, enforcement and education. And yet, the idea of the street as a flexible community space is a provocative one in the United States, precisely because other “traditional” modes of transportation — light rail, streetcars and bicycles — are making a comeback in cities across the country. The shared-street concept is also intriguing for the way it challenges one of the fundamental tenets of American urban planning: that to create safe communities, you have to control them.

    Ms. Baker, you will doubtless be surprised to hear, lives in Portland, Oregon, which puts her statements about the “comebacks” made by light rail and other non-automobile forms of transportation in a strange light.

    What this has to do with Simon’s quip, before I forget to tell you (which is always a danger with my scatty, free-associative mind), is that Ms. Baker spent a week observing the city of Suzhou in China, where the populace is unfettered by “dominant-paradigm” rules expressed through signs, color-coded curbs, and traffic cops. And she didn’t see a single accident, even though she was totally paying attention, like, the whole week. Who knows? It’s possible that, in all of China, there are enough yearly traffic fatalities to depopulate Peoria, but none of them happens in Suzhou because its traffic non-system really works. But why is it that what Baker describes still sounds like a hopeful dress-up of the usual traffic free-for-all seen in population centers in developing countries?

    It’s a shame that Baker and the brothers-in-arms she quotes tend toward the post-structuralist-Mad Libs mode of expression (“subvert the dominant paradigm,” “give expression to the suppressed voice,” and “communal,” “communal,” “communal” until I’m going out of my mind), because they’re making some points that aren’t as risible as they make them sound. When you’re accustomed to following the signs and lights, you really do go on autopilot, and that is, in fact, a source of danger. When I’m back at my parents’ place, I always have to remind myself on my first day of driving not to get too comfy, because within a ten-mile stretch, you can go from twisty back roads with Deer Crossing signs to a clogged intersection in downtown Allentown to the notorious Route 22, where you’re jockeying for position with truckers like a video game come to life. I also take a lot of shortcuts when going through the town in which I grew up, the Borough of Emmaus, which has a population of 12,000 and is almost entirely residential.

    Baker is talking about urban areas, but it’s neighborhoods with a lot of houses that she seems most concerned with. Speed limits of 25 or 30 mph seem slow to impatient drivers, but they’re actually just above the speeds at which a pedestrian who gets hit is unlikely to be seriously injured. Couple that with the fact that most people go a good 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit, anyway, and add in the way marking streets as cars-only territory puts drivers off their guard against a child who bikes or runs out into their lane, and…well, you can see dangers that might be addressed by mixing types of traffic.

    Might. I suspect that the sort of intersection Baker is hot on works just fine in relatively small-scale neighborhoods within larger cities where everyone already knows the rules from before (as in the Netherlands) or everyone is used to improvising the rules because the idea of clear, impersonal rule of law is a fantasy throughout the larger society (as in the PRC). It’s possible to imagine that it could work in Portland, where I gather residents are in general more receptive to these sorts of experiments. I just hope they get into the habit of warning us visiting Bos-Wash types at the airport car rental counter, though.

    * Don’t you love this particular polarity? “Certainty”–also known as “having some idea what the motley crew of speeders, pokers, weavers, clinically-diagnosed turnsignalophobes, tailgaters, daydreamers, and let’s-play-chicken brakers with whom you’re sharing the roadway are going to do and where”–is bad because it separates people from vehicular traffic. Trying to negotiate an intersection of random peds and cyclists and cars and peddlers sitting in lotus position is not “anxiety-provoking” or “nerve-racking.” It’s “intriguing.” Turns commuting into a regular Marlene Dietrich movie.

    6 Responses to “The middle of the road / Is trying to find me”

    1. Normal Desmond says:

      I wonder if these traffic engineers from Europe and the United States ever stop to consider what happens in a developing country when a pedestrian is struck and seriously injured or killed in a traffic accident? Suppose you, or more likely your driver, has the misfortune of running over a little child in let’s say, Indonesia or the Philippines. Do you:
      1) Stop, call 911 on your cell phone, and await the arrival of the ambulance and police; or
      2) Stop,grab the child and take it to the nearest hospital yourself for treatment; or
      3) Drive to the nearest fortified police station and pray that help comes before an angry mob of relatives and neighbors comes screaming for your head on a plate.
      That’s the reality of living in the third world and any traffic engineer who does not see the ‘chaotic’ free-form flow of traffic as being an outgrowth of it’s culture is missing the point completely. Traffic flows because it has to and anything that gets in the way of that flow will be dealt with severely. Those people have no choice but to make it work.
      Imagine what automobile insurance rates would be if that mixed use thoroughfare idea were implemented in the US.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Thanks for reminding me–I was going to bring up those thingamajigs…what are they called, again? oh, yeah…lawsuits. Just a smidgen more common in America than in the Netherlands, let alone China.
      One can say that’s good or bad, but as you point out regarding insurance, we do not live in a society in which human error is shrugged off as something that just happens, with no one officially called to account.

    3. Sean Kinsell says:

      At first, when I saw her piece, I thought it must be an April Fool’s joke that I’d not noticed when first published (it was May then). It doesn’t look that way.
      There were no links in the article, but there were several assertions that routes leading through these sorts of intersections are actually faster ways to get from A to B. The theory is that the slow crawl through one of these new intersections ends up being faster than waiting behind a bunch of other cars at a complicated light. Or, supposedly, it’s no longer just theory because there are data to demonstrate it. Sight unseen, I find it difficult to ride roughshod over common sense in an effort to believe.

    4. John says:

      That assumes a certain average speed through those intersections, but what about the times of day when congestion rules? Same goes for traffic lights vs. stop signs – when traffic is light an individual stop sign is better – you only stop as long as you need, and then go when a light would keep you sitting there waiting for nothing. But string a street full of stop signs and try to race someone on a parallel street where the lights are properly timed – you’ll loose every time (I did this in Pittsburgh). Then add traffic to those stop signs. All of a sudden, the logic of stoplights becomes apparent.

    5. John says:

      Not to mention that speed limits are superfluous in the third world because of the congested mix of animals, scooters, pedestrians and dipstick drivers. In America, where I have lots of friends who think that speed limits can be safely tripled, this would be a disaster, not to mention the econimic impact of slowed traffic flows.
      Has this ditz ever been to Flushing, Queens? The Chinese and Korean drivers and pedestrians there already adopt third world rules as she suggests, and it takes me 30 minutes to go 8 blocks sometimes.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      That was the other thing that made me wonder. I mean, did any of these people have any idea that the strange white woman was observing their traffic patterns with the idea of recommending them back home? And if someone had, wouldn’t he probably have gotten her in a chokehold and said, “Lady, do you have any idea how long it takes me to get my turnips over there to the market?!” When time is unscheduled, there aren’t the same kinds of rises and falls in traffic that you’re talking about in Western cities.