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Jun 17

The Flow of Traffic

Posted on June 17, 2019 at 11:30 AM by Melinda Mayo

Quite often, the city receives requests for any number of traffic control mechanisms—stop signs, bike lane striping, speed bumps, etc.  In most instances these requests are not warranted or may even worsen the problem the requester is seeking to resolve.  Some recent opportunities—one involving international travel and the other a conference on better design of urban areas—offered me new insights on how other places respond to such challenges, which I would like to highlight in this week’s blog.

Controlled? Chaos

CM blog picI recently had the opportunity to watch, from a 12th-story hotel room, the function of a very busy intersection in one of the most populated cities in the World, Beijing.  Designed for four-way traffic, the intersection moves thousands of vehicles per day, in addition to hundreds of pedestrian, bicyclists, motor bike, scooters, and any number of other means of transport.  It does all of this without a single sign, traffic signal, limited striping, and seemingly few other forms of control.  I can’t say it was pretty, nor was it without frustration for those participating in this daily ballet, but hour after hour the traffic moved without incident or accident.  By contrast, drivers in the United States expect or demand signal lights, stop signs, etc. for significantly less traffic and with substantially less justification. Why is this?

Shared Streets

CM blog pic 2Image via Project for Public Spaces

Much of the developed World and increasingly more communities in the United States promote the concept of shared streets.  This is where the realm of the pedestrian, automobile, bicyclist, etc. are seamless. Generally, there are few if any street signs and often not even curbs or sidewalks. Instead everyone has to share the space.  Great examples of these are found in the Netherlands, the UK, France, and in Savannah, here in the United States.  The concept behind these spaces is that with the unpredictability associated with the lack of signs, striping, etc., everyone becomes much more attuned to and aware of their environment.  Traffic slows, everyone pays more attention, and a safer environment for all is realized.  

Shared streets have their own challenges and are not meant to offer a perfect solution.  Questions remain about pollution caused by delays, ease of use by children or the elderly, and accommodation of those that are hearing- or sight-impaired.  Nonetheless, they do remain viable, work well in most instances, and represent an alternative (and actually more traditional) way of managing traffic through an intersection. 

Maybe it is time for us to ask why—all too often—we seek engineering or technical solutions to the challenges we face when traveling our local streets.  Roanoke has the opportunity to consider the possibility of a simpler, more traditional means of addressing these issues.  

--Bob Cowell


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