Road Warriors

A New Movement Challenges the Paving of America

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For most of this century, traffic has been seen as an inevitable by-product of progress. We might long nostalgically for the calm and quaintness of life before the automobile, but most Americans seemed thrilled at the possibility of going more and more places in less and less time. Now, though, our passion for speed seems to be slowing down. Indeed, in many American towns and cities, citizens are rising up to battle politicians, business interests, and bureaucrats who are pushing the inexorable spread of asphalt.

This asphalt rebellion, explains Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing (October 1997), 'ignited in many different places at virtually the same time' and has become 'a full-fledged protest movement . [concerned with the] broader subject of how streets and highways are designed and built in America and the way those decisions affect communities and individual lives. It has grown into a rebellion against an entire half-century of American engineering ideology, and against an obscure but immensely important book: A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets.'

This book, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), is the bible of the traffic engineering profession, and its guidelines are frequently invoked to wave aside citizens' concerns about what road 'improvements' might mean for a neighborhood. The growing legion of asphalt rebels contend that aesthetics, property values, and a sense of community don't matter to most traffic engineers, who care only about how much more pavement it will take to keep the cars moving quickly. Traffic engineers note that safety plays an important role in their decisions, citing numerous studies that show wider lanes and four-lane roads prevent traffic accidents.

But the safety issue cuts several ways. Asphalt activists point out that many street and highway upgrades make travel far more dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians?especially children and old people, who have trouble crossing wider streets with faster traffic. (In New York City, the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 is being hit by cars.) And they question whether designing streets to accommodate drivers traveling well above the posted speed limit, as the AASHTO guidelines require, ultimately promotes the safety of motorists. Indeed, a new study shows that narrow streets are actually safer than wide ones, according to New Urban News (Nov./Dec. 1997). The city of Longmont, Colorado looked at 20,000 accidents on local streets over an eight-year period and found that as street width increased, accidents per mile per year increased 'exponentially.'

Prodded by the efforts of environmentalists, sustainable-transportation advocates, neighborhood groups, historical preservationists, and parents, asphalt activists across the country already can claim some victories. Eugene, Oregon, which used to require that all streets be at least 28 feet wide, now allows some to be as narrow as 20 feet. Wellesley, Massachusetts, faced with a plan to widen its congested main street, chose to narrow it instead?and expand the sidewalks to encourage walking as a form of transportation. Even in auto-happy Southern California, the cities of San Bernardino, Riverside, and Beverly Hills have narrowed major commercial streets. And Vermont has enacted a law that allows local officials to relax AASHTO standards in almost all cases.

The asphalt rebellion is even winning a few supporters within the ranks of traffic engineers who have begun to question whether moving cars as quickly as possible is the most important goal for a community. The Federal Highway Administration, with help from many AASHTO officials, is publishing a design guidebook that offers far more flexibility than the AASHTO standards. As Walter Kulash, an Orlando traffic engineer who has become a leading voice for rethinking how to design our streets, told DoubleTake (Summer 1997), 'The difference between real bleakness and a vibrant urban atmosphere is a matter of seconds. When you ask the public, 'Would you rather take 12 more seconds to get where you're going and have this be a tree-lined wonderful street? the answer is always, 'We want it to be vibrant and beautiful, not fast and ugly.' '

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