Road Warriors

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

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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