Short Takes: Beyond “Fix It First”; Why Traffic Doesn’t Stop When Roads Get Worse; Safer Intersections for Bicyclists; Ear Phones and Sanity

Four quick posts about the need to move beyond past reforms, about the daily adjustments travelers make in response to changing road conditions, why cyclists should be treated more like pedestrians at intersections, and the problem of getting people to pay more attention to where they are going.

MOVING BEYOND “FIX IT FIRST” – When a past advance becomes a current barrier.

IF YOU TAKE IT AWAY, THEY GO AWAY:  New Metaphors for Understanding Traffic Restrictions






MOVING BEYOND “FIX IT FIRST” – When a past advance becomes a current barrier.

Massachusetts is correctly proud to have been one of the first states to implement a “Fix It First” philosophy.  The intent was to focus funds on maintaining current facilities rather than expanding.  In addition to being an acknowledgement that we  have limited resources and that by ignoring small problems we were only creating more expensive ones, it was an implicit recognition that new road construction not only fails to solve congestion but also creates other problems from loss of agricultural land to air pollution.

But the very institutions, and policies, we create to solve the problems of one era often end up blocking our way in the next.  Protective legislation, for example, was once a vital deterrent to the horrible exploitation of women by unscrupulous employers.  But decades later, it became a barrier to women’s advancement.

The same is true of Fix It First, which was once a progressive reform but can also be a barrier to solving our current problems.  The key issue is that, by definition, it locks us into the status quo.  The state Department of Transportation correctly points out that they need to use almost all available funds simply to reduce the backlog of needed repairs, much less to get things back into a pro-active maintenance schedule.

What we need is a clear commitment not to the status quo but to creating a transformed transportation system – at least in the urban and close-by suburban areas. – that is less polluting, less sprawling, less costly, less noisy, less congested, and less dependent on automobiles.  Ultimately, this means addressing the modal imbalance created by a half-century of car-centric spending, and moving towards greater access to and use of trains, trolleys, subways, buses, shared cars, bikes, and sidewalks.

Making this kind of change requires shifting money from roads – even from the maintenance portion of the budget – to new facilities incorporating these 21st century values.   We have a huge historic deficit to make up – not only in the condition of our roads and bridges but also in the amount of non-car infrastructure.


IF YOU TAKE IT AWAY, THEY GO AWAY:  New Metaphors for Understanding Traffic Restrictions

Sometimes we suffer through endless debates, basing our arguments on what seems absolutely obvious and inevitable based on logic and personal experience, when it turns out that someone’s already done a study that answers the question with real data.

Our culture has, to some degree, come to accept that “if you build it, they will come.”  Meaning that constructing new roads or highways will not relieve congestion, just attract more cars.  It is true that, for some people, this may be an acceptable by-product of the economic growth that road expansion can also facilitate.  But usually, new construction – at least in urban areas – is justified by the need to reduce traffic jams and travel times or increase safety and air quality by speeding “through-put.”

(Unfortunately, there isn’t a similar cultural understanding that the same dynamic works for bike traffic.  Often, people see the current low numbers of cyclists compared with cars as a reason to not go beyond the minimum required “accommodations” for bikes, forgetting that the creation of better facilities for non-motorized travelers will greatly increase their numbers – not because we are “forcing mode change” on an unwilling public but because we are finally unleashing the already existing, and rapidly growing, latent demand of people to use these “alternative” modes.)

But we have little cultural understanding of the impact of reducing road capacity.  The most typical understanding is expressed in a “water flow” metaphor:  if you block off one pipe, water will simply redistribute and overflow somewhere else.  People often object to including bike lanes or more stop signs on larger roads on the grounds that it will simply divert cars to surrounding small streets.  Or object to adding wider sidewalks and bike lanes to a bridge, while narrowing or reducing the car lanes, on the grounds that cars will simply move to and overwhelm another river crossing.

These arguments certainly seem logical and confirmed by our experience during road repairs and other emergencies.  But it turns out that a second metaphor is needed: water not only “finds the easiest route” it also evaporates.  If you analyze data over a couple weeks after a road’s capacity has been reduced, overall car traffic diminishes as people change modes, car pool, or otherwise adjust to the new situation.  People are smart and adaptable.  They will pick the travel methods and routes that best meet their needs – whether that is based on speed, convenience, cost, health, social connections, or something else.  It may take a week or two to adjust, but people do.

In fact, a British review of over 70 case studies from eleven countries found that significant reductions of road car-capacity resulted in a 10% to 15% reduction in traffic not only on the primary road but across the entire area and network.  As the researchers summarize:  “the levels of traffic reduction that occur from reallocating roadspace can be quite high” and that even where overall reduction is lowest “traffic problems are usually far less serious than predicted.”   Furthermore, when the traffic capacity reduction is carefully planned, when the media is properly used to keep the public informed, and when road changes are complemented by road-side visual improvements, then “reallocating roadspace to more sustainable modes of transport can result in a variety of complementary benefits.”

And our own experience with Boston’s Big Dig, NYC’s closure of the West Side Highway, San Francisco’s experience after the earthquake shut down the freeways – all show that cities don’t collapse when road capacity is reduced, even drastically.  Traffic adjusted and the economy survived in every one of those cities.

Evaporation – if you take it away, they go away!  We know this is true for pedestrians and bicyclists.  It’s time we acknowledged it for cars as well.

<Quotes are from: “Disappearing Traffic?  The story so far.” By S.Cairns, S.Atkins, P.Goodwin, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Municipal Engineers ISI,  pp 13-22, March 2002.>



The most dangerous part of the road is the intersection, where cars are turning in several directions while mixing with pedestrians and cyclists.  A new NYC study of pedestrian accidents shows that three-quarters of the 7,000 pedestrian accidents between 2002 and 2006 resulting in serious injury or death happened at intersections.  Relatively few happened because someone jaywalked.  As the report says, “Jaywalkers were involved in fewer collisions than their law-abiding counterparts who watched for the WALK sign.”

One way to reduce the contention is to make pedestrians more visible by turning on the WALK sign 3 to 5 seconds before the light goes green which allows them to step off the curb and take a step or two before the driver gets to start.  It’s called a Leading Pedestrian Indicator, or LPI.  Even though this makes walkers more vulnerable, it also makes them safer – perhaps an important lesson!

But why not allow bicyclists to do the same thing?  It would be great if there were separate traffic lights for cyclists – especially in conjunction with separate cycle tracks (see above!).  But creating this kind of infrastructure will take a long time.  For now, we need to use what we’ve already got.

In previous posts, I’ve argued that bicyclists should be allowed to treat red lights as if they were stop signs, or even yield signs. But here I’m suggesting something much more moderate – changing the law to explicitly allow cyclists to filter to the front of a red-light queue and then, for the same reason as pedestrians, start into the intersection when the LPI says WALK.

In fact, this is what most cyclists do anyway.  Why not make it explicit?



According to the “Road Rights” column in the Oct. (2010) Bicycling magazine, only two states (Florida and Rhode Island) forbid the use of headphones while driving any kind of vehicle, including bicycles – although Florida lifts the restriction if the phones are connected to a cell phone.  Three states (California, Delaware, Maryland) forbid having both ears covered at the same time.  But it’s likely that many states will require hands-free devices for cell phones, and perhaps other headphone-possible activity in the future.

For me, I get nervous when I see anyone – in a car, on a bike, or just walking – with something in their ear or squinting down at a little screen with their fingers flying.  (The walkers always seem to be standing in the middle of the multi-use path I’m cycling on, leaving me guessing if they’ll hear my approaching bell and if they do will they suddenly move to the right or left just as I’m passing.)

I know that people use music to motivate their workouts, or catch up to the news while they are traveling, or connect to each other.  I know that there is an endless amount of information to look up on Google, and games to play, and emails to answer.  I know that boom boxes on the shoulders or blasting speakers in a car can be just as problematic.

It’s not so much the ear pods, which I know can be adjusted to not block out the surround sound, as the full coverage headphones.  It’s not so much people listening to something, music or voice or whatever, as spaciness.  It’s not even so much the spaciness as the distraction from the person’s immediate surroundings.

But, still…why can’t we ever slow down?  Why can’t we be where we are?  Why can’t we ever accept silence?

Maybe the new “no driving while distracted” laws will help, although I predict that the difficulty of defining a violation will force lawmakers to draft them with very narrow limits, and therefore very little impact.

But what else can we do?

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