Wednesday, May 4, 2011

NHPD Chief Limon Wonders: When Will ConnDOT Stop Designing Roads That Kill People?

This March, the state's first Traffic Safety Conference was held at Yale-New Haven Hospital. According to attendees, the meeting addressed a broad scope of injury prevention factors -- examining motorcycle safety, the use of child car seats, impaired (cell phone distraction, substance abuse) driving, safety for new and old drivers, and enhanced police enforcement.

To read a complete round-up of the event, please see "When will transportation departments start making roads safe for all?", by Phil Langdon of the New Urban News. Mr. Langdon writes that while traffic deaths have fallen dramatically, safety advocates and officials still pay far too little attention to the potential of better street design. Public comments at the bottom of Langdon's piece are also helpful to illustrate current conditions in New Haven.

Though its focus was on other injury prevention factors, the Traffic Safety Conference also highlighted CT DOT's inadequate application of proper street design for cities in our cities. New Haven Police Chief Frank Limon showed two very striking maps, one of vehicular accidents, the other of vehicular violations. In Limon's maps, the traffic violations (like running red lights) were focused on typical New Haven streets, which are sometimes patrolled by traffic enforcement officers particularly within pedestrian-heavy retail districts. But fatal accidents were concentrated along the state roads (which also serve as city arterials) that have been recently rebuilt to DOT standards -- roads with wide and multiple turn lanes in car oriented environments like Foxon Road and Ella Grasso Boulevard.

Limon spoke at length about the intersection of Derby Avenue and Ella Grasso Boulevard, a spot that has seen dozens of severe crashes. In this location, ConnDOT installed multiple turn lanes, and broad expanses of pavement, within the past five years. Chief Limon advised: "Don't go near it."

Limon's data presented a clear case of what New Urban planners and traffic safety advocates have long argued -- that the wider lanes and higher speeds in single use zones create congestion and fatal accidents.

It is of great concern to many citizens that the current planning for the rebuilding of the Route 34 Connector and Route 34 West around the hospital zone is focused, as these failed DOT projects are, on maximizing high-speed travel lanes (aided and abetted by underground service roads). Dozens of public meetings and workshops have been held over the past year, in which hundreds of New Haven residents have demanded walkable and bikeable streets, traffic demand management and transit development rather than yet another at-grade urban highway.

Mr. Langdon's article argues that ConnDOT has largely failed the city over the past few years, not just because of deadly road projects like Ella Grasso Boulevard and Foxon Road, but also due to its negligent designs within smaller neighborhood districts like Westville and Whalley/Edgewood (shown in the photo here). Mr. Langdon notes:

Even today, DOT continues to carry out pedestrian-hostile projects in New Haven. Mark Abraham, leader of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, points to the current widening of Whalley Avenue, a thoroughfare that carries commuter traffic between downtown New Haven and suburban Woodbridge.

Says Abraham: "Whalley Avenue, in a densely settled area of New Haven, along a site that has been the scene of hundreds of crashes, including one that killed an 11-year-old girl in a hit-and-run, was unfortunately converted from a 2-lane road into a 4-lane road with no pedestrian medians, raised intersections, or other measures typically used to make streets in urban areas safer to pedestrians. In addition, there are long sections with no crosswalks whatsoever...." "Hundreds of neighbors and elected officials pressed for reasonable design changes, but the DOT, working in tandem with city government, was simply unwilling or unable to take significant steps that would have made the area safer but also supported retail activity along the street. Recent studies have shown that walkable streets have far fewer retail vacancies and 50 percent higher retail rents."

Alderman Dildine said that in his view,” a road diet is the only solution for residential neighborhoods.” DOT, he said, often seems to drag its heels on initiatives and policies that would make places function better for people who are not behind the wheel.

NHTSA has consistently found that three of every 10 fatal motor vehicle crashes involve speeding. In 2000, 30 percent of fatal crashes involved speeding. In 2009, despite progress in other respects, 31 percent of fatal crashes involved speeding. And as research has shown, the speed of a motor vehicle is what’s lethal for a pedestrian. Bring down the speed and a person who’s hit by a car has a far greater likelihood of surviving.

What all of this tells me is that community design, and particularly street design, are crucial ingredients in traffic safety. Communities are not going to be able to control driver behavior adequately through ticketing, red-light cameras, distracted-driver campaigns, and other measures of those sorts. Street design has to be an important element in the government response. Street design must be on the agenda of any conference looking for comprehensive solutions to the reduced, but still grievous, plague of traffic deaths.

At the very least, Langdon concludes, it is time for state transportation departments to stop the lip service and to start making real changes.

Anstress Farwell contributed a portion of the text within this online post.

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