Personal Traffic Calming
A Bike People editorial by Richard Risemberg

There's lot of talk on the Internet about traffic calming--redesigning residential streets to discourage high-speed driving, through such means as narrowing roads, planting trees along the parkways, adding stop signs or speed bumps, and the like. Naturally there is a great deal of argument over the merits of various methods, or whether it should even be done at all. But one of the most intriguing and puzzling arguments I hear--and I hear it most on my favorite bicycle commuting e-mail forum--is from bicyclists who oppose traffic-calming measures that would slow down bikes as well as cars.

The first thing to realize is that traffic-calming measures are not put into place solely to inconvenience drivers--however attractive that may be to certain rabid bikies (and I cheerfully admit I am one of them). The purpose of traffic-calming is not impede traffic flow for its own sake, but to use traffic-flow impediments to keep traffic from taking over the street entirely and preventing it from fulfilling its other, often more important, functions.

This may seem strange to you--after all, what function could be more important to a street than carrying traffic? After all, they were obviously built for cars--weren't they? And the answer to that is yes--but only since about 1930, and especially since World War II. For in reality, a street's main function is not to carry traffic. It is to provide communication among the inhabitants of a neighborhood.

Arterial roads--the big boulevards and avenues of a city--exist primarily to move traffic from neighborhood to neighborhood. The traffic-moving function of a residential street is only secondary or tertiary--you drive, or pedal, or walk down it towards the arterial when you leave to work or shop, and you drive or pedal or walk back up it when you're through, to get home. And the garbage truck and the UPS truck and the occasional police car or ambulance come along it when the need arises. But the primary function of the street is to let you visit your neighbor, walk your dog, play catch with your son or daughter, or simply stand out under the sky. It's a place where you might take a stroll with your grandfather, or where the neighborhood might set a table out for a communal dinner to celebrate nothing more than knowing each other peacefully for so many years--or conversely, to let a shy newcomer become acquainted with everyone. It's a place--as it used to be before hurry took over our lives--where children can ride their bikes or skateboards or fly kites or play softball or football according to the season, and get some exercise while having fun where any parent looking out the front door can keep an eye on them. When I was young--and it was not so long ago--it was normal to play ball on the street, stopping on occasion to let the odd car amble by. Now the children just watch TV, or are driven to the mall to learn how to be good little consumers, or hide sullenly in each other's rooms, or simply hang out in the parking lots of fast-food joints, trading drugs and despair. The street in front of your house or apartment is the public space of your neighborhood, and if you can't use it as such, your neighborhood will disappear. The buildings will remain, but the community will vanish. And the children will suffer most of all.

So traffic-calming is vital, I believe, to the continuation of civilization. And it's not an imposition: anyone who lives on the block will never truly need to hurry from the corner to the driveway. Anyone who is merely driving through the city should stay on the arterials, not cut through neighborhoods at high speed as they so often now do. And the occasional emergency vehicle, which must by definition hurry, will do so with lights and siren, giving ample warning to the ballplayers and the kibitzers to get out of the way.

So why should bicycles be exempt from traffic-calming? A bicycle hurtling down the street at 25 mph can be nearly as much an irritation, or even a danger, to pedestrians as a car. Let us accept traffic-calming measures that slow us down as much as they do cars. For the public space of residential streets--for the neighborhood squares that they in reality are--15 mph is more than fast enough. The Critical Mass enthusiasts wear signs saying, "We're not blocking traffic--WE ARE TRAFFIC!" I think that's true--so let's be responsible traffic, and accept that we must slow down on side streets.

As Gandhi said, "There's more to life than increasing its speed."

Richard Risemberg