Automobiles are a tremendously useful invention. They make it possible for us to go when and where we want to go. People didn’t have much reluctance to give up a horse and buggy when automobiles became available. We built 2.7 million miles of paved roads and streets to support those automobiles.
That has become a problem for some communities because streets are designed to move automobile traffic as quickly as possible and without much consideration for pedestrians or bicycles or mass transit systems. There is now an effort to make our towns and cities more “walkable and livable.” Many of these efforts are labeled “complete streets plans.” Currently, 1472 U.S. jurisdictions have adopted a complete streets plan.
A complete streets plan describes the best designs for safe intersections, crosswalks, traffic signals, and bicycle lanes. The plans also address the needs of blind citizens and people who use wheelchairs. Planners typically are guided by information compiled by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) or Smart Growth America (smartgrowthamerica.org) or by other professional organizations.
Pedestrian safety is a primary issue. The Governor’s Highway Safety Association reports that 5,984 pedestrians were struck and killed by automobile drivers in 2017. The majority of non-fatal pedestrian injuries occur when automobile drivers turn at a street intersection and cross the pedestrian crosswalk, e.g., right turn on red. Some jurisdictions are deciding that giving pedestrians exclusive right-of-way when the crosswalk signal is activated is a better solution.
One old idea that is getting renewed attention is traffic circles. Where intersections are converted to traffic circles, accident fatalities decline 70 percent, and accident injuries decline by 75 percent. The majority of pedestrian fatalities occur at night indicating a need for good street lighting and speed controls for automobiles.
Improvement of health through exercise is one of the goals for complete streets. The more ambitious plans envision off-street bicycle and walking paths from residential areas to schools in urban communities. Medical assessments indicate that children, as well of some of us who are adults, need more exercise. Paved surfaces and carefully designated bicycle lanes make bicycle riding practical.
Another important aspect of the complete streets concept is promotion of a friendly social atmosphere. Observers note that Americans aren’t talking to each other very much. That trend started decades back and has recently been amplified by a proliferation of small screens. By remodeling our streets, we may also be remodeling our communities.
A retiree who served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee, as well as in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America — RCA, Stevenson reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.