Monique Keiran: Make roads safer by messing with our heads

One of the buzzwords in urban planning these days seems to be “people-friendly streetscapes.”

The intent is to transform the car-centric corridors that crisscross our region into spaces that focus on people, not vehicles.

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For example, Victoria’s new official community plan, unveiled last week, calls for transportation systems that prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and people using public transit.

Consider Quadra Village. As soon as you cross Hillside Avenue going south, the driving lane narrows, more vehicles are parked at the curb, more street plantings, arty, low-hanging street lamps and banners change the feel of the street. They immediately shift roadway priorities away from traffic toward the people who live, work, walk, cycle, shop and make the village viable.

Saanich’s draft plans for Shelbourne Street also call for an improved focus on people. In the past, transportation planning along the corridor focused on vehicles, as many as 25,000 of which travel the street daily, en route from somewhere else to points beyond. Walking and biking routes are piecemeal. The plans now being considered recognize that communities along Shelbourne Street need to be retrofitted to serve people and these multiple uses.

They manifest a paradox known as psychological traffic-calming, or playing with drivers’ minds to slow them down.

Each street is designed to encourage a certain speed, regardless of what is posted. Wide lanes, wide road beds, expansive fields of view, separate and marked pedestrian areas all signal to drivers that the road belongs to them, and invite them to travel at higher speeds. Installing speed bumps, signs with speed limits, lights, signals and bike lanes often have less effect than they should.

But with psychological traffic-calming, traffic engineers induce drivers to slow down by deliberately making streets appear more dangerous to drive on.

Common tactics include those seen in Quadra Village and elsewhere: making lanes and roadways narrow, removing signals and turn lanes, and increasing roadside parking. This brings people and cars into closer contact. It also tends to result in slower traffic and fewer accidents. Planting roadside trees and flowerbeds, installing sculptures and benches, and improving pedestrian spaces also make the road feel less like the Indy 500 and more like a village street.

One British study found that removing centre lines from roads in a town caused drivers to proceed more slowly and with greater caution, cutting the number of accidents by 35 per cent. Another study, from Chicago, showed that when multiple lines were painted across highway exit lanes and ramps, drivers slowed down more and had fewer accidents — again, about 35 per cent fewer — while exiting.

The psychology involved uses the effect of uncertainty on our behaviour. Uncertainty makes us become more alert to what’s going on around us. It makes us use greater caution. If we’re driving, it makes us slow down.

Without the usual traffic signs and signals, passage on the roadway becomes a negotiation between individual users. For example, to determine who has the right of way at intersections, drivers must communicate on a human level with pedestrians, cyclists and other users. They make eye contact, and suddenly, for fleeting, crucial moments, every road user involved becomes a person.

Of course, these tactics are not appropriate on every roadway. Highway 1 past McKenzie Avenue or Highway 17 north of the Saanich Municipal Hall are meant to be high-speed transportation corridors — even if that transportation crawls during workday commuting times.

And driver inexperience and distraction can also negate the best effects of psychological traffic-calming. But the tactics work with the majority of drivers.

Communities can take back the streets by implementing people-focused design. And when they do, the spaces they create invite neighbours, visitors and those just passing through to linger, have a coffee and get to know each other.

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