Use these tools to save lives:
Quick, low-cost, effective street redesigns

by Vision Zero Network August 3, 2022 in News

Guest Author: Niko Letunic

NYC Asphalt Art Activations: “Birds – Eye View” by Mary Carter Taub. Photo credit: NYC DOT.

As communities across the U.S. experience tragic increases in roadway deaths and injuries, more people are recognizing that it does not have to be this way. In fact, we have the tools to redesign public spaces to be less car-dominated and to align with community goals for safety, health, equity and accessibility.

Some longtime impediments to safer streets, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, have been the time and costs involved in the traditional approach. Time-consuming studies, overly restrictive guidelines and high price tags have thwarted progress and, literally, caused suffering and cost lives and suffering. But it does not have to be this way.

An increasingly common and effective way around these obstacles is “quick-build” street redesigns. These use low-cost materials such as paint, signs, pavement markings, plastic bollards and movable planters to tighten intersections, narrow travel lanes, calm traffic and create more space and visibility for people walking and biking.

Quick-build designs can be deployed quickly, easily and inexpensively. (Check out our resource on representative costs of quick-build options.) And they can be used to test concepts and pilot new approaches, as well as to gauge impacts and effectiveness in real time. Their temporary, or semi-temporary, nature means that designs can be tweaked and refined as necessary, which helps build community and political buy-in for the changes.

Communities nationwide now have an unprecedented opportunity to obtain funds for quick-build projects. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s new Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program is accepting applications from local, regional and tribal agencies through September 15, 2022 to fund roadway safety projects that  focus on people walking, biking and using micromobility. Excitingly, funds can be used not only for permanent improvements but also for pilot, demonstration and quick-build projects. See our helpful explainer on the SS4A grant program with tips on how to make the most of this new funding source. (And, no, projects that increase capacity for motor vehicles are not eligible.)

Quick-build street designs can take a lot of different (and sometimes overlapping) forms. To get your creative juices flowing, here are some ideas and suggestions, including both conventional as well as more innovative ones — and including links to sample resources for inspiration. Really, the only limit is your imagination (and political will, of course). Surely at least some of these safety elements are right for your community?:

  • Narrowing intersections: Tightening the intersection by shortening crossing distances, slowing down turning cars and improving drivers’ visibility of people walking and biking. This can include adding corner bulbouts, which can be designed with low-cost materials such as planters and soft posts. See here, here and here.
  • Daylighting intersections: Improving visibility by removing car parking directly at the intersection. The freed-up space can be used for plants, street art, bike parking or other uses. See here.
  • Mini roundabouts: These are traffic circles (sometimes landscaped to beautify the street) that lower speeds at minor intersection crossings, often replacing stop signs. See here, here and here.

    Mini roundabout aka Seattle’s neighborhood traffic amoeba. Photo credit: Seattle DOT.
  • Parklets: Sidewalk extensions into the parking lane that provide seating, gathering space and other amenities. These can be constructed quickly and easily with quick-build materials. See here, here and here.
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on the event of lowering citywide speed limit (source)

    Trees in the parking lane: Sidewalk space can be extended easily by placing trees or plants between parking spaces at regular intervals, which visually narrow the street and provide more buffer for people on the sidewalks. See here, here and here.

  • Intersection murals: These, along with painted crosswalks and other forms of street art, contribute to neighborhood vibrancy while serving as visual cues to drivers to slow down. See here, here and here.
  • Buffered bike lanes: These are otherwise conventional bike lanes separated from moving cars by a painted buffer. See here, here and here.
  • Cycle tracks: Also known as protected bike lanes, these are physically separated from moving cars by soft posts, planters, “armadillos” or other similar means. See here, here and here.
  • Chicanes: Offset curb extensions or islands that narrow the street and require vehicles to follow a curving path, slowing them down to safer speeds. See here, here and here.
  • Lower posted speed limits: This is another tool to calm traffic and create more safe, welcoming space, especially for people walking and biking. This is best if done in tandem with street design changes, such as those above or in the list below. A few examples: Boston, MA; Seattle, WA; St. Paul, MN; Portland, OR.

These components can be used in combination with each other, either as pilots or ongoing quick-fix solutions. And they can be paired with other, robust proven safety measures, including:

  • Road diets: “Narrowing” a street by removing excess travel lanes and using the freed-up space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, a center turn lane or other uses. See here, here and here.
  • School Streets: Car traffic is limited on a few streets surrounding schools during drop-off and pick-up times in order to improve safety and encourage more walking and biking trips. This can be accomplished with low-cost, moveable materials such as cones, signage and youth-developed art pieces. See here, here and here.
  • Play Streets: This is a way to create safe spaces for play and active recreation by dedicating streets, usually for a few hours at a time, to neighborhood activities, using low-cost, moveable materials such as cones, signage, art pieces or play structures. Local-only traffic is permitted. See here, here and here.
  • Slow Streets: Similar to Play Streets, traffic speeds and volumes are reduced in order to prioritize walking, biking and community interaction. This is on an ongoing, regular basis. See here, here and here.

    Denver’s Slow Street. Photo credit: Denver Streets Partnership.
  • Streets for neighbors (or “superblocks,” a concept as pioneered in Barcelona, Spain): These are Slow Streets scaled up. They are sizable areas of contiguous traffic-calmed blocks where walking, biking and neighborhood gathering spaces are prioritized. Slow, local car traffic is allowed, as are emergency and delivery vehicles, but through-traffic is prohibited and is instead directed to arterials on the periphery. See here, here and here.

Wondering why so many of these proven safety measures focus on slowing drivers down? It’s because when it comes to safety, speed matters most.

So, don’t let the usual excuses of “It’s too costly” or “It’s too much work” deter your efforts to keep people safe. The tools exist today to address your community’s unsafe streets situations in faster, easier and effective ways. And the funding is available – more here. No more excuses.

When it comes to safety: No excuses.

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