Narrowing the spectrum of street users



I’ve written several times about “Twenty is Plenty”, an initiative in many towns, mostly European but spreading toward U.S., to reduce speed limits on most streets to 20 miles per hour.  A recent sidewalk encounter gave me another reason to think that Twenty is Plenty is an enlightened concept.

One of my first household tasks each day is walking an elderly Golden Retriever.  Tyson will turn 15 in a couple of weeks.  (There are several different equations for converting dog years into human years.  By the equation I find most reasonable, Tyson’s 15 years will convert to 80 human years.)  At his age, he struggles with mobility and breathing, but a quiet amble around the block gives him needed exercise.

Also, it gives him a respite from sharing a house with two younger, rambunctious dogs.  He can stop and sniff a blade of grass as long as he wishes without another dog shoving him aside.

With his uncertain balance, a leash is often an encumbrance to him.  Plus, if he tries moving too quickly, falling down is the usual result.  So I let him walk unleashed much of the time.

Being unleashed, Tyson often finds a way to greet other early risers, wheedling for a kind word or a scratch behind an ear.  I usually try to keep him away, allowing his targets to continue with their mornings unimpeded, but he can be wily about avoiding my knee nudges.

Thus, a few mornings back, I was standing idly on the sidewalk with the leash folded in my hand, watching the old boy casually sniff an orange tree, when I was surprised by a handful of bicyclists streaming past me on the sidewalk, probably twelve-year-olds on their way to the nearby junior high school.

They were pedaling at a moderate pace, maybe 8 to 10 miles per hour and were giving me as much clearance as the sidewalk would allow.  However, my immediate concern was keeping Tyson, whose failing vision and uncertain hearing might fail to distinguish between a quicker-moving bicyclist and a slower pedestrian, from sticking his nose into the stream of bicyclists, seeking attention and getting a tire in his snout for his effort.

It was only as the last bicyclist slipped past and I secured a handhold on Tyson’s collar that I was able to direct an imperative toward the trailing rider, “In the street!”  To which his response, tossed over his shoulder as he continued on his way, was that his parents had told him the sidewalk was safer.

Well, of course the sidewalk is safer.  For them.  But their presence on the sidewalk greatly reduced the safety for elderly dogs taking morning moseys.  And perhaps also for the middle-aged owners tending to the elderly dogs.

Then I looked at the situation from the perspective of the parents.  If I had a twelve-year-old child, would I want him riding a bicycle on a street that is often a route for speeding and/or distracted drivers?

And even if I could convince myself that a twelve-year-old would be okay on the street, what about a nine-year-old, the age at which bike riding to the nearby elementary might begin to seem appropriate?

I began riding a bike to school at age nine.  But my route didn’t include streets as busy as the street on which I now live.  And even then it took me only eight weeks to find myself lying in the street next to my bike with the skin scraped from my nose and a milk truck turning the corner toward me.  (You can tell my age by the fact that milk trucks were still doing home deliveries in my youth.)

As you presumably guessed, the truck driver stopped in time.  He also helped dust me off and send me on my way home, on foot, for cleanup and bandages.

But the experience stuck with me.  And I’d have a hard time sending a nine-year-old on a bike into the street in front of my home.  And that would be a shame because I’d want that nine-year-old to have the personal freedom to find his own way to the nearby elementary school.  It’s even possible that, with training and safety warnings, I’d encourage the nine-year-old to use the sidewalk instead of the street, even if it endangered elderly dogs and middle-aged walkers.

I’ve previously written about the challenge of allocating street users across a right-of-way, recounting an anecdote from an Oregon project with which I was involved many years ago.  The problem is taking the wide spectrum of users, from senior citizens using walkers to inattentive drivers edging above the speed limit, and dividing them into two streams, one using the street and one using the sideway, in a way that minimizes the risk to all.

It’s not a problem with an easy solution.  And it finds me putting twelve-year-old bicyclists on the roadway with speeding motorists and nine-year-old bicyclists on the sidewalk, endangering seniors with walkers, neither of which feels right.

One way to simplify the challenge is to reduce the spectrum of street users.  Obviously, we’re not going to speed up seniors with walkers, but what if we slow the motorists?  What if we drop speed limits from 30 mph to 20 mph?  How does change the allocation of users?

Personally, I’d be more comfortable letting a nine-year-old ride a bicycle in a street where the speed limit is 20mph.  Not only is the speed differential between the cars and bicycles reduced, but drivers are more able to respond to bicyclists when traveling at the lesser speed.  And that change improves the safety for both seniors with walkers and elderly dogs.

All of which is consistent with what the Twenty is Plenty folks have been telling us for awhile.

It’s always interesting where encounters during early morning dog walks and the resulting cogitations will lead.  In this case, it led to a new way to justify that Twenty really is Plenty.

Next time, I’ll write about the relationship between urbanism and environmentalism, a relationship on which I seem to have a different perspective than some.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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