Transportation

“Twenty is Plenty” is more than a clever rhyme

141107001 E Washington Street

The subject promised for today has been shoved aside in favor of a subject that abruptly gained urgency.

I’ve previously written about the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  Adherents promote the argument that most vehicular speeds within towns should be limited to twenty miles per hour.  It’s a crusade that has gained a foothold in Europe, with some towns fully implementing the standard.

In the U.S., there has been less progress, but still some notable successes.  Although not all the way down to the target speed, New York City has dropped many street speed limits to twenty-five miles per hour in response to Twenty is Plenty supporters.  (Update: Hours after publishing this post, I came across news that Boston asked the state to allow them to adjust to a widespread twenty miles per hours.  The state allowed them to go with twenty-five miles per hour.)

It’s easy to think of the movement in an idealistic, bloodless way as creating better walkable places where cars are made less threatening.  But there is a real, flesh-and-blood public safety side to the concept.  I had a front row seat to observe that reality earlier today.

I was returning home, still feeling good about an extended lunch during which a companion and I hashed out strategies for the upcoming city council race.  I was driving on a major arterial in my town, at the far end of the road segment shown above.  There are two travel lanes in each direction, along with a center turn pocket.

As I approached a crosswalk often used by pedestrians, a long line of cars queued up to turn left partially blocked my view.  I couldn’t see if someone might be waiting to cross the street from the near left corner.

Consistent with the law and with common sense, I slowed to check.  Sure enough, there was a young family waiting to cross from left to right, a mother with an infant strapped to her chest, two toddlers being led by their hands, and a dog on a leash.  One of the toddlers was a blond girl of perhaps three.

Seeing me stop and with no traffic in the opposing direction, the mother began to lead her family across.  As she neared my car, I looked in my right hand mirror.  A car was quickly coming up in the right lane, above the speed limit, without visibility of the family on foot, and with no apparent intention to stop.

My options were limited.  In the seconds that were available, I had no way to attract the attention of the other driver.  I considered waving at the mother from my front seat, but wasn’t sure she’d see me through the windshield in the early afternoon sun.  So l defaulted to the only remaining option and leaned on my horn.

The mother looked up in puzzlement and pulled back slightly on her children’s hands as a dusty blue Ford Focus sped through the crosswalk, perhaps three feet from the little girl.

I’m not sure my actions made the difference.  It’s possible that the child would have been still been missed, although by a lesser margin, if I hadn’t spotted the onrushing car and hit my horn.  Regardless, the situation was all too real and I’m still shaken hours later.

At this point, many would facilely note the need to remain alert to pedestrians and think they’ve done all they can.  That response is useless.

To begin, the driver probably doesn’t read this blog or any other materials promoting traffic safety.  And even in the unlikely event that he does come across these words, I doubt he’ll see himself in the story told being told.  Based on how he continued to drive above the speed limit as he sped away, I don’t think he ever saw the little girl, even as she flashed by his driver’s side window.

Also, although the actions of this particular driver were beyond the pale, we all make mistakes.  Perhaps an engrossing conversation with a passenger keeps a driver from picking up the clues that pedestrians might be present.  And even at the posted speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour, the results can still be disastrous.

No solution is perfect, but the best approach is a system of changes to streets, including narrower lane widths, bulb-outs, and other traffic calming changes, that would pull traffic speeds down to twenty miles per hour.  Not only are pedestrians struck at lower speeds markedly more likely to survive, but drivers have more time to react to visual clues and to avert accidents.

Some will note that California state law doesn’t allow arterials to have speed limits of twenty miles per hour and that the city doesn’t have the resources to make the street modifications to slow traffic.  To which I can only reply that they haven’t seen a smiling toddler, happily tugging at her mother’s hand in one moment and nearly tossed into the air by a speeding car in the next.  Once that image has been seared into memory, impediments like state law and diminished municipal coffers seem less important.

Twenty is Plenty may be difficult to implement, but the alternative is even harder.

P.S. Through the vagaries of traffic flow, the blue Ford Focus was stopped by a traffic light a few blocks further ahead.  Although I couldn’t get close enough to see the face of the driver, I was able to get a license plate number.  I’ll forward it shortly to the local police, along with this story.

When I next write, I’ll update my list of upcoming chances for community involvement toward the furtherance of urbanism.  Perhaps there will be a chance to argue for Twenty is Plenty.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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