Want Safer Streets? Transportation Engineer Says Redesign Urban Landscape

Jun 4, 2017
Originally published on June 1, 2017 3:56 pm

Tallahassee has seen a string of pedestrian deaths and injuries, with one of the most recent incidents happening over the Memorial Day weekend. But these casualties don’t have to be as common as they are. WFSU sat down with a transportation engineer who has ideas on making city streets safer.

Over Memorial Day weekend a pedestrian died, as a result of the injuries sustained from a car accident at the corners of Bradford and Thomasville Roads. This part of Thomasville Road is a six-lane highway. Speeds are posted at 45 miles per hour. And it’s a relatively urban spot, with a string of shops at Betton Place, and it sits just a stone's throw from Winthrop Park and Whole Foods. It’s a place where you would expect people to be walking around. And on an early Thursday morning, they are.

But automobiles didn’t always rule the streets.

Rick Hall is a transportation engineer in Tallahassee, with a sunny office in an old brick house just a few blocks up the road. When it comes to making roads safer, he takes the long-view. When automobiles first came on the scene, streets were full of pedestrians, cart animals and trolleys.

“It was a different world altogether,” Hall said.

You can watch Library of Congress footage of Chicago in 1897 here, largely devoid of cars. And catch a glimpse of San Francisco here circa 1905.

Cars were not unlike horse-drawn carriages: rickety and open air. But also unfamiliar, unreliable, and dangerous.

“There were parades in New York City of 100,000 people in a parade and they were irate about the number of fatalities on the streets. The kids were getting killed," Hall said. "So it clearly paints a picture that it was a very torrid and difficult battle to get this transformation where the autos were dominant and the people were forced to get back on the sidewalk.”

He highly recommends Peter Norton’s book called Fighting Traffic, for people who want a primer on this. Hall says the rise of the automobile transformed the cities around them. And the people in them.

“I have a better stereo in my car than I do in my home. People have a lot of…comfort there. If they want to smoke, they can smoke. One of the few places you can," Hall said. "And so we’ve lost contact with the reality of what’s happening on the street. And that includes the pedestrians.”

But urban design is a two-way street.

“People will drive more slowly in a more urban environment that is older and more traditional,” he said.

Drivers pick up on environmental cues that shape their behavior.

“Think College Avenue, Monroe Street downtown. The buildings are to the back of the sidewalk, then you have the sidewalk, then you have street trees, then you have parked cars. In many cases. And when you have that arrangement, people will stay in the 20 to 30 mile per hour speed range,” Hall said.

And Hall says that deceleration is important.

“Speed is the main culprit. It’s the number one issue. It’s the number two issue. It’s the number three issue. Speed, speed, speed,” He reiterated.

Hall says the risk of injury rises exponentially, the faster the car is going.

“If you are unfortunate enough to be hit by a vehicle that is traveling at 10 mph you have only a 5% chance of being a fatality. And then at 20 miles per hour it goes up to about 50 [percent]. And at 50 it goes up to about 80 [percent],” Hall said.

When it comes to reshaping our environment, transportation designers rely on three main tactics: engineering, education, and enforcement.

“The police can’t do it alone, the engineers can’t do it alone, and the education force in the middle can’t do it…it has to be an attack by all three,” he said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is currently revising how it sets speed limits and design standards for streets throughout the state. Hall says the policy shift called the Complete Streets Implementation could transform Tallahassee's streets in a way that makes them more walkable and accessible for pedestrians.

The Tallahassee Police Department is still investigating the incident at the intersection of Thomasville and Bradford Roads. Hall says he can’t offer more concrete solutions without the details. But in the meantime, try driving slower. Roll down your windows. Maybe even go for a walk.

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