APA finds pedestrian-friendly streets are safer than conventionally-designed urban roads

News American Planning Association July 22, 2005
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A new article published in the summer 2005 edition of the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA), the scholarly journal of the American Planning Association (APA), reports fewer crashes and injuries occur on pedestrian-friendly streets than on more conventionally-designed urban roads.

“Safe Streets, Livable Streets,” written by Eric Dumbaugh, a doctoral candidate in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that pedestrian-friendly, “livable” streets are safer than streets designed with wider lanes and fewer roadside obstructions.

Livable streets integrate the needs of pedestrians and community development objectives into a roadway’s design. These streets often feature continuous sidewalk networks and aesthetic streetscape treatments to “buffer” pedestrians from oncoming traffic. Livable streets differ from the current road design approach, which calls for wider travel lanes and shoulders and roadside object offsets to enhance safety. The current approach to road design, termed “passive safety,” dates back to the 1960’s. It assumes that drivers will make errors and engage in unsafe driving behavior, and the best way to address safety is to design a roadway to be “forgiving” to such behavior through the use of high design values.

To determine whether such practices enhanced the safety of non-freeway urban streets, Dumbaugh’s study compared five years of crash data (1999-2003) from two sections of Colonial Drive (State Route 50), an arterial roadway that connects downtown Orlando, Fla., to its eastern and western suburbs. A 0.9-mile livable section of the drive was compared to a 0.9-mile conventionally designed section. The main difference between the two sections was lane widths and roadside object offsets.

The author found that the livable section of Colonial Drive had fewer mid-block and object-related crashes and injuries than the comparison roadway section. During the five-year analysis period in the livable section, not a single fatal mid-block crash happened, nor where there any mid-block injuries involving pedestrians.

To ensure the results were not unique, Dumbaugh examined the crash performance of arterial roadways in DeLand and Ocala, Fla., again selecting livable sections and comparison sections. After reviewing the crash data, Dumbaugh determined that “[l]ike Colonial Drive, the livable sections were generally safer for both motorists and pedestrians than comparison roadways.”

When discussing the implications of his findings, Dumbaugh stated that “although there is currently some professional disagreement about the safety effects of trees and other streetscape features, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that drivers adapt their behavior to the conditions of their surrounding environment. In areas where lower-speed, more cautious driving is warranted, such as in central business districts or along community main streets, livable street designs appear to encourage responsible driving behavior, resulting in fewer crashes and injuries. This research suggests that we need to move away from hypothetical crash scenarios and begin focusing on the actual behavior of real drivers.”

To improve roadway safety, Dumbaugh calls for linking roadway’s design to its environmental context. “Just because a particular design solution enhances the safety of freeways and Interstates does not mean it also will enhance safety on other types of roads. Most urban streets have radically different operating characteristics than freeways and the types of strategies that enhance safety along these roads will appear to differ as well. Fortunately, many transportation professionals are beginning to rethink the current approach to road design, and are developing new strategies for addressing the twin goals of safety and livability. Hopefully, by understanding the relationship between design, driver, behavior and safety, we can design roadways that are not only safe, but also livable.”

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