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Cars, or People? Re-Thinking Connecticut Road Design

Feb 6, 2015

When it comes to road design, more productive cities prioritize people over cars, according to Charles Marohn of the Minneapolis non-profit Strong Towns. 

Here in the United States, Marohn said, our roadways put cars before people. 

Norm Garrick, Associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
"We need to design for safety. We need to design for the context."
Norm Garrick

The same is true for Connecticut.

Speaking on WNPR's Where We Live, UConn engineering professor Norm Garrick said road design ties back to how we value our cities.

He used Hartford as an example. 

"Is it just a place we want to get people out quickly as possible?" Garrick said. "A city needs to consider where its value lies, what’s important to make it function as a place, rather than a place where people just come in or out."

Garrick noted that the highway-like design of Asylum Avenue in Hartford doesn’t support local businesses, and is not pedestrian-friendly.

Asylum Avenue in Hartford.
Credit Ryan King / WNPR

Different By Design

Marohn said there are fundamental differences between streets and highways: highways connect places, while streets connect people.

I-84 through Hartford.
Credit State of Connecticut
Charles Marohn speaks at TEDx1000Lakes in Grand Rapids, MN in 2011.
Credit TEDx1000Lakes / Creative Commons
"When we design with a mindset that forgives the driver, what we fail to do in urban areas is forgive everyone else." Charles Marohn

“We describe streets as the platforms we use to create value in places. [They’re the] first and last mile of each trip,” Marohn said.

Marohn said that streets and highways need fundamentally different design.

“When we build a highway, we employ techniques of forgiving design. The idea is that we want to forgive the mistake the driver makes,” Marohn said.

Highway designers build wide lanes and shoulders, making room for minor slip-ups. 

But when highway design is applied to streets, Marohn said it encourages drivers to drive faster and doesn’t take into consideration the different functions of streets or the addition of pedestrians or businesses.

"If you just look at cars: cars stop; they turn," Marohn said. "They do all sorts of things you don't have on a highway… When we design with a mindset that forgives the driver, what we fail to do in urban areas is forgive everyone else."

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy recently announced his plans to widen the often-congested I-95, and his intention to introduce legislation that would fund transportation projects.

Marohn said we won’t solve congestion by making roadways wider. "Trying to solve congestion by making roads wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants," he said. "It’s not a supply-and-demand problem.”

Garrick said that both of the governor's plans may be a mistake.   

“Transportation is not divorced from the larger society. Why should we dedicate funds just to building stuff, when it’s about the land use, it’s about all kind of health issues. We need to have a more holistic view of transportation,” Garrick said.

Matts Belin said that if a car hits a pedestrianat a speed over 31 mph (50 kph), there is an 80% chance of fatality, but under 19 mph (30kph), the rate drops to 20%.
Credit Ryan King / WNPR

An Alternative Approach

Matts Belin, project manager at the Vision Zero Academy in Sweden, offered some solutions for road transportation problems on Where We Live using Sweden’s “Vision Zero” program as a template.

"If you take a traditional approach, the problem that you try to solve is the problem with accidents," Belin said. "…but with Vision Zero, the problem is not [that people get in] accidents, the problem that we try to solve is the problem that people get killed or seriously injured."

According to Belin, people get killed because the system is not designed for human errors. In urban areas, Vision Zero limits vehicles to speeds that cannot kill pedestrians if accidents occur.

Garrick said this is a good idea. "In the U.S., we design so that people can go as fast as they desire," he said. "The change in Sweden -- and other places in Europe, such as the Netherlands -- is that we need to design for safety. We need to design for the context."

Ryan King is an intern at WNPR.