Atlantic Cities

What Happens When a Town Puts People Before Cars?

What Happens When a Town Puts People Before Cars?
WNY Heritage Press

Nearly three years ago, a Minnesota man named Charles Marohn published a piece called "Confessions of a Recovering Engineer" on the blog of his not-for-profit organization, Strong Towns. In it, he describes the priorities that he learned in his training as an engineer: first comes speed; then traffic volume; then safety; then cost.

Following those principles, Marohn was designing wider, faster roads to cut through the hearts of American towns. He discovered that the people in those towns often pushed back, asking why trees and sidewalk space had to be sacrificed in order to widen the road, and how their children could possibly be safer with cars whizzing by at top speed.

Armed with the prestige of his chosen profession and a pile of studies and guidelines that explained why bigger was always better, Marohn would explain that "these standards have been shown to work across the world," and that people who objected to the loss of trees and yard space and peace for their families were simply wrong.

Then, unlike many engineers, he started thinking about the human consequences of what he was doing:

In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a fourteen foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continuously. Why?

The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard.

Marohn, as the title of his piece implies, has rejected the standards he learned in school. He now travels the country spreading the word that things can be done differently – that America’s towns and cities can build streets that are safe and operate at a human scale, the old-fashioned way, and that they can save money and bolster their economies in the process.

That’s exactly what the village of Hamburg, in upstate New York, has done. According to an article in the New York Times, the leaders of this community of 10,000 rejected the proposed widening of U.S. Route 62, the local main street, back in 2001. After consulting with Dan Burden, a nationally known advocate for walkable communities, village residents approved an alternative plan by a vote of four to one.


Main Street. Image courtesy of Gurney, Becker and Bourne Real Estate.

Main Street was rebuilt not as a high-speed funnel for cars, but instead as a pleasant shopping street with narrower traffic lanes, trees, and ample sidewalks. Roundabouts replaced intersections, and in the two years after construction was completed in 2009, crashes were down by 66 percent and injuries fell by 60 percent. "Accidents in [the roundabouts] need a tow truck, not an ambulance," a transportation department official told the Times.

Property values in the once-fading downtown have doubled and local business owners are investing millions in new projects. New residents have been attracted by the appeal of a village center where a simple walk up and down Main Street is a pleasure rather than something to be endured. Hamburg was, like many American towns and cities in the Rust Belt, in decline. Now it is thriving.

The improved quality of life and revived economic health of Hamburg echo the experience of Poynton in the United Kingdom, where a traffic-calming “shared streets” plan has rescuscitated a formerly traffic-choked village center.

The 20th-century model of traffic engineering is not only outdated, but is also downright hazardous to public health and economic development. Every year, communities around the world are demonstrating that there is another way. Treating a community’s streets like a sewage system that flushes cars through quickly and efficiently has been a disastrous experiment. How many more towns and cities will be gutted before the standards that Marohn learned in engineering school are scrapped?

Top image: Main Street. Images Courtesy of Western New York Heritage Press.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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