Advice for Turning Dangerous State Roads Into Safe City Streets

Many city streets like Memorial Drive in Atlanta, above, are controlled by state DOTs, which makes it harder -- but not impossible -- to make walking and biking safer. Photo:  ThreadATL
Many city streets like Memorial Drive in Atlanta, above, are controlled by state DOTs, which makes it harder -- but not impossible -- to make walking and biking safer. Photo: ThreadATL

It’s extra challenging to redesign a city street for safe walking and biking when that street is controlled by the state DOT. State highway departments tend to be concerned primarily with funneling cars long distances — not creating streets that meet local needs.

That’s the case with Memorial Drive in Atlanta, a dangerous state road that runs more than five miles across the city. Despite a general consensus that the street should be safer for walking, several patchwork local plans have yet to comprehensively address the hazards. But now an effort to tie everything together and work with the state DOT on the whole length of this urban thoroughfare is making headway.

Darin Givens of ThreadATL interviewed Greg Giuffrida of Central Atlanta Progress, who is leading the campaign to overhaul Memorial Drive. He offered this advice:

With [Georgia DOT], it’s difficult to go to them and say ‘we want to change this one mile of road’ — they look at the whole route. They’re running a statewide and regional transportation network. And if you’re not framing things in a way that responds to that, you’re probably not going to have as much luck as you could in getting the kinds of changes you want to see on the road.

The full post is well worth a read for anyone working to change a state road that runs through your neighborhood. Givens concludes with these thoughts:

Neighborhoods have to follow a separate route — often a long and complex one — to get changes made to those state routes. Sometimes you have to work through the local community improvement district as a channel for public engagement, rather than city officials. For the sake of safety and good connections for pedestrians and cyclists, it’s worth the effort. We shouldn’t throw our hands up and say “well it’s a state road, so we’re helpless.” But we have to know the differences and the details in order to make our voices heard and our efforts count.

More recommended reading today: Pricetags considers how streets designed for speed are especially unforgiving for people who use wheelchairs. And the Urban Edge reports on a study of job access challenges for carless workers in greater San Diego.

  • Brenden Resnick

    This makes me wonder if, more for larger cities, should be able to assume control of state streets if they choose, with an extra funding mechanism in place. It would be much easier to get moving on projects but of course, they’d still all need approval by the state DOTs.

  • Joe R.

    One obstacle to making any major changes on roads like this is current settlement patterns and the distances people have to commute. For example, if you’re currently driving 10 miles each way to work on one of these roads maybe it takes 20 minutes (assuming an average speed of ~30 mph). Now if you start making changes needed to make the road safer for vulnerable users, like lower speed limits, more frequent signalized crossings, and so forth you may well get the average travel speed down to 15 mph. Now that 10 mile commute takes 40 minutes instead of 20 minutes. This is what usually stops these projects dead. People in many areas have no real alternatives to driving, and they’re not going to be very receptive to something which adds 40 minutes a day to their commute.

    The bottom line is if we want safer streets I think we need to focus on changing settlement patterns first. Put more jobs closer to residential areas. Have more mixed use zoning. And also have rail transit on dedicated right-of-ways whenever possible. If people have a real alternative to driving which gets them to work in the same amount of time as now then they might be more receptive to changes which make these roads slower.

  • AMH

    Memorial Drive? I assume the name is an homage to all the people who’ve died using it.

  • SF_Abe

    First fix regional zoning and development patterns, then we might stop running over your children to save 20 minutes.

  • It’s already possible and common in California.

  • Al Mundy

    The point of higher speeds is not just the convenience of the drivers but also the fact that higher speeds mean greater road capacity. It’s the same with high-speed rail – the real goal is capacity and not timing.

    DOT’s have a mandate to keep the traffic moving because that has a large economic benefit. Slower speeds means lower capacity and lower economic output.

    We’d all like roads that are nicer and safer, but there is a tradeoff against productivity and capacity.

  • Al Mundy

    But only within limits. San Francisco struggles to make changes with state roads like Van Ness and 19th Avenue. The result is usually a compromise and not what the city and its voters really want.

  • SF_Abe

    Oh, I see. Those people died for a good cause. No problem as long as the GDP went up 😀

  • Al Mundy

    Safety is important but so are other things, so the reality is that there is always a tradeoff and a compromise. Ultimately it is up to the voters to decide what kind of community and city they want to have, and what level of accident rate they find to be acceptable.

    Without economic activity and a tax base, you can’t have anything else.

  • SF_Abe

    My god is a great god. He need to eat a few children every now and then, but he’s really actually good.

  • Al Mundy

    I hope you have a better argument than that if you seek to convince voters to totally change the way they think, what their priorities are, and what they are comfortable with.

    Joe made some good points. All you have come up with is maudlin, sanctimonious twaddle.

  • Then it sounds like SF needs better leaders because I know of numerous state routes that have been relinquished by Caltrans and more that are in the works.

  • SF_Abe

    Good points are important, but so are other things…

    Snark aside, I could quote statistics and provide counter-arguments, but if those worked we’d already have safe streets. I’m not interested in being a foil to your Debate Skills, I’m interested in getting to the core point of view that you and Joe R seem to be saying: that it’s ok to kill some people for economic activity. I do not agree with that viewpoint and I don’t think that most people really do– we’re all just good at pretending that we’ve made a different deal.

  • Al Mundy

    Most people vote and, if your view prevailed, then you’d have your way

    The reality is that most voters would prefer a 0.01% risk of an accident versus the 100% guarantee of delays and congestion if we really wanted zero fatalities, which we do not.

    Compromise.

  • SF_Abe

    You assume an awful lot there (most people vote? 100% guarantee of delays?). But, really, you’re demonstrating a talent for avoiding the basic choice here– couching it in statistics and passive voice as if it were the weather forecast. The issue is whether convenience and speed is worth the loss of human life. A daughter or a brother or a spouse. How many people would you kill to shave ten minutes off your commute?

  • Al Mundy

    The issue is how a majority of voters weigh safety against other factors like time , convenience, stress-free travel etc.

    The answer will vary by person, but my sense is that you weigh safety higher than most voters. The risk of any individual dying in a road accident is still very low, whereas the risk of delays and congestion if we did everything you want is very high.

    Your problem is with the voters and their preferences. The DOT basically just does what the voters want.

  • SF_Abe

    My sense is that you weigh your personal convenience higher than the safety of other people.

    OK, so now people have to die (or have their lives seriously disrupted by injury) for the sake of convenience and “economic gain.” Surely that economic gain doesn’t go to the people who make this sacrifice, so let’s think about this: who will be hurt, and for the benefit of whom? The people who choose to drive will likely reap most of the benefit, and people outside of cars will probably bear the brunt of injury and death. Is it ok for each group’s vote to weigh the same?

    Someone (could be anyone) might be able to happily and enthusiastically argue online for a convenience that someone else must pay for, but that doesn’t make it right.

    (and just for the record, the risk of an individual dying in a collision with a car on the streets of San Francisco is 100%. It happens about 20 times a year, and on average three people are struck by an automobile every day in this city.)

  • Al Mundy

    OK, let’s take your number. If 20 people die each year in SF then that is a rate of 1 in 40,000. (Assume SF population to be 800,000).

    Let’s put that in perspective. The US Weather Service determined that the risk of being struck by lightening is 1 in 6,250. So the risk on SF roads is less than that from lightning.

    And presumably some of those 20 deaths were in vehicles, so were not pedestrians or cyclists. So part of the risk is to themselves and not others.

    This isn’t about how I see things individually, nor about how you see them. It’s about what the majority of voters think about. Go to the voters in these cities with a proposal for a 15 mph speed limit everywhere, which would dramatically reduce traffic deaths, and it will lose by a country mile. There’s the challenge, right there. People think accidents are things that happen to other people.

  • SF_Abe

    We’re not talking about an act of nature, we’re talking about a system built by people– and rebuilt everyday that people choose to continue it. You just built a machine that kills 20 people a year. Congratulations…?

    (point of fact, the roughly twenty people I referred to before were people struck and killed by automobiles, not drivers. They were people who did not choose, or were not able, to participate in this system and did not receive its benefits).

  • Al Mundy

    I offered the 1 in 40,000 statistic not to dismiss the tragedy of those who did die, but rather to try and explain why the average voter does not perceive the risk of it being them as particularly high.

    If they did, they might think as you do and vote accordingly. But they do not.

    Correction noted. Not everyone is a cyclist and the odds of them being hurt is surely higher. But that is a purely optional activity. But everyone is a pedestrian so the number stands. 20 is too many, but it’s not a large number in relation to the 800,000 plus people who live there.

  • SF_Abe

    “If they did, they might think as you do and vote accordingly”

    I agree, so why are we trying so hard to abstract the fact that we have built a system that guarantees these deaths? What are the benefits being reaped? Who is Benefiting? Who is paying?

    We’ve never actually put our transportation system to a vote. Most people seem to think of it as part of the natural world (as you compared it to lightning), rather than something that was conceived and built by flawed humans– and can be made better.

    One time that we did put something like it to a vote, Prop L in 2014, voters rejected it by over 60%.

  • Spam Us

    Higher speed limits do not necessarily increase capacity (for various reasons), though obviously if there was a reduction in commute times that would increase productivity.

    Now I actually would agree that speed limits are somewhat of a tradeoff — nobody would die from a car crash if nobody drove but I don’t think anybody’s advocating for that.

    I think we have to look at whether that particular location would be appropriate to make more pedestrian oriented and moving other traffic via other routes which are less populated.