by: Jay Walljasper
For most of this century, traffic has been seen as an inevitable by-product of progress. We might long nostalgically for the calm and quaintness of life before the automobile, but most Americans seemed thrilled at the possibility of going more and more places in less and less time. Now, though our passion for speed seems to be slowing down . Indeed, in many American towns and cities, citizens are rising up to do battle with politicians, business interests, and bureaucrats who are pushing the inexorable spread of asphalt.
This asphalt rebellion, explains Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing (October, 1997 ), “ignited in many different places at virtually the same time” and has become “a full fledged protest movement.....[concerned with the ] broader subject of how streets and highways are designed and built in America and the way those decisions affect communities and individual lives.”
It has grown into a rebellion against an entire half-century of American engineering ideology, and against an obscure but immensely important book: A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets.
This book, published by the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), is the bible of the traffic engineering profession, and its guidelines are frequently invoked to wave aside citizen’s concerns about what road “improvements” might mean for a neighborhood.
The growing legion of asphalt rebels contends that aesthetics, property values, and a sense of community don’t matter to most traffic engineers, who care only about how much more cement pavement it will take to keep the cars moving quickly. Traffic engineers note that safety plays an important role in their decisions, citing numerous studies that show wider lanes and four-lane roads prevent traffic accidents.
But, the safety issue cuts several ways. Asphalt/concrete activists point out that many street and highway upgrades make travel far more dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians----especially children and old people, who have a lot of trouble crossing wider streets with faster traffic. In New York City, the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 is being hit by cars). And, they question whether designing streets to accommodate drivers traveling well above the posted speed limit, as the AASHTO guidelines require, ultimately promotes the safety of motorists instead of children
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