Special Report: Walkable Streets

Fast Networks, Slow Networks and Safety Through Negotiation

Safe street design accepts and embraces the idea that a slow network entails connections and interactions between people moving on it.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 17, 2011

To gain a better understanding of what's wrong with our streets today, we need to understand the assumptions that went into their design. To that end, I would like to define and contrast fast networks and slow networks, as conceived by the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman.

Fast networks are optimized for high-speed transportation between macro-destinations. They place top priority on maximizing the speed and volume of traffic. Incompatible uses are restricted so that they don't interfere with traffic flow, and the number of access points - places where people can turn on or off the highway - are severely limited and controlled.

The canonical fast network in Canada is a 400-series highway: multiple wide lanes, limited access points controlled by on- and off-ramps, traffic flows segregated by guard rails and wide medians, and a total ban on pedestrians, cyclists and other obstructions.

Slow networks, by contrast, are optimized for direct interaction and flexible movement using a variety of modes - including walking, cycling, transit and driving - among micro-destinations within a geographic area.

Slow networks are characterized by a high concentration of access points - cross streets, lanes, building entrances, and so on - and a dense concentration of local destinations. As such, traffic must move slowly to ensure both safety and accessibility.

Fast Network on Hamilton Streets

The high-speed, limited-access highway model works very well for fast networks like our highway system, which is designed to funnel large volumes of vehicles between cities. That same model becomes disastrous when applied to slow networks like the busy, multi-use streets of a city.

Main Street is a highway in all but name (RTH file photo)
Main Street is a highway in all but name (RTH file photo)

Unfortunately, that is precisely what we have done. Hamilton has designed its slow-network city streets to behave like fast-network highways. Here are some examples that illustrate what I mean:

Our traffic engineers justify all these design choices under the rubric of traffic flow. Again and again, the fast, efficient movement of cars through the city takes priority over every other potential use of our streets.

On-ramp at Queen and Aberdeen (RTH file photo)
On-ramp at Queen and Aberdeen (RTH file photo)

Mismatched Priorities

This standard fails us horribly when we apply it to a street that must necessarily mix transportation modes (walking, cycling, transit, driving) and include multiple access points (cross streets, lanes, parking lots, storefronts, and so on).

The problem is not pedestrians crossing the street. The problem is the assumption that fast, continuous through traffic flow at 50, 60, 70 km/h is a desirable goal inside a built urban neighbourhood. This is a recipe for collisions and pedestrian fatalities.

The kinetic energy of a vehicle is proportionate to the square of its velocity (KE = 1/2 mv2). Traffic collision studies reflect this: the collision fatality rate for pedestrians is 5% for vehicles traveling at 32 km/h and jumps to 85% for vehicles traveling at 64 km/h.

Vehicles traveling at higher speeds have not only a much higher chance of killing any pedestrians they hit, but also a higher chance of hitting pedestrians in the first place due to increased reaction time and longer stopping distances.

Again, traffic collision research clearly demonstrates this geometric correlation: a moving vehicle has about twice the risk of a casualty crash at 65 km/h compared to 60 km/h, and about four times the risk at 70 km/h compared to 60 km/h.

Because our traffic engineers are committed to traffic flow above all else, their response to these realities of physics is to restrict the movement of pedestrians so they are not allowed to get in the way of the traffic and risk injury - hence the bans on jaywalking and even on pedestrian crossings at signalized intersections.

This is ridiculous: people who live in cities have a reasonable expectation that they should be allowed to move freely through their own neighbourhoods. When pedestrians cross these restricted routes anyway and someone gets killed, the inevitable response is that pedestrians need to "be more careful".

Risk compensation on Archway Road, London

Contact and Negotiation

Our traffic engineers design streets with wide, straight lanes and no obstructions because that is the best way to make a fast network safe. However, this is just about the worst way to make a slow network safe.

Fast network street design - wide, straight lanes withs with no obstacles or barriers - sends a strong psychological signal to drivers to assume the path is clear and to speed up. When another vehicle, a bicycle or a pedestrian does appear unexpectedly in the way, a motorist with a fast-network mindset is less prepared to stop.

On a slow network street that mixes a variety of transportation modes with a high density of access points, engineering for safety means engineering a speed of traffic flow that is low enough to minimize both the risk of collision and the risk of injury/fatality if a collision occurs. More generally, engineering for safety means sending drivers a clear psychological signal to slow down and watch carefully for other people sharing the road - because there will be other people sharing the road.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the safest slow network streets are those streets that 'feel' dangerous enough to send drivers the psychological signal to slow down: opposing traffic, narrow lanes, curbside parking, marked bike lanes, frequent access points, and so on.

Perhaps more importantly, slow network design accepts and embraces the idea that a slow network entails connections and interactions between people moving on it. Whereas a highway system is designed to minimize the potential for contact between fast-moving vehicles, a slow network encourages it as a way of allowing people safely to negotiate their way through the network.

As Monderman, the engineer who pioneered the "shared space" approach to slow-network design, put it: "When you don't exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care."

With the City in the midst of developing a Pedestrian Master Plan, there is no better time than the present for us to formally shift our priorities away from traffic-flow-at-all-costs and toward the inherent safety of people moving through their communities via all modes.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By ilpo (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 09:43:26

Well stated. Nice lead-up to initiate the wind-up of the inner city "highway" system and integrate the people back with the streets along with the changes with the LRT construction! This is not to state that cars are not allowed but to state that cars must not be the be all end all of city streets. City streets need to include all users not only one type of user.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 09:49:21

As a fairly recent convert from the "get me through this hell hole to the safety of Westdale as fas as possible" school of thought, let me shout an enthusiastic Amen! to Ryan's article.

Around the time of the two-way conversions of James and John, I started spending less time speeding on our urban expressways and more time getting around town using more lively, normal roads such as Barton and Charlton. It doesn't take much longer, really. And it somehow feels less rushed - probably because when I have to slow down or stop, it's not such a shock.

This is a city; it's where we live. The downtown is part of where we live, even for those of us who live on the fringes. On the one hand, we shouldn't be speeding where we live. And on the other, it's nicer when we don't - for everyone.

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-03-17 09:52:28

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 09:56:20

I have been walking on James North a lot lately. There is an unsignalized pedestrian crossing a Robert St (by the Armoury). Cars actually stop, in both directions, to allow people to cross the road! There are no lights, no stop signs, just eye contact, a friendly wave and respect for those who share the neighbourhood.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:35:00 in reply to Comment 61040

I've noticed the unsignalled crossing on James too. You can almost sense the hostility, when people are slowed down when they have an expectation of speed. If you stop at an unsignalled cross for a pedestrian in Westdale at Bond St, you don't get much grief, but if you do it at the spot where the highway ends in front of Valentino's, you might get rear ended. The worst example was York St. in front of the Central Library/Market. I've seen people honk, and rev there engines disapprovingly if someone dared to slow down and park, causing them to wait or change lanes, at great inconvenience, into one of the four other fast moving lanes;) Since that conversion, I have seen a general calm, that makes it pleasurable to walk and bike.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:00:20 in reply to Comment 61059

Drivers are equally agitated when you hit the walk button at the signalled crossing on James North near Ferrie. Probably because there is only two signalled crossings between Burlington Street and Barton, so they're used to just flying right up there, over the rail bridge.

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By DBC (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:07:35 in reply to Comment 61068

I have rush hour drivers honk at me for having the audacity to slow and turn into my driveway during rush hour in the Durand neighbourhood.

There is really no GOOD reason for many of the streets that were converted to one-way overnight in the '50's to remain so today. They absolutely destroy neighbourhoods to accommodate individuals who only want to get through where you live as fast as they can. Just don't dare to do the same where they live.

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By dsahota (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 19:15:25 in reply to Comment 61071

I've actually had several rush hour drivers get out of their cars and threaten bodily injury / death upon me for slowing down to reverse into in my driveway on Queen St S (near Bold). If I don't reverse in its effectively impossible to ever get out of my driveway because the typical speed on Queen is 70 km/hr +.

Last May, one dude followed me onto my property and punched and kicked at my door while screaming racist obscenities at me. As with the other hate crimes I've experienced and reported to the Hamilton Police, the police completely ignored me and never followed up.

So much for the best place to raise children, maybe its different if your skin is the right color.

Apologies for the rant, your comment just brought back lots of bad memories :|.

Comment edited by dsahota on 2011-03-17 19:15:56

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 23:11:01 in reply to Comment 61122

At least you had a reason for "blocking" traffic for a few moments, they just had a temper tantrum and caused far more delay than you did.


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By Patsy (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 19:44:43 in reply to Comment 61122

I'm so sorry to hear that! The racial slurs are awful enough, but the anger just smacks of the 'culture of privilege' for drivers in this city. We NEED to seriously tame our streets if this city is ever going to be a good place to live and to raise a family.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:25:21 in reply to Comment 61040

yup, been that way ever since the two-way conversion. The only place in Hamilton where this happens. Imagine replicating that feeling (and safety) all through the lower city?

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:23:56 in reply to Comment 61040

This always shocked and amazed me in Dundas - people actually stopped for me to cross the road! It's a small thing (less common today), but it is part of what makes an area like Dundas desirable to live in.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:18:32

"encourage - continuous speeds in excess of 60 km/h". Source? I disagree.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 13:20:44 in reply to Comment 61050

The speed at which you can ride the wave is approx 55-60 km/h.

If I turn on to Main and just make a yellow, then if I don't want to get caught at a red I can travel at 65-70km/h until I get closer to the green wave, at which point I slow down.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 23:02:14 in reply to Comment 61092

And you can travel at 65-70km/h on a two way street as well. The difference is that if you do so on a one way street, you WILL hit a red light soon enough. On a two way street, there is the potential to do 65-70km/h, or more, indefinitely.

One has to wonder why you would do that. Why not just go 60? You'll make the next green anyway and you'll do so safer and use less gas doing so.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 23:17:35 in reply to Comment 61135

I fail to see how two way streets provide better synchronization than a one way street designed for it.

Why do 65-70? Because that way I'm far less likely to catch a red. Safety isn't really an issue as there are four or five lanes with excellent visibility and next to no traffic. Gas? If gas was an issue I wouldn't be driving the car I'm driving. :p

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:24:39

I was bored on my lunch yesterday and decided to take a walk down King, then across the parking lot beside Denningers and back up Main Street. I was surprised to notice some metered parking on the North side around Walnut. I think that the city should maybe look at adding more of this along Main Street. It does help a little bit to calm things down and buffer the pedestrians from the traffic. And as we all know, the city loves parking dollars.

I've always thought that Main street doesn't need a straight up conversion to two way, but rather traffic calming measures including on-street parking, bike lanes, de-synchronization of traffic lights and the removal of the "on-ramps" mentioned in this article. It should still stay one-way however.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:25:16

"The city's position is that pedestrians should walk several minutes out of their way to cross at the lights".

Out of their way? I doubt they said or implied that. Most people, with any sense, would choose to cross on their way. If crossings are indeed roughly a couple hundred meters away from eachother, then if someone is walking more than 200m from origin to destination, then there will be a crossing on their way. Do you see what I mean?

"City traffic engineers actually proposed putting up guard rails along Main Street to prevent pedestrians from "jaywalking", AKA crossing the street".

It seems to me that putting up guard rails would greatly help to improve pedestrian safety. Putting up guard rails is the one thing that would have the greatest impact on improving pedestrian safety. Not only would it impede pedestrians from crossing at improper locations, but it would impede cars from going onto the sidewalk and hitting people. If someone trying to improve pedestrian safety is against this, then I question what they're really trying to accomplish.

Comment edited by SpaceMonkey on 2011-03-17 11:28:42

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:44:37 in reply to Comment 61054

I have no interest in living in a city so dangerous and unsafe to walk around in that we need freeway guardrails on our sidewalks.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 14:11:55 in reply to Comment 61083

Jason, a comment like yours above makes no sense to me. If Hamilton's streets are dangerous, then shouldn't we be open to ideas to make them as safe as possible?

If our streets aren't dangerous, what is the problem?

Besides, who said anything about freeway guard rails?

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 14:46:52 in reply to Comment 61104

We make them safer by making them more like the reference to James North and the de-facto crosswalk above. Not by allowing the high speed traffic to continue, while attempting to herd pedestrians and put up 'protective' barriers. (like those stupid cattle herd fences on Main West by Mac). Urban streets are meant to be safe and allow for a multitude of interaction, crossings and modes of transportation. Freeways are designed for high speed traffic, and thus, have guardrails and restricted pedestrian use.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-03-17 14:47:39

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 14:23:15 in reply to Comment 61104

who said anything about freeway guard rails?

What other kind of guard rails would keep pedestrians from being able to cross, not the bollards you linked in another comment, maybe you want 8 foot frost fences put up along the street instead...

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:41:50 in reply to Comment 61054

If crossings are indeed roughly a couple hundred meters away from eachother, then if someone is walking more than 200m from origin to destination, then there will be a crossing on their way.

Well, not if they need to go, say, five blocks due North or South of Main.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:33:15 in reply to Comment 61061

Hey Moylek,

I see your point. However, even in a worst case scenario where someone starts their journey on main, mid way between two intersections, and plans to travel perfectly due north or south of main from their starting location, they might have to walk 100m (maybe even 200m?) to a crossing and then back 100m (maybe 200m?). I think that's reasonable.

My point was mostly that Ryan is exaggerating things to suit his argument.

If, however, one feels the desire to jaywalk because they'd rather not walk so far out of their way, then I believe it's much easier/safer to do so across a one way street rather than a two way. With one way streets, you're almost guaranteed to have a lull or even an extended gap in traffic every minute or so. This rarely, if ever happens on busy two way streets.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:33:30

I'd rather run the risk of one of those cars doing 70km/h killing me than have to walk kilometers of guardrail, myself.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:42:09 in reply to Comment 61058

What about a guard rail like this... http://www.google.ca/imgres?imgurl=http:...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:44:15

Love the Archway Road video.

Pedestrians will wait a reasonable amount of time for a red light. They'll avoid crossing a head-high fence.

Otherwise? You put a barrier in between them and their destination, and a lot of them are going to try and cross it. And why shouldn't they? A small detour is a long time on foot.

I wouldn't mind pedetrian barriers along Cannon and Main, but to protect the pedestrians as much as the driver. But it would interfere with street-side parking, and I think the city needs more of that, not less. It wouldn't stop jaywalking anyways, since the city treats non-signalized intersections as jaywalking, and you can't exactly put a wall across Pearl street... wait, I think they'd actually do that. Maybe I should shut up.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:57:21

Do you think that just maybe this 2 network theory is a bit of an over simplification? Maybe just maybe there are several more networks at play. If in your mind streets are either like the 401 through the north end of the GTA (12 lanes) or Arkell St. just off of Main then I can see why we so seldom agree.

There are in fact a wide variety of streets and thoroughfares at play in the typical city. Many more than can reasonably be put into just 2 groups.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:38:35 in reply to Comment 61066

Meister, How dare you question the author's judgment?! You have been promptly and rightly down voted (not by me).

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 13:09:09 in reply to Comment 61082

I guess I have always been an unruly child.
P.S. Great comment

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By bob lee (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 13:19:24

Great article Ryan. Hamilton, the city with a city bypass as its main street.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 13:56:23

Re: "Main Street is a highway in all but name"

It's that too – most people just don't refer to it that way.


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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 16:31:36 in reply to Comment 61101

Actually if you read the article you linked to you will see that Harris in all his infinite wisdom downloaded most of Hwy 8 to the City.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 14:34:05

They did actually put guard rails on the edge of the sidewalk, on the west side of James Street South. That stretch was supposed to be the up and coming area in the 70's when they designated that row of 1850's buildings to keep it as a shopping district. The streetscaping includes a useless area of cobblestone below sidewalk grade that you can't walk on, separated from the road with a steel chain running between posts. There is a break in the fence with steps leading down to the road opposite Augusta, but the crosswalk has faded and presumably it's no longer legal to cross there.

They didn't do anything to address it when they converted James to two way. However James North got wider sidewalks, bump outs and street parking, and as a result slower traffic, and it has become a great street to walk on.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 16:35:49 in reply to Comment 61108

James Sth. is such a mess that bump outs and wider sidewalks would pretty much stop traffic dead. Between all the buses, cars and taxis stopped to drop off or pick up people, stopped delivery vehicles and mail trucks traffic pretty much comes to a standstill at times now.

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 16:26:03 in reply to Comment 61108

In the early 90's the city installed green metal barricades along the sidewalks on Main between Dundurn and Queen. Unfortunately when a car did collide with one it had a "snowplow" effect and they were removed.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 20:20:44

If I'm not mistaken, there is still a freeway guardrail on John South, just south of Charlton on the west sidewalk. Nothing says 'safe, livable, urban neighbourhood' like highway barriers on your street.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 20:50:31

This is a city; it's where we live. The downtown is part of where we live, even for those of us who live on the fringes. On the one hand, we shouldn't be speeding where we live...

Yes, but it's a city like no other on the face of the earth!

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a city rep at one of the LRT open houses.

Me: I'm worried that if Main St. remains one-way, it will affect the economic spin off potential, and LRT critics will be proven right.

City rep: But it's an arterial road. It has to remain one way.

Me: Yonge St. is an arterial road and no one expects to do 60k unimpeded on Yonge St.

City rep: (crickets)

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2011 at 21:03:20

It's worth noting that if the picture in the article (Main @ Bay) were taken around four this afternoon, it would have featured a couple of crunched cars and a bunch of emergency vehicles.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 21:48:12

Pedestrians will take the shortest most convenient route to their destination. "Carrots" designed to encourage pedestrians to walk elsewhere, like signs, are largely ineffective. Similarly, "sticks" like barriers/guardrails and fences are of limited efficacy (as is seen in the video above).

The best example I can think of is Toronto, near union station, between the bus terminal and the train station - people run across that street, climb the barrier, and run across to the other side, despite the signs, and the barriers, even though the intersection is not even 30 metres away (or you could go up the stairs and over). People always take the shortest route, even where it's not safe. Acknowledge human nature, and move on to implementing solutions.

Cars, by contract, respond very well to both "carrots" (opening new high speed roads elsewhere) and "sticks" (converting roads to two way, introducing on-street parking, or making a street one-way in the wrong direction of their travel). They respond to "carrots" well because everyone is looking for a quicker route, and they respond to sticks well because they have no choice in the matter, you can't drive the wrong way into oncoming traffic, and you can't drive where cars are parked, etc.

While you could really screw over cars, and make the whole system a pedestrian utopia, the best solution is to design streets with pedestrians in mind, in order to achieve a reasonable compromise between pedestrians and vehicles, which is I think what Ryan is advocating.

Realize that pedestrians are much likely to want to take the shortest route, while cars pretty much have to put up with what you throw at them, and design a compromise solution that keeps them both happy and safe.

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 07:28:40

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Comment edited by hammertime on 2011-03-18 07:30:20

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 10:30:40 in reply to Comment 61140

You can have good traffic flow, or you can have healthy, vibrant, commercial streets that spur economic development and create jobs. You can't have both. Personally, I'll take the jobs and economic development. Why are you so anti-business?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:33:12 in reply to Comment 61153

Only anti SOME business, the trucking companies just LOVE our urban highways.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 21, 2011 at 21:24:35 in reply to Comment 61159

and yet none of them went out of business when they were all re-routed over the skyway during the York Blvd construction. the horror.

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