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Forward Motion: Transportation Planning

Growing Safer: Improving Roadways for Everyone

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Transportation projects travel a long road from concept to ribbon-cutting. Many hands, eyes, and heads are applied to each project along its journey, from policy-makers and community members to planners, financiers, and engineers. At each stage, the design and purpose of the project must be reiterated and interpreted by a different group of people.

Any engineer will tell you that his or her number one priority on any roadway design project is safety. All transportation planners know how critical it is to assess safety issues when they analyze the performance of a transportation corridor. Policy makers are sure to reference safety loud and clear on transportation mission statements. But do all of us define “safety” the same way? And what can we do if a strategy to improve safety for one group of roadway users, such as drivers, has the unintended effect of decreasing safety for other groups, such as pedestrians? …

Transportation Policies: Spell It Out

It’s no secret that America is an automobile-dominated country. When someone says “transportation,” most of us picture a road with cars and trucks on it. Moreover, the vast majority of our literature and research about planning and designing safe roadways is focused on improving vehicle mobility and safety. But over the past decade or so, growing numbers of forward-thinking communities and transportation agencies have adopted “complete streets” policies to make their roadways safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities traveling by all modes — pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, as well as drivers. Sidebar, Complete Streets.

The process of implementing a complete streets policy, however, can present planners and decision-makers with some difficult choices. A strategy focused on improving driver safety and mobility can end up making the roadway less safe for pedestrians. For example, adding a channelized right turn lane to a busy intersection may keep cars moving along, but it can lengthen the crossing distance for pedestrians and make them harder for fast-moving drivers to see. It is important to put these kinds of questions on the table when considering the consequences of roadway planning and design proposals.

Cities and towns that have adopted complete streets policies are asking new questions and coming up with innovative solutions to balance safety, mobility, and accessibility for all roadway users. By contrast, communities with more traditional policies that just refer to general roadway safety have less incentive to move beyond “default” mode in which vehicle mobility typically takes priority. As a result, important questions about the safety of other roadway users may not be raised.

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