7 Proven Principles for Designing a Safer City

Ben Welle
The City Fix
July 23, 2015

Traffic accidents kill more than 1.2 million people every year, nearly the same amount that die fromHIV/AIDS. But there’s an undervalued approach to making the world’s roads safer—good urban design.

While most traffic safety initiatives tend to focus on behavioral approaches—such as helmet- and seatbelt-wearing campaigns—a new publication from the EMBARQ sustainable mobility initiative of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities finds that seven design principles can help cities dramatically reduce road deaths. Here’s a visual look at how local officials and planners can design safer and more sustainable urban environments:

1.  Avoid urban sprawl.

Cities that are connected and compact are generally safer than cities that are spread out over a large area. Compact Stockholm and Tokyo have the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world—fewer than 1.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. Sprawling Atlanta, on the other hand, has a death rate six times that, at 9 fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Cities should aim for smaller block sizes, pedestrian-oriented streets, and dense housing that allows for convenient, walkable access to transport, entertainment and public spaces. Doing so reduces the need for car travel and ensures a safe space for walking and cycling.

2.  Slow down road traffic.

Lower automobile speeds, particularly below 25-31 miles per hour (40-50 kilometers per hour) drastically reduce the risk of fatalities.

Cities can implement low-speed zones and “area-wide traffic calming,” including speed humps, curves in the road called chicanes, curb extensions and raised pedestrian crossings. Research shows that speed humps can reduce vehicle speeds from more than 22 mph (36 kph) to less than 15 mph (25 kph). Paris, for example, has been using this kind of tool to design roads citywide to meet 30 kph (19 mph) speed limits.

3.  Ensure main streets are safe for everyone, not just cars.

Ensuring safety is particularly important for main roads, where pedestrians and motorists often mix. A growing movement for “complete streets” means that all types of users have safe crossings and dedicated road space.

For example, refuge islands and medians give pedestrians a safe place when crossing the road. Mexico City found that for every one meter increase in unprotected road width, pedestrian crashes increased by 3 percent.  The city recently rebuilt its Avenida Eduardo Molina as a complete street, featuring dedicated transit, bike lanes and a green central median for pedestrians. Similar but less dramatic changes in street design in the city have resulted in a nearly 40 percent drop in fatalities.

4.  Create dedicated space for pedestrians.

More than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives each year on the world’s roads. If pedestrians lack quality space, they are exposed to greater risk. Basic sidewalk space is necessary, but pedestrian-only streets and street plazas can also be effective tools for protecting walkers.

In the past few years, New York City has led a global shift toward eliminating street spaces for cars and turning them into “street plazas,” improved sidewalks and car-free areas. For example, a large section of Times Square is now only accessible to walkers and cyclists.  The city saw a 16 percent decrease in speeding and a 26 percent reduction in crashes with injuries along streets with pedestrian plazas.

 

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