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Traffic devastates local streets in more ways than you’d think

A new book advocates that streets should be places for community, not traffic.

Traffic devastates local streets in more ways than you’d think
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When it comes to the evolution of the modern cityscape, one thing is certain: The rise of automobility has inextricably changed the concept of a street from a place to stay in to a place to pass through. The sociability of those streets has been dramatically reduced as the volume and speed of motor vehicles increases. This is evidenced in the switch of the street from being a child space to an adult space, but also in the lack of familiarity with neighbors experienced by swathes of individuals the world over.

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[Photo: Curbing Traffic]
In 1974, nearly a third of Americans reported spending time with their neighbors at least twice a week. Forty years later, that number had been cut in half. Over the same period of time, the number of Americans reporting zero interactions with their neighbors has grown from 20% to almost 35%.

The definitive account of this phenomenon is found in a 2020 update to the 1981 book Livable Streets by urban designer and theorist Donald Appleyard. In the chapter “Streets Can Kill Cities: Third World Beware,” he coins the term auto-mania to warn the developing world of what he saw in U.S. cities, whose streets were dead from a social viewpoint. “The automobile, satisfier of private needs, demands, and whims, has created an insatiable demand for access, and a whole profession of planners and engineers both serving and further stimulating that demand. The result has been cities with streets and street systems dedicated to the automobile to the virtual exclusion of all other uses.”

Tragically, Appleyard was killed by a drunk driver in Athens just one year after his book was published, but since then, his son Dr. Bruce Appleyard, an associate professor at San Diego State University, has built on his father’s legacy. In 2020, he published Livable Streets 2.0, a further examination of the conflict, power, and promise of our streets. It includes a seminal 1971 study of three corridors in San Francisco, each similar in size and context but with varying volumes of traffic, exploring the impacts these levels have on the street’s sociability and livability.

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Because the focus of engineers is primarily on level of service—the mechanism used to determine how well a facility is operating from a driver’s perspective—there is little-to-no attention given to what it feels like to actually “exist” in that space outside of an automobile.The streets chosen for the study fell into three distinct categories: light (2,000 vehicles per day at 20 mph), moderate (8,000 vehicles per day at 25 mph), and heavy (16,000 vehicles per day at 35 mph). Residents were then asked to respond to specific questions focused on variables such as comfort, safety, noise, social interaction, and the overall identity of the street. Since they were published nearly 50 years ago, the results have proved incredibly convincing in demonstrating the destructive power of traffic on residents’ connection to their streets and their community.

[Photo: Curbing Traffic]
One of the most striking observations was how heavier volumes of traffic pushed activity that would normally happen in the front of the home toward the rear. “Where light traffic knits a community together, heavy traffic rips it apart,” Dr. Appleyard says. Residents along the heavy traffic street reported having three times fewer local friends (just 0.9 per respondent) and two times fewer acquaintances than those on the light traffic street. They were also less likely to visit neighbors, and identified a smaller area as their “personal territory.”

This had a distinct effect on the perceptions of their street, and whether they considered it to be “friendly.” With a lower feeling of kinship to their street and their neighbors, those living on the heavy street lacked the social interactions that made them feel a part of their community. Instead, neighbors didn’t appear to look out for each other, and the public realm was thought of solely as a hostile space dedicated to the movement of strangers.

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Dr. Appleyard refers to this situation as a street in conflict. Where a street at peace encourages interactivity—talking to neighbors, children playing, and similar activities—a street in conflict is one where the car travels through and pushes people away, causing their ultimate withdrawal from the street itself. “Studies have focused almost exclusively on increasing traffic capacity through devices such as street widening, signalization, and one-way streets with no parallel accounting of the environmental and social costs of these alterations,” he declares.

At the same time, due to the unfriendliness of the street, residents were not only less acquainted with their neighbors, but the continuous presence of strangers, even in passing cars, evoked feelings of fear and distrust. The proverbial “stop-and-chat” was not common practice, leading to even greater retreat from the community.

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Dr. Appleyard has taken his father’s work one step further to focus on how traffic calming can be the glue that holds the street and its residents together. “Streets should be a place where we share our humanity. Streets are for our humanity,” he reminds us. Looking more closely at Dr. Appleyard’s research, it becomes clear that the incompatibility between drivers and residents has a sustained impact on the streets they are expected to share.

Think about it in its simplest terms: a lack of sense of ownership in the space outside your front door leads to taking care of what matters most—the space inside your own home. In Appleyard Sr.’s original research, residents’ sense of personal territory seldom extended to the busy street, and for residents in apartments, that was often restricted to the space within their unit. “The gauge becomes, how far are you willing to rake the leaves beyond your own front steps?” Dr. Appleyard asks. If the street itself doesn’t encourage people to be outgoing and connect to their community, then they are reluctant to accept any responsibility for it and its care.

This insular and selfish thinking is a direct result of the livability—or lack thereof—of a street, especially one with heavy traffic volumes. Residents have little sense of joy and contentment in the space outside where they live. The front of the house is seen as where they leave the comfort of their home and enter the hostility of the world around them. Why bother taking care of it if they don’t spend time there? As it turns out, aside from having feelings of belonging and pride for our immediate surroundings, the resulting lack of socialization has even greater impacts on the emotional and physical health of residents.

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From Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett. Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.