How to shift away from an emphasis on speed to a focus on people and places

“If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be – community-building places, attractive for all people – then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest.“
–Alan Jacobs

Thirty years ago, the Netherlands, a country about twice in size and population of New Jersey, was despondent over the high fatality rate on its roads. In the 1970s, 3200 Dutch citizens died each year in crashes, about 25 percent of them pedestrians. This rate was about 15 percent higher than that of the U.S.

Both countries have been actively focused on improving highway safety ever since. But there is a difference between what happened in the Netherlands and what happened in the United States.

What the Dutch Did Differently
A street in Amsterdam accommodates cars, bikes and pedestrians

The Dutch developed and implemented a major national campaign over the past three decades, called “Sustainable Safety”. Some say that we embraced the same goals in the US. But upon close inspection, if we are truthful with ourselves, Americans must admit that our effort was less comprehensive and far less effective. While we did significantly lower our fatality rate per vehicle-mile traveled, we did so via improved technology in cars, driver education, and in the 1960s, through the “Forgiving Highway” concept, which engineered roads to anticipate crashes.

The U.S. focus was on making cars and roads “safer,” in order to protect us from ourselves. This marks the biggest difference between the American and the Dutch approach to transportation planning.

While also taking advantage of technology and creating “Forgiving Highways”, the Dutch also committed themselves to designing urban roads that induced motorists to operate their vehicles in ways and at speeds that were appropriate for traveling through well-populated areas. The Dutch accepted that the post-World War II global approach to making roads wider, straighter and faster simply does not work on surface roads (i.e., non-freeways) in urbanized areas. Americans did not.

The photos below of a German highway illustrate the Sustainable Safety approach to urban roads pioneered in the Netherlands. You can see this road undergoing a gradual transition from high-speed traffic outside a community to the lower speeds suitable for urban areas, where space is shared with bikers and pedestrians.

Cars exiting the high-speed autobahn slow down thanks to design features such as trees and striping along the edge of the road.

Motorists reduce speeds further at the sight of a traffic island in the street and well-marked pedestrian crosswalk. Lower vehicle speeds are enforced by a mechanism that automatically triggers a red light if vehicles exceed 30 km an hour (19 mph).

Sidewalks and bike lanes are added to the streets as it enters a populated area, and the road eventually stops at a pedestrian district in the town center.

There are three significant differences between the American and the Dutch approaches to safety.

  • The Dutch rejected the notion that wider, straighter and faster is better for safety on surface streets and highways in urban areas as being “simply not true”.
  • The Dutch adopted a multi-modal approach to safety. Travel by bicycle or on foot is valued equally, therefore and cyclists and pedestrians figure prominently in the planning process.
  • The Dutch “manage” access to their “arterials” to a degree that many American access engineers would envy. They have found this helps eliminate conflicts between mobility goals and providing local access. If this conflict is not managed, it minimizes the capacity of through roads and leads to substantial deterioration of safety.

Cumulatively, these three differences represent a disciplined approach to street design that the Dutch call “self explaining streets.” This means that the design of the roadway itself offered motorists a clear sense of how to drive safely. Any American transportation professional would instantly agree that one of the biggest sources of crashes in the United States is roads where drivers do not know what to expect and how to drive appropriately. That is the problem that self-explaining streets are designed to solve.

One product of this philosophy is a concept known as “Shared Space,” originally pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Shared spaces remove traffic lights, signs, crosswalks, lane markers and even curbs so that pedestrians, motorists and cyclists are allowed to negotiate their way through streets by gesturing and reacting to one another.

A truck approaches a Dutch shared space…

…navigates the intersection…

…and finally passes without incident

Gary Toth feels so comfortable in the shared space that he sets up a chair

How can we use the Dutch Approach to make our Streets Safer?

The American emphasis on safety over the last several decades has led to a reduction in annual traffic fatalities from 44,000 a year in 1975 to 37,000 a year in 2008. This is an accomplishment to be proud of and is particularly impressive in light of our population growth over that period.

During the same period, however, the Dutch have reduced their fatalities from 3200 a year to 800. If we calculate the rate per 1000 people, the Dutch fatality rate is now only 40% of the American rate. This is remarkable, particularly when one considers that in 1975 the Dutch fatality rate was 20% higher than that of the US!

If we had achieved a similar reduction in fatality rates, our annual fatalities would drop to just under 15,000 a year—22,000 less deaths than we currently experience. This means that every six weeks, we could save as many lives as were lost in the 9/11 tragedy! The U.S. has been motivated to spend tens of billions of dollars to redress the lives lost on 9/11. Where is the public outcry to address the tragedies occurring on our roads, the leading avoidable cause of death in the U.S.?

There are positive trends within the U.S. transportation movement as evidenced by the proactive roadway design philosophy prescribed in the Pennsylvania DOT/ New Jersey DOT Smart Transportation Guidebook. In addition, cities and metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Denver, Savannah, Portland (Oregon) and Charlotte (North Carolina), have all begun to create transportation policies that move away from wider, straighter and faster street designs.

Looking forward, however, a dramatic commitment to saving lives must be a focus of the next federal transportation bill. Congress, transportation advocacy groups, and communities across America all agree that the American transportation system has lost its way; it has no overarching vision to excite our citizenry in the way that the Interstate system did in the 1950s and 1960s. The opportunity to save 7 times the number of lives lost on 9/11 annually could be the galvanizing force of a national safety initiative modeled on the Dutch approach to roadway safety. We can and must reframe our national goals around the idea of maximizing safety and maintaining our quality of life and prosperity.

We owe it to our children.

Recently, PPS staff Gary Toth, Fred Kent and Kathy Madden had the opportunity to spend a week touring the Netherlands (and a short time in Denmark) to learn more about the Dutch approach to sustainable safety, bicycle and pedestrian practices, and community-based transportation planning. To foster the infusion of the applicable Dutch transportation ideas into the US, PPS is about to enter into a partnership with the Dutch National Information and Technology Platform for infrastructure, traffic, transport and public space (C.R.O.W.).