Let’s take a moment and look at two political philosophies and how they can even be applied to something as simple and mundane as a road (re)design. It may seem like somewhat of a reach, but stay with me for a story of regulation vs. self-regulation.

In Finance

Alan Greenspan himself did not foresee the housing crash coming. His mantra had always been that the market should (and will) self-regulate. He may have, at one point during the crisis, re-considered his libertarian ideals, as the situation left him “in a state of shocked disbelief.”

I saw Alan Greenspan on Charlie Rose (relevant conversation at 51:16) where he discussed the 2008 mortgage crisis. I suspect that in the aftermath he did some research going backwards to see what could have been done to prevent it. He mentioned a change at the NYSE in 1970 that allowed broker-dealers to become incorporated. Prior to this, broker-dealers were required to be partnerships where all partners had “skin in the game.”

Greenspan postures that the partnerships inherently caused all partners involved to look closely at each investment to carefully assess the risk. In a partnership, losses meant a loss to their customers, a personal loss to his or herself as a partner, and all other partners involved. Needless to say, lending was done much more carefully. Voilà, some self-regulation that we sorely need today.

Admittedly, Greenspan is “frequently blamed for having set the stage for the recent crisis.” You still have to admire the guy for sticking to his libertarian guns, citing a law change (albeit in hindsight) which removed self-regulation decades ago.

In Road Design

What does any of this have to do with road design? Everything…

The Democrat: Regulate

Conventional wisdom leads many to believe that that you don’t need to change a street physically to make it safer – even if it has a record of poor safety. Instead, just add further regulation to the mix.

Police Enforcement

I’ve heard these complaints in person, during a road redesign proposal by Anoka County for Osborne Road. Citizens questioned the road redesign, even if it was just re-striping – not major construction. They insisted that for the safety of the kids crossing the 4-lane road to get to school, all that was needed is more police enforcement to set the tone.

Automated Enforcement

Police can’t do traffic enforcement 24/7, so another way to regulate is with speed cameras. But some studies have argued in certain cases that the safety effects of cameras have proven to be statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that the cameras definitely won’t make the street safer. My concern is that the cost to install, maintain, and operate cameras is expensive, and we can do something cheaper and easier to provide safety.

The Libertarian: Self-Enforcement

Why not instead undo a little bit of what we’ve done with our infrastructure. It may seem counter-intuitive, but we can make things simpler, more cost effective, and more self-regulating…

Lane Narrowing

First the road geometry can be changed to what is appropriate for the target speed. The current road design standard has wide lanes to give drivers a wide berth so they can make corrections before potentially causing a crash.

The roads have an extra-wide “clear zone” on either side – wide shoulders followed by an open area of grass free of “fixed objects” such as trees. This is to provide a margin of safety, but in reality the extra space simply makes the road feel faster. Probably because we’ve given many of our roads the same geometry as a highway.

We need to narrow the lanes and make the roadway feel “closer” in the cases where a slower speed is desired. Some studies have shown speed reductions of as much as 3MPH for every foot of lane narrowing. Let’s get rid of the highway geometries on 30MPH roads.

Lane Reduction

Then to really enforce the speed, reduce the travel lanes to one in each direction – prudent drivers will regulate those who speed. There are other safety issues that lane reduction solves, such as when one driver stops, but then other drivers try to pass in the other lane and don’t see the pedestrian until it’s too late. You can see the reverse effect on a road-widening, changing from 2-lanes to 4. Notice how the increases in through-put and travel time are marginal, but the injury and damage rate skyrocketed:

Welch (1999), TRB Circular E-C019
Welch (1999), TRB Circular E-C019

Stay safe out there everyone. Hopefully you can see a new perspective on an old problem. As Chuck says, keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns.

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