The Tao of Traffic — Lessons from the 2010 White Flint

The Tao of Traffic — Lessons from the 2010 White Flint

“Traffic calming” sometimes seems like a misnomer; it just makes people mad, like drivers who honk when they go over speed bumps. But I just spent two days sitting at the feet of a traffic calming master, Ian Lockwood of Glatting Jackson, and learned that I was wrong. Or at least sadly out-of-date (which doesn’t surprise my kids).

The OLD method – traffic calming through physical barriers – IS maddening and counter-productive. It doesn’t “calm,” it doesn’t reduce traffic, it doesn’t protect neighborhoods; it just pits neighbor against neighbor and moves the traffic to annoy someone else. I spoke to Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett about this yesterday and he pointed out that traffic calming proposals always generate huge battles, which he didn’t like. I told him we had discovered a better way: don’t focus on physical barriers, but on drivers’ psychology. He wanted to hear more about it.

So, here’s what I learned about traffic calming at the 2010 White Flint Town Hall (

Modern traffic calming uses design to communicate with drivers so they will take responsibility for their own behavior. The “built environment” tells them what to do, gets drivers to focus on the near and middle distance, and emphasizes people and not motorists. It puts a “there” in neighborhoods.

Just as New Urbanism shifts the debate from how fast cars move through intersections to how to get people out of cars, the new traffic calming shifts the debate from how to block cars from a particular street to how to get drivers to WANT to slow down. It’s about enhancing the neighborhood enough to make drivers focus on the near and middle distance, rather than far, far down the road.

Driver’s vision at various speeds

(How much drivers see at various speeds, faster – upper left) 

Today, traffic “calming” is more than that; it’s neighborhood enhancement, which has the EFFECT of protecting pedestrians, the same way that enticing drivers out of their cars altogether does. It’s a win-win for everyone.

The new method is mental, not physical. You have to design streets to meet the psychology of drivers. If drivers expect to go fast on a street (something conveyed by the streetscape and design “vocabulary”), they will want to go fast, no matter what you do. If you do something which is inappropriate to the messages the environment sends, drivers will get mad. For example, if you put speed bumps on a long, straight, wide street where drivers expect to look far ahead, drivers will get mad enough to honk as they go over the bumps.

Stop signs are another common old traffic calming device, but they only work in the right environment. If you just plunk down stop signs in the middle of long, straight streets where drivers EXPECT to drive fast, they’ll want to keep driving fast, resulting in screeching halts and jackrabbit starts from each sign. Not the smooth, lower speeds overall of traffic calming.

Effect of Stop Signs on Traffic

If, on the other hand, you do something in the environment to get drivers to focus on the near and middle distance (like landscaping, or just making the entrance to a community distinctive enough from the outside road to convey that the driver is entering a special place), drivers will slow down, protecting pedestrians and neighborhoods.

In other words, as White Flint Realtor Emily Mintz put it Thursday night, the answer is to “get inside their heads.”


(Ian Lockwood and Emily Mintz)

Streets are the biggest public realm in neighborhoods, more than schools or parks. People identify with them, and identify your neighborhood by the streets. They should be carefully designed for multiple purposes to help define and develop the neighborhood, not just move cars. For example, use “rain gardens” designed to accept water in a natural setting, rather than iron storm grates.

Use of “Rain Gardens” on streets instead of grates

(Use of “rain gardens” to calm streets, beautify neighborhood and handle storm water) 

One of the more popular forms of modern traffic calming is “roundabouts,” circular areas which collect and distribute traffic without the need for signals. (These are not the larger traffic “circles” which tend to have higher speeds.) Several places in White Flint neighborhoods are good candidates for roundabouts, including Old Georgetown at Tuckerman and at Tilden/Nicholson. You can walk easily across them, and they are hugely safer for pedestrians. At a signal, traffic is coming at pedestrians from all angles, but in a roundabout, traffic approaches only from one direction. Maintaining a roundabout is much cheaper than a signalized intersection. Huge reduction on how much fuel is used as well, so some federal funds are available for roundabouts from energy reduction and air quality programs.

Roundabouts can handle a lot of traffic, reducing asphalt and increasing green space. This roundabout, in Florida, handles up to 50,000 cars a day, yet it’s easily walkable and safe for pedestrians and bicycles:

Busy Roundabout

Route 50 near Centreville, Virginia, now has four roundabouts. The congestion is gone and accident rates are way down. In California, Ian narrowed a five-lane signalized road to a two-lane road with a roundabout and not only cleared congestion, but enlivened the community. A new restaurant opened nearby named the Roundabout.

Design in the neighborhood’s context. Emphasize place, not throughput or speed. Build something beautiful, so drivers will have something to see when they slow down. Studies show that drivers will slow in well-designed spaces, even on wide roads. Emphasizing speed and reducing travel time actually increases sprawl and energy use. If you reward the unsustainable trip, the land use changes to respond, exacerbating your problems. Instead reward the sustainable trip, the short trip, the biking trip. The person cutting through the city is not as important as the city itself; they can still go through, but on the city’s terms, not the highway’s. 


Think about all the quality of life issues in the area. It’s not just traffic calming; it’s context-sensitive design. Complete streets. Smart transportation. Safe routes to schools. Just competent street design. Vibrant uses made possible by good street design.

You still have to accomodate the motorist, but let’s level the playing field for the pedestrian, the bicyclist, the kids. You get a better community over time. You can replace many traffic lanes with good design, with many benefits for the surrounding neighborhood.


Summarizing some of the calming methods most likely to prove useful in White Flint neighborhoods, Ian saw many similarities through several neighborhoods, including limited access. Those tend to have “cut-through traffic” issues, although studies show that most such traffic is from neighborhood residents and visitors. “I would highly discourage closing off your streets, because you’ll just re-route the traffic to your neighbors’ streets.” Deal with the busiest streets first. Improve entrances so drivers know they’re entering a special place. Remove double yellow lines on neighborhood streets.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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