“Talk to Me” Part Two

“Talk to Me” Part Two

Right after last month’s 2010 White Flint Town Hall meeting on Neighborhod Mobility Balance, I flogged about lessons I learned from Ian Lockwood about traffic calming and design. The principal lesson was that modern traffic design is a form of communication. The environment “talks” to drivers, telling them whether it’s okay to go fast or whether they should slow down to avoid kids or because they have entered a “special place.” It isn’t just physical barriers, which simply redirect the problem onto someone else’s street. You need to get inside the driver’s mind, figure out the problem, and then craft a “win-win” solution. That’s better design.

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page article illustrating that point, in reverse. New York Avenue is, and has pretty much always been, a big mess. Big street, LOTS of traffic, lots of signs, lots of street lights. New York Avenue gives mixed messages; it “talks funny.”


The Post points out that drivers get frustrated sitting at these lights for miles and miles, and then when the street widens, they zoom off — only to be caught by a roving speed camera. The word that springs up is “unfair.” A professor opines that it’s not fair to deny these drivers their “freedom,” which they associate with a green light. But a police spokesman notes that it’s not unfair to require people to obey the law.

They’re both right. But missing the point. This is the same frustration which causes drivers to honk when speed bumps are put in on streets which appear to permit faster driving. It’s not unfair to enforce the laws, but it IS unfair to expect drivers to instantly pick up on the real problem: a mismatch between messages the environment is sending (“you can go FAST here”) and the traffic regulations (“you must go SLOW here”).

Drivers “hear” the environment “talking.” If traffic designers talk “wrong,” then it is unfair to expect the drivers to hear “what I mean, not what I say.” And the police shouldn’t just ignore the problem; they should be at the forefront of those who press for a solution — through design.

One of the solutions modern communications-oriented design suggests is that giving drivers something to look at and something to do helps to curb the need to speed. And often it’s cheaper, since good signage is a lot cheaper than widening streets. And it can help an area at the same time it’s handling traffic. For example, instead of just having an easily-ignorable sign which says “Slow,” how about having a sculpture holding the sign instead? People would notice it, and having noticed it, would be more likely to obey. Plus, done well, it could be artistic and interesting, instead of an interruption in neighborhood aesthetics for a big yellow, reflecting thingy.

That’s the difference between traffic islands which “redirect” traffic (which slows drivers) and those which just sit there in the middle with a few forlorn bushes and sagging plants (and have no effect on traffic). There may be an opportunity for D.C. in that principle: since the problem area on New York Ave. is right in front of the Arboretum (which is still a pretty nice place to go, by the way), use the environment to communicate to drivers that putting the pedal down is not appropriate, even if they are frustrated. Use the Arboretum to communicate with the drivers that there is something special here which they should look at. Might be as simple as some Arboretum-related signs, plantings or amenities on the street, instead of a blank streetscape which makes the Arboretum look like IT is the intruder in the environment (“How dare they plant a tree by the side of the road? Someone might crash into it!”), rather than the cars. Let the frustration bleed away slowly instead of being released in a pent-up burst, and you serve more than one purpose.

Of course, D.C. needs the money these speed cameras bring in. So probably nothing that enlightened will get done. But we can hope?

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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