By Darrell Owens — Traffic Violence won’t be fixed by planners and engineers who view cities as a means to run an economy over the lives of people in them — only we can fix it ourselves.
Last month, a pedestrian and a cyclist were killed by a driver at the very same intersection in Sunnyvale, California. When Vice Mayor Alysa Cisneros brought the issue to the city council to investigate fixing the intersection, the council majority voted overwhelmingly to reject it and not improve traffic safety. They chose to prioritize the speed of motorists over the lifes of everyone else — at a cost of 40,000 Americans killed and 120,000 cyclists injured by cars a year. This is the norm throughout the United States from major cities to minor suburbs. So I’m forced to ponder: what can we do about this as urbanists?
Nothing, under the current planning regime. Take protected intersections for example. Common outside the U.S. but very uncommon here. When we installed some in my town of Berkeley all hell broke loose. Motorists lost their shit when forced to make safer, slower turns. Neighbors placed bright traffic cones so idiotic drivers who are never expected to be attentive would stop rolling over the barriers and stunning themselves. One irate motorist even spray painted the platforms proclaiming they were illegal by court order (they weren’t).
On the same road, Berkeley spent four years planning to construct a protected bike lane which lead to an uproar by area drivers who insist they’re being persecuted by losing a tiny few on-street parking spaces adjacent to huge parking lots. At the prospect of making a road safer for cyclists AND motorists to use, fanatical NIMBYs now accuse safety advocates of being part of a so-called “bicycle lobby”, evidently out to harm the oh-so-precious driver.
Unfortunately traffic engineers and city planners are some of the weakest and most spineless civil servants in city government — the former especially. If you’ve ever talked to a traffic engineer, you’ll realize quickly that these people are not interested in reducing the tens of thousands of Americans who die annually from traffic-related crashes. Rather, on behalf of city electeds and local businesses, they are first and foremost interested in how quickly they can get employees to work and how quickly their local businesses can fill up their parking.
They have little to no regard for the safety of anyone who doesn’t drive. To traffic engineers, a city is for cars and the people in it are merely in the way. The same applies to fire departments whose fire marshals act as if any reduction in lanes somehow endangers emergency responders — without evidence. A strange American conundrum: car-free and car-lite cities around the world burn to the ground because they lack a giant stroads running through every other place — according to Americans. Total nonsense.
As a result, I’m sad to say there is no official way we can plan our way into traffic safety. The indoctrination of the automobile and fossil fuel industry is too deeply entrenched in many American’s minds. Even though car-lite policies like safer bike lanes and shrunken roads improve driver safety by forcing them to slow down and keep average people from not having to carry the burden of becoming killers. But the inevitable result of this radical, car-based, speed-first, safety-last planning is that people who go out of their ways to travel sustainably get pummeled or killed often enough that cars become a necessity for all.
Well I’m done. As history has frequently demonstrated, if we’re going to get traffic safety, we must fight for it. I’m not going to negotiate my safety or the safety of loved ones with the chamber of commerce, the city council or motorists who think they have a right to drive over every inch of pavement that exists. I’m tired of telling my younger sibling that I don’t want her to ride a bike in Oakland out of fear for her life.
It’s time for people to start forming organizations to protect cyclists, transit riders, pedestrians, and yes — drivers — from car-centrism. I’m not going to spend years writing to city council that I need a crosswalk where I live — I’m just going to paint it now. I’m not going to wait years on hundreds of thousands of dollars for impact studies blocking traffic out of neighborhood streets. We need to just erect the barriers and bike lanes ourselves. Erect the bus benches ourselves. Shrink the streets ourselves. There’s a long history of neighbors taking matters into their own hands. We need to bring tactical urbanism back.
I applaud the work of groups who have shined a light on traffic violence like Rapid Revolt in Oakland and in San Francisco such as Safe Street Rebel. We need to take control of our urban planning now. Form organizations and do the work yourselves. Stop asking for it, because the radical, pro-car, anti-human basis of American traffic planning is never going to give it to you.
Darrell Owens is a housing advocate and analyst for California YIMBY and is based in Berkeley, California. Follow him on Twitter @IDoTheThinking and subscribe to his newsletter: darrellowens.substack.com