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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Make streets 'living yards'?

By Diane Urbani Deseret News staff writer
The citywide speed limit is 18 mph, children are used as traffic-calming devices and motorists must leave their seats and press buttons before they can enter an intersection.

That may be a little extreme, but it's a direction worth looking into, said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an urban-design radical invited to give a presentation at the Salt Lake City Main Library this month.

"We're not impressed with the development patterns this valley has been promulgating for a great many years," said Salt Lake City Planning Director Stephen Goldsmith. Mayor Rocky Anderson also "is interested in cultural change."

Hamilton-Baillie, a British architect and a student of how modes of travel produce changes in urban culture, showed how city streets across Europe are being redesigned into "woonerfs," a Dutch term loosely translated as "living yard." These streets of the future, he suggested, have plenty of room for pedestrians, cyclists and cars -- with no need for speed bumps or school-zone "slow" signs.

He was astounded by Salt Lake City's streets: "acres of asphalt, crying out for statues of your heroes -- whoever they are -- and trees" to be planted in their midst. "Bulk-buy the statues, and put them around," Hamilton-Baillie joked. More seriously, he advised city planners to use more trees, not more speed bumps or humps, to improve the street environment. "People think traffic calming is bumps. That's it: bumps. They're applied as a punishment to the car. But don't wage war on the car. It's going to be part of our cities for quite a while."

Instead, narrowing the part of the road devoted to cars gives more space to people on foot, skates or bicycles.

A democratic city gears its streets to children walking to school, to families going out to the store or the park. "It's a question of what sort of cities do you want? What value do you give to children?"

Last spring a major Salt Lake street, 900 East, was reconfigured to one car lane in each direction, with bike lanes along several blocks. But in many cases drivers haven't adapted and speed down those strips that are supposed to be for cyclists.

That's evidence of how hard it is to change people's behavior, said one man in Hamilton-Baillie's audience.

It's not nearly as difficult as you think, the architect answered. "Let me give you a parallel. There's no smoking in here. Twenty years ago, there would have been several people" lighting up. "But we made a collective decision" that affects anyone who visits a public building.

Public streets can undergo the same kind of transformation, Hamilton-Baillie said, if residents organize and tell their governments which changes they want. More signs aren't the answer. For instance, "School speed-limit signs are absolutely useless," Hamilton-Baillie said. "People don't take any notice of them." Again, narrow the roadway and cars will moderate their speeds naturally. Even if the reduction is only from 30 mph to 20, it can be a life-or-death difference. The human skull can survive a 20-mph impact, said Hamilton-Baillie, but a 30-mph collision causes the skull to break, and the likelihood of death rises to 85 percent.

It may sound crazy, he added, but people can take back their streets by advancing onto, not retreating from, them. In the Netherlands, 46 percent of trips are made on foot or by bike, and the accident rate there is far lower than in the United States, where only 7 percent of trips are human-, not gasoline-powered.

Hamilton-Baillie offered specific ways for Salt Lakers to make their roads safer for walkers and bikers. First, eye contact goes a long way. Without it, drivers and pedestrians communicate poorly.

And to claim more territory for people who aren't encased in multiton vehicles, use a guerrilla-dining tactic.

When lunching at an outdoor cafe, "move your chairs a little bit farther out into the street each time."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com

© 2001 Deseret News Publishing Co.