Safety and the Public Realm

It could be prevented

Two common elements that contribute to safety on urban streets: on-street parking, and 2-way traffic. Both serve as natural calming elements by increasing driver’s alertness and decreasing traffic speeds.

Unfortunately many of our city streets are still relics of traffic engineering theories from 50 years ago, when certain streets became one-way, while others had on-street parking removed to create more traffic lanes. An example is the intersection directly outside our office–24th Street North and 2nd Avenue (this morning, above), where almost monthly there is an accident involving some combination of cars racing too quickly down 2nd (one-way) and running lights on 24th (no parallel spaces). Both streets were altered long ago by traffic engineers as corridors for moving auto traffic across downtown–with no regard for pedestrian life, merchant visibility, quality of place, etc.

How many more accidents and injuries must we witness before we change the configuration of these outdated street designs?

23 responses to “Safety and the Public Realm

  1. I spy Chatham. I guess I’m alone on this one, but I happen to love one-ways, but perhaps when they’re mixed with two-ways, they can be a bit confusing to those less observant…

    • One-ways can be fine if they are quite narrow–or if they are in very dense areas like Manhattan where traffic tends to be constantly heavy. Here it’s heavy (ish) at rush hours, but the rest of the day people treat one-ways like interstates, going too fast with such light traffic loads. Also VERY confusing for visitors (including suburbanites)–you miss your destination and you have to circle around 6 extra blocks just to return on one-way streets. 2-ways are much more flexible.

      They tend to only be intuitive to traffic engineers. The rest of us get flummoxed. Thanks.

  2. It wouldn’t particularly hurt to have a bit of law enforcement. Between 6:30 AM and 8 AM a well designed system of catching speeders could not only enhance our safety, but partially fund the Police Department.

  3. I live in Southside, but I must admit that I love being able to zip to and fro downtown via the one-ways, but perhaps I am just too impatient a soul. I know most people are day commuters who just want to get the hell out of the city to return to their suburban lairs and don’t come in to the city just to lunch or shop or stay after work for a beer. And I am sympathetic to the arguments above, but in regards to pedestrian safety, I will say that at least with one-ways (and I spend a lot of time on 2nd, on the blogger’s block), when the light turns red, there’s a lot of space and time for one to flit across the street. With two ways, in my opinion, the scene is a lot more complex, and you have to be more careful. Those light runners are indeed a real problem. Some months back I witnessed someone plow into the corner (maybe that’s the very photo above), almost into the building, narrowly missing a person standing on the sidewalk. But even if the street were two-way, people would still try to run the lights–in both directions. On the other hand, I have heard arguments before about the benefits of two-ways for local businesses, viz., slowing down traffic, improving navigability and time for people actually looking for a certain business or restaurant to patronize. And the argument above about the confusion factor for out-of-towners (including Hoover?) makes sense, too.

    • I agree that crossing becomes a bit more complex when you have to look both ways, rather than one. There are so many improvements that could be made beyond the 2-way/1-way consideration: enlarged sidewalk aprons at crosswalk termini, smart traffic light systems that calibrate given the volume of traffic, etc. I will always argue that two-way traffic is much better for businesses and pedestrian street life, though: you can approach a business or building from 2 directions, not just one! Thanks for your comments.

  4. I recognize the cars in that photo. They are our city councilman’s friends. The police were called twice Friday night regarding their collective behavior outside the Chevron Gas Station. They don’t care about communities, good neighbor laws, or private property. If the police are not around, they don’t care about traffic laws either.

    • While I’m unable to comment on this, I will say one of the cars had two small children in the back seat–which made the scene this morning especially frustrating to watch. Thanks.

  5. I supported changing until recently heard that the cost of changing some designated streets downtown to two-way is 8 million dollars! (I’m guess this has more to do with traffic signals than painting streets.) Think what could be done in terms of street-scape improvements for that? What about taking away a lane or two and putting in angle parking (supporting the businesses) and some landscaping?

    • Well, I guess first we’d need to know if that $8 million is majority federal or state money, or if it comes mostly from City funds. I can imagine spending less money on re-configuring lanes and parking, like you state, that could go a long way towards improving the situation without the huge expense of traffic light changes and re-sequencing. Thank you for this comment.

    • It’s a very big inhibitor to growth when you have these one-way streets like this. The longer they’re there, the more they hold us back. That’s not very much money when you consider the time and the benefits to street life (and Birmingham overall) that it would foster.

      • We tend in this city to not blink at $8 million when it’s a one-off project whose end result is a new building or other such improvement. But longer term, less “sexy” needs like lane striping and traffic signals are analyzed differently–they don’t seem worth the money. It’s a short-term mentality that we have here, and you are correct, it holds us back.

        I do think it’s valid to assume that if there’s a list of public-way improvements that would enhance safety and reduce confusion for autos and pedestrians alike–that the one-way issue would be one of many from which we’d have to prioritize. Thanks for your comment.

      • T.K. Thorne

        Andrew, I have since learned that the cost I quoted was incorrect. Don’t know what it will/would be.

  6. Michael Calvert

    The one-way streets, (which carry 40% more traffic than two two-way streets), were needed to move traffic before the interstates were built. Now there is tremendous excess capacity. A relatively recent RPC-funded traffic engineering study found that substituting two-way traffic for one-way traffic on most one-way streets in the City Center would NOT reduce traffic capacity and levels of service. There would be reduced speeds, greater safety, a better pedestrian urban environment, and it would be easier to navigate for people who do not drive in the City Center daily.

    Costs are surprisingly high for reprogramming the City’s computer system for traffic signals and the modifications at intersections, but it would be a good investment in my view. Statistics on accidents, deaths and injuries should be compiled to make the case.

  7. It has been my observation for some time that proper striping of streets and highways is at the very bottom of priorities of our transportation departments, whether at the state or local levels. Often, especially when it rains, and generally at night, I find it hard to see what lane I’m in, or where the merging lanes are. Reflectors are also critical to many of our roads and are not installed to begin with. And certainly, pedestrian crosswalks and those lines that tell drivers where to stop at intersections (whatever those are called…) are important. Also, has anyone ever noticed that at night in downtown, you cannot see the street signs or (especially) the one-way signs? All of them are overhead, not on the corners, and none of them is illumined. Now THAT’S a real problem. I was on the campus of Auburn University recently and saw that they have installed overhead street signs that are illuminated internally. They really stand out and make it SO much easier to navigate. They’ve also installed embedded LED lights in the pavement that illumine the pedestrian crosswalks. This in the wake of quite a few car-body collisions (some fatal), which I would assume are a problem on college campuses in general (UAB?). Btw, those embedded lights (in little hard casings that also serve as warning/speed bumps) are powered by the sun they absorb in the daytime hours.

    • I hang my head in shame when I travel to other cities (big and small) and see illuminated street signs, reflectors or LED lights denoting lanes and crosswalks, etc. You are right–after all that hoopla about downtown roads getting repaved a couple years ago–we are still left with fading striping, crosswalks that are virtually invisible (or in some cases never installed), and ancient signage. And no Wayfinding after all these years of discussion. And don’t even mention bike lanes. Fingers crossed that change is on the way–we need it! Thanks.

  8. Mobile recently changed St. Francis street in downtown from one way to two way. Not sure how much it cost but if Mobile can do it Birmingham can. To borrow a page from Jane Jacobs, when you make one way streets, people drive those streets at the exclusion of other streets. This means some streets have heavy traffic flow while others have very little, which is bad for buisnesses located on the streets with little traffic flow. The value of a grid is that all streets are equal and equally used. Also, can you explain what street parking has to do with running red lights?

    • If Mobile can do it, Birmingham can: absolutely!

      My point about on-street parking is that visually it introduces another element into the road bed for drivers to be aware of–which tends to slow them down a bit. Of course drivers also have to slow down a lot to accommodate other cars pulling into or out of spaces. It’s just one of many elements that could help.

      Not to mention the fact that a buffer of parked cars always makes a safer pedestrian sidewalk environment–and better convenience for storefront merchants. Thanks.

  9. Oh, I also find biking on one way streets to be very difficult. Having to cross four lanes of traffic to make a left turn is not fun!

  10. Wouldn’t it be awesome if all conversations about streets centered on the pedestrian instead of the car?

    Look at the street signs in downtown as an example of designing for the car instead of the pedestrian. If you’re walking the wrong way down one of these one-way streets, all of the wayfinding is facing the other direction. In order to double-check your location, you have to walk past the traffic light and look back to read the sign. So unfriendly.

    • What a great point. We are definitely missing that pedestrian-friendly layer. I’m not sure the City traffic engineers’ mandate has changed since 1950: “roads are for cars”. It would be great to rewrite that mandate. Thanks.

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