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Walkable City’s Jeff Speck Knows There Are Worse Things Than Crawling Traffic

Street closures good. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The urban planner and writer Jeff Speck has spent years arguing the same deceptively simple point: We should be able to walk where we live. That principle, though, runs counter to the way this country — and much of the world — has been built over the past 100 years. Going for a walk in many urbanized places means hiking across vast tundras of parking or trying to ford multilane roadways. In his 2012 book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Speck itemized the factors that trap us in our cars and endanger those outside them — road-design manuals that mandate wide turning radiuses, for example — and then gives step-by-literal-step instructions on how to fight those forces. In the new and expanded tenth-anniversary edition, he assesses how his techniques have fared in the real world, writing about the effects of the pandemic on traffic, the end of exclusionary single-family zoning in California, the ascent of bike sharing, and the pervasive awareness of climate change. I spoke to Speck about engineers’ (and politicians’ and voters’) stubborn resistance to change but also the surprising victories that this past decade has brought.

One thing I’ve appreciated about your writing over the years is the almost lawyerly way you build your case. You prefer data-driven arguments to emotional ones. I wonder how well that’s working at a time when reason seems to be fighting a losing battle.
The cognitive scientist and AI researcher Joscha Bach describes the brain as a monkey riding an elephant: We find ways to rationalize decisions that have already been made by our unconscious. So my expectations are never that high that the proper argument will win. Still, there’s a tremendous pleasure in discovering a proper argument — particularly one that runs counter to your instincts, like the mechanism of induced demand. Then there’s the delightful challenge of trying to get other people to see it your way.

How successful do you feel that’s been?
When my colleagues and I began all this more than 30 years ago, I had a strong feeling of shouting into the wind. We had confidence in the correctness of our mission but not that it would be embraced. So my frustration at the irrationality of the human species has been tempered by wins we didn’t expect. We spent decades arguing for granny flats, also called accessory dwelling units or ADUs, thinking that they’re cute but they’re never going to have much of an impact. Then some municipalities in California passed ordinances legalizing them, after which the state stepped in with a much more aggressive law, and now we find that ADUs account for 22 percent of all new housing in L.A.

Some battles have to be fought over and over again, though. 
You lose many, and you win some. When I started this work as a 27-year-old in 1989, I really thought we could stop sprawl. I’ve stopped believing that’s possible, but I’ve reframed the objective. Now it’s about providing a walkable lifestyle to more people, more affordably, everywhere we can.

In the first edition of Walkable City, you pointed out that engineers design roads to keep traffic moving where they should be trying to slow cars down. Hasn’t that argument percolated into the planning and urbanism professions by now? Where does resistance to it kick in? 
Engineers and transportation planners who have been to school lately or read books may know it. But they’re still a minority, and politicians and the public really don’t get it. It’s natural to look at a congested street and think it needs another lane. Most people still believe you can solve congestion that way, and therefore their representatives believe that. There’s also a collection of moneyed interests that have an interest in the status quo, but I don’t want to dwell on that. It’s too discouraging.

The other part of the answer is that the stupidity we’re fighting has been legislated and codified. We can prove that when you remove a center line from a street, people will drive seven miles an hour slower. But the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices says if a road has more than 6,000 cars a day — and that’s a lightly traveled street — it has to have a center line. That same document insists on vast sight triangles at intersections, which causes drivers to speed around corners. But we know that if you tighten the turning radius and reduce visibility, people drive more carefully.

I keep coming back to a YouTube clip of New York streets in 1911, and it’s amazing how many different forms of transportation you can pick out and how slowly they’re moving, even though there are no traffic lights or stop signs. You can tell from the pedestrians’ body language that they feel like they own the street, crossing mid-block, diagonally, at a leisurely pace. Today, we have to engineer those kinds of interactions by designing shared streets or woonerfs or pedestrian-priority streets. Do you think it’s unrealistic to think New York could ever be like that again?  
I’m positive it’s possible to get that back. I need to emphasize that the healthiest and most wealth-generating and sustainable cities would not have cars in them. The fewer cars in your city, the better a city it will be, by any measure. That said, it’s perfectly possible to engineer street space in which only a fluke condition, like a driver’s heart attack, would cause the sort of bloodshed that we see every day in almost every American city. Just look at “Poynton Regenerated,” a short YouTube video that describes a shared-space solution in a struggling city center in England. It resulted in cars driving five to ten miles an hour through the intersection, revolutionizing safety and the economic performance of the town. In the U.S., we have rules that cause us to supersize our infrastructure and engineers who fear lawsuits because they don’t have manuals to describe the slower-speed alternative.

On the one hand, you advocate for shared streets with few signs or traffic lights where pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers negotiate their interactions wordlessly. On the other, you’re also pro–bike lanes, which separate people into different use categories. Is there a conflict there?
Mixing is ideal, but you do want corridors where you have bike lanes away from the street. The principle is regional separation, local mixing.

I can’t cycle two blocks in a bike lane without being forced back into car traffic. Does New York’s growing bike infrastructure wind up making things more dangerous?
Inviting more bikes is dangerous only if the lanes have been designed wrong or the separation isn’t being enforced. The growing pains we’re experiencing as we transition to a system of more cycling and fewer cars are epitomized by Uber or Amazon delivery trucks sitting in the bike lane. I’m not a big fan of enforcement as a tool for changing behavior, but that’s one place where city leaders need to direct their police departments to act.

The tenth-anniversary edition.

The ideal outcome, though, isn’t spaces divided up into corridors. It’s low-speed mixing of all users with a vehicular infrastructure that makes high-speed driving impossible. Vehicle speed, not volume of traffic, is the greater threat to pedestrians. We saw a jump in pedestrian fatalities during the pandemic just because congestion dropped.

Should we conclude that congestion is good?
Well, let’s face it, it’s certainly much safer to have gridlock. If nobody’s moving, nobody’s getting hurt. But the real answer is that the most successful places have traffic moving slowly but still moving.

But, of course, it brings other problems. Congestion pricing is supposed to alleviate gridlock. If it ever does get implemented in New York, and it’s successful, is there a chance that by making traffic flow more smoothly it might cause more crashes?  
You know, nobody’s ever asked me that before. Theoretically, if you have fewer cars in downtown Manhattan and the same amount of roadway, there is likely to be some marginal increase in driving speed that may slightly increase risk. But it would be disingenuous for a headline to say that Jeff Speck thinks congestion pricing would increase danger because there are second-order impacts that make up for it: more people biking and walking and taking transit, which creates a more mixed-use street. That will affect driver behavior in a positive way.

The best solution for Manhattan would be to acknowledge that most people in the streets aren’t driving, that cars are needed for a limited population, and that there’s no reason why any street needs to have more than one lane in each direction plus an express bus lane. But I realize making all that happen is politically impossible.

If it’s mostly a matter of slowing cars down, wouldn’t installing a whole lot more speed bumps be a quick and dirty way to do that? I’ve driven in Mexico, where they’re common, brutal, and effective. Enter a town too fast and you’re likely to lose your undercarriage.
When I was a student, a fireman flew off the truck in front of my high school because the driver took the speed bump too fast. I’m a much bigger fan of speed tables, which slope more gently. There’s a hierarchy of three techniques to slow cars. The first is you eliminate elbow room, using narrow streets, parked cars, street trees, and visual constriction. The second is a chicane or a diversion. On the main street of Reykjavik, for example, they have angle parking on one side and parallel parking on the other and they keep switching. Speed bumps are what you do if all else fails. Once you’ve designed a street wrong, a speed bump is an excellent last resort.

We have lots of data to show that SUVs pose newly lethal threats to pedestrians. What can cities do about that? Is it a fantasy to expect any municipality to ban them at their borders?
We’re not going to be able to change the cars. Unlike in Europe, vehicle safety tests in the U.S. don’t consider the safety of people outside the car, only those inside it. So the question isn’t whether leaders will have the strength to rein in the manufacturers but whether we can compensate for those dangers through proper street design so that even SUV drivers are encouraged to inhabit public space in a way that’s not so violent.

You spend a lot of time discussing rules, codes, data, and design. But isn’t this really a culture war in which people sort into different tribes at different times of day, depending on whether they’re on foot or behind the wheel? 
I believe that culture follows infrastructure: As bike infrastructure and bike-share programs improve, we’ll see gradual shifts in culture. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that people isolated within automobiles will ever think kindly of cyclists and pedestrians. When you’re a driver, all other people in the public space are either threatening your life or they’re competing for asphalt. And that stance of danger and competition puts drivers in an unhealthy frame of mind. Your blood pressure rises highest immediately after your driving commute. When you’re walking, that almost never happens.

When I’m crossing the street, I tend to see drivers as a threat, too.
Yeah, but the difference between a pedestrian who’s fearful and a driver who’s fearful is that the driver has the weapon.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Walkable City’s Jeff Speck Appreciates Crawling Traffic