Health, Safety, and the American Dream

“Suburbs kill!” warns the author of a recent book. The logic behind such hysteria, however, is tenuous. This particular author points to 300,000 deaths due to obesity every year and presumes that everyone knows that the suburbs are more obese than the cities because people in the cities walk and bicycle more.

In fact, deaths due to obesity turn out to be far fewer than 300,000. More important, there is very little evidence that cities are healthier than the suburbs or that urbanites exercise more than suburbanites.

The truth is that urban planners seem very willing to sacrifice public health and safety in order to achieve their dreams of reducing auto driving.

  • Smart-growth urban-design prescriptions, sometimes called New Urbanism, call for gridded streets, alleys, minimal private yards, large common areas, and mixed-use developments. Yet it turns out that all these these increase a neighborhood’s vulnerability to crime.
  • Rather than improving the flow of traffic, traffic planners today seek to “calm” traffic by putting barriers in the roads to force motorists to slow down. Yet considerable research shows that such traffic calming will increase accident rates and reduce the ability of emergency-service providers to save lives.
  • Bicycle planners build new bike paths and bike lanes in city streets. Yet research shows these, along with most other traffic calming practices, often create more dangerous conditions for cyclists.

While traffic engineers have spent decades finding the safest roadway designs, urban planners too often base their ideas on feelings and perceptions rather than research and hard data. For example, when Denver converted some one-way streets to two-way operation, accident rates went up — as predicted by the city’s traffic engineer. A follow-up analysis by planners could find no benefits for the conversion other than “a perceived preference for two-way streets” — though the analysis didn’t say who perceived such a preference or what it was based upon. Despite this, Denver continues to convert one-way streets to more-dangerous two-way streets.

One Dutch planner has even proposed that, in some areas, all traffic safety measures — signs, stripes, even sidewalk curbs — be eliminated. The resulting chaos, he argues, will force drivers to drive more carefully just to avoid accidents. The reality that this will lead to more accidents is, in the planner’s mind, offset by the benefits of reduced mobility, whatever those are.

Transportation engineers have always placed safety first, and the efficient movement of people and goods second. In contrast, urban planners today say they want to put pedestrians and cyclists first, transit second, and automobiles last. But the effects of their policies are to reduce safety for all those groups and to reduce mobility for the population as a whole.

The American Dream Coalition believes that walking, cycling, transit, and autos are all compatible, and that designing for walking, cycling, and transit does not require increasing congestion for autos. Placing safety first and efficient movement of people and goods second is a sound policy and transportation planning should be returned to the professionals who have those priorities.