In September of 2013, our family took a 1900-mile road trip up and down the East Coast to see an old friend get married and visit family. Along the way, we decided to spend a few days in New York City. I wanted to take a city vacation and see some of the public space, transit and bicycle improvements in NYC under Janette Sadik-Khan‘s management as Director of Transportation that I had become familiar with via Streetsblog.
DW liked the idea, and DC heard there would be carousels and was sold. While we had an enjoyable 7-hour visit to Manhattan, we spent most of our time in Brooklyn, where none of us had been before.
Driving on Hudson Parkway and some of the roads from Connecticut into Manhattan and finally Brooklyn left me a little white-knuckled, but after finding a place to park the car for a few days, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and instantly felt my blood pressure go down.
In Park Slope, where we were staying, with a few exceptions, the sidewalks are 10 to 18 feet wide pretty much everywhere, the main streets have two lanes of traffic plus on-street parking on both sides, and the minor streets have one lane of traffic and on-street parking on both sides.
Quickly I realized that the physical environment generally put a much greater distance between DC and moving cars than we experience here in Carrboro. With the wide sidewalks, you already have a lot of safe space to walk, but then the parking lane adds another buffer the width of one car, about 8 additional feet, from moving traffic.
The blocks also have very few curb cuts/driveways to watch for traffic in between cross streets. This environment does a lot to reduce vehicle speeds, and we witnessed parents all over the place in Park Slope who let kids under five years old ride scooters down the sidewalks or walk freely without holding their hands, even on the busier avenues. Older kids (the ones below I’m guessing were 7-10 or so) were often walking to school by themselves.
I find that one of the most persistent sources of mental stress as a parent is keeping DC safe from traffic, everywhere. Talking with other parents, I know I am not alone in this, and we are right to be worried. Motor vehicle crashes are far and away the leading cause of death among children aged 0-19 once you get past prenatal problems and congenital birth defects. Put another way, within the realm of things parents can do something about, cars are the most deadly threat their children face.
While Brooklyn and NYC have tremendous amounts of pedestrians, and also their own challenges in terms of pedestrian and bike safety that advocates such as Twitter user @BrooklynSpoke are working hard to remedy, the basic amount of walkable, mostly safe urban fabric they have to begin with is enviable.
My key take-away from Brooklyn was that between the sidewalk size, street trees and parking lanes buffering the traffic, along with large public spaces such as Prospect Park and the DUMBO waterfront area, if we lived there for a month and DC began to understand how things worked, we could be a good deal less focused on holding his hand to keep him away from a potential distracted driver making a 42-mph mistake on a 35-mph road.
While we would not be able to discard vigilance entirely, we would spend more time in areas that our brains classified as “Safe zones” and less time in places where the dominant thought is “let’s walk, but watch out.” We’d spend more time focused on enjoying each other’s company and less on the threat posed by traffic.
Recently DC has started to really enjoy using a balance bike, and the only disappointment with this is that the number of facilities around where I can really safely let DC go is limited. The Morgan Creek Greenway in Southern Village is one such place, and I’m very grateful it was built into the community when SV was designed.
I know Carrboro has made a lot of strides to improve on-road bicycle facilities in the form of bike lanes, but as cities such as Copenhagen, Portland and even New York City are showing the rest of the world, the ability of the bicycle to become a truly significant community transportation choice greatly expands when there is a network of facilities for biking that are separate and safe from car traffic. Carrboro already has two such facilities in the Libba Cotton Bike Path and Frances Shetley Greenway. I’ll say more about these facilities in a future post, and why their benefits to the town are so important.
We also have an opportunity in the recent “Slow Zone” proposal for Downtown Carrboro, which would limit traffic speeds within the greater downtown core to 20 mph or lower. I hope to write more about the Slow Zone proposal in the coming weeks. In the meantime, as you’re driving around town, give a self-imposed max of 20 mph a try. It’s not that much of a change in your travel time, and is safer for everyone.