Streets for Distracted Drivers


In the United States, car-related deaths now exceed those by firearms. While most are not intentional, these are not accidents. They are the predictable results of mixing a highly variable driving task with a human tendency to be distracted. Modern driving has become the struggle between letting positive distractful information in and eliminating distractions of our own making. The former provide feedback loops that promote attention, care, and caution. The latter stem from our wandering minds and what we deem to be acceptable risks, like speeding. Alcohol, smart phones, and drugs like opioids only amplify our loss of focus. Driving has become so apparently boring that it is now more dangerous than ever. We have created a transportation system that disincentivizes our ability to safely use it.  

Driving has become so apparently boring that it is now more dangerous than ever. We have created a transportation system that disincentivizes our ability to safely use it.  

The places that are leading the way in fixing this problem have found that the slower, more vibrant, and what is ultimately more distractful the street, the less likely a driver is to pursue his own distractions that imperils the lives of everyone around him. That these streets give people attractive alternatives to driving in the first place certainly does not hurt either.

Safe, distractful streets are usually a good proxy for economically and culturally strong places. They are significant determinants of how places grow and often a core part of our work. Here are ten approaches we take to building more distractful and safer streets:

Don’t call it an accident

Street design and use is likely the single largest determinant of its safety. Dozens of Cities have signed on to adopt Vision Zero policies to intentionally pursue zero fatalities on city streets.

Accept small risks

So much of the conventional value system is built to avoid what are relative annoyances rather than limit, much less eliminate, tragic catastrophes. Traffic, minor fender benders, and incidental bumping into each other should, while unfortunate, be an accepted risk if it means losing less lives. If we create more forgivable streets where all users can recover from error, everyone becomes more regularly alert and, thus, safer.

More waves, less fingers

Narrower lanes have been proven to lower speeds and improve safety. Studies have shown that our treatment of one another dramatically improves once we can see the other’s eyes and that only happens at speeds less than 20 miles per hour. This speed is also meaningful in that it is the maximum speed that our skull can protect our brain and the speed below which retail streets achieve the highest sales per square foot. Yield streets (unstriped streets narrow enough to cause drivers to pass slowly) are even better, fostering many more hand waves than middle fingers.

Rethink barriers

The standard curb and sidewalk can create a false sense of safety (a six inch curb is no match for an impaired driver), are expensive to install/maintain, and may have fleeting utility with modern plumbing and automobile technology. They also limit the reconfigurability of the street (see below). Vertical barriers such as bollards, trees/planters, bike parking, and delivery/pickup stands can be just as or even more effective. Most of these can be designed as moveable features so that the street can smartly adapt to changing needs.

Optimize streets for life, not technology (especially cars)

Life on streets beget safer streets that, in turn, beget even more life. We interrupt this positive feedback loop when we optimize streets for technology like cars or, now, autonomous vehicles, instead of for us.

Streets as a Canvas

Departments of Transportation have long resisted artfully painted surfaces in crosswalks, intersections, etc. However, there has been little evidence that art in a street makes it less safe than the baseline condition and is gaining more acceptance, particularly at the City DOT level.

Embrace Congestion

For too long we have tried to solve the congestion problem. Not only has this been impossible to pay for or enforce laws within, it has made the streets less active and safe. The safest streets are those that bring together a lot of slow-moving people at many times of day in close proximity to one another.

Naked Streets

Studies have shown that a typical driver only perceives 20 percent of roadway signs and most notice signs where they are expected anyway, such as a stop sign. Signs have become an unfortunate crutch to overcoming poor street design and have lost much of their utility with advances in navigation technology. Naked Street projects that remove all but the most necessary of signs have shown to be affordable, attractive, and effective in improving street safety and operations.

Make community part of the solution

Street design and safety is often thought of as someone else’s job: the developer wants the street, the DOT designs and maintains the street, the police try to enforce laws for the street, emergency services respond to problems, mobility services such as transit and bike share fight for right-of-way, and our grandkids must figure out how to pay for it all. While few pay notice when it all works, neighbors, retailers, schools, etc. feel helpless to create change when problems arise. Several city DOTs and leaders have actively engaged public stakeholders in not only spotting the problem, but working to build out and maintain the solution.

Rapid prototype and maintain flexibility

Beyond walking, every form of transportation has been more or less invented and is subject to Murphy’s Law of accelerating change and disruption. Streets are expensive to build, maintain, and change. We need to rethink how we conceive of and build them, using a more incremental approach that weaves together frugality, technology, creativity, community, flexibility, and an evidence-based figuring out together what works.