Can roads be over-engineered?

This post originally appeared on Spur.

Nobody likes a speeding ticket, but “speed traps” might be an indicator of a larger design problem.

I’m sure many Calgarians can identify places in the city where the police like to set up and catch speeders. For me, Memorial Drive Westbound near 14 St. NW (by the CBC building) and John Laurie Boulevard as it passes 14 St NW are two places that immediately come to mind. There are many others. I’ve often wondered why there are these specific places where people speed so much, if we go by the fair assumption that the police are there because speeding is common.

A few of these places are areas where the speed limit changes significantly, but the road design does not. There is no natural feeling of needing to slow down when you pass from a 70km/h zone to a 50km/h zone if the road width and general shape stays the same. Other areas are along sections of road that feel designed for much higher speeds (and probably are). There is a mismatch in what the road is designed for us to do, and what is intended for us to do.

This is an example of over-engineering in transportation. Over-engineering is “the designing of a product to be more robust or complicated than is necessary for its application”. In terms of road speed, these areas where roads feel faster than the speed limit is set are examples of that.

Unfortunately, over-engineering has a much more tragic consequence than a ticket in the mail or a few demerit points. Last year, an average of one pedestrian a day was struck in Calgary, and the trend appears to be continuing this year. I believe these statistics are in large part due to the design of city roads, particularly in new suburbs where access roads are designed much wider than is needed for good traffic flow. At Spur the New West we’re working on a statistical analysis of problem areas in the city, but for now I will leave you with four recent pedestrian collision areas (all between May 23 and 26, 2016) and the Google Streetview of their location. Notice how all the intersections are built to accommodate a large amount of traffic despite their relative quietness. Take a look at the areas where these roads exist: they are deep inside suburban neighbourhoods that generally only see local traffic. Compare those with similar width roads closer into the city, and it is clear that they are designed to handle more traffic and higher speeds than they ever will.

You can get updates on pedestrian collisions in Calgary by following the twitter account @PedDownYYC.

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