Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Traffic calming island or "gotcha" device?
"Traffic calming island" is such a soothing word. It evokes a philosophy of thoughtful traffic engineering saving careless drivers from themselves by gently restricting their options in such a way that they can't get into trouble and hurt themselves or others.
The real world is different. All too often these devices seem designed less to calm traffic and keep drivers out of trouble than to punish drivers when they do get into trouble by making their situation even more dire and dangerous. It's like using "gotcha" as a principle of traffic engineering. Sometimes there's even a possibility of innocent bystanders being hurt during the "gotcha" moment.
This is an example that particularly bugs me, perhaps because I drive by it so often. This island is asymmetrical, with more than half jutting out into the southbound lane of Glenway Street on the near west side of Madison. To really get a sense of what's happening here, you need to know that Glenway runs downhill from Mineral Point Road to Monroe Street. Most of it is a straight, unobstructed run down a gradual slope alongside Glenway Golf Course, lulling many drivers into exceeding the 25mph speed limit. The average speed seems to be about 35 mph, and the occasional driver goes much faster, since there's often not much traffic.
Aside from the usual problems of speeding in a residential area, there's another hazard lurking up ahead for the southbound driver. The roadway suddenly turns into a steep, winding plunge down to Monroe Street, including a tight decreasing-radius downhill turn. There's also a bicycle/pedestrian crossing, followed by another marked pedestrian crossing right after that turn. The marked speed limit is 15 mph, for good reason. The problem is getting drivers to pay attention to it.
I sympathize with the objective, but this seems an odd way to go about it. This island comes right after that tight turn. Drivers who go into it too fast will be fighting for control all the way around the turn, and then, just before the pedestrian crosswalk, they will have to suddenly veer around this slightly elevated obstacle -- or run over it, which also could add to their control problems, especially when there's snow or ice on the road. Whenever I pass this combination of traffic island and pedestrian crossing in the winter, I imagine a speeding car encountering this obstacle, trying to swerve around it, and skidding right into a pedestrian standing at the edge of the crosswalk. That really would be a "gotcha."
This isn't a problem for locals who frequently drive this way and are used to slowing down. But this traffic calming island isn't really for them in the first place. For drivers who need to slow down, it's too little, too late, and potentially hazardous as well -- in other words, more about driver punishment than traffic calming.