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Tuesday 16 July 2019
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Commentary

The Problem with Disciplinarians

Ryan Darmanie.
Ryan Darmanie.

If there’s anything that shows our inability to progress, it’s how we continue to employ variations of the same solutions to address recurring problems. The conservatives among us revel in the idea of compliance through tough words and brute force.

All we need to do is take stern punitive action and speak “harsh truths” and people will miraculously behave how we want them to. Analysis and concern for the underlying factors that motivate behaviour is not weakness, as those conservative disciplinarians would have us believe, but rather a sign that we aren’t primitive.

Consider the issue of speeding on our roadways. Almost every day, at the same time and spot, police are out with their speed guns in Port of Spain, trying to catch motorists exceeding the fifty kilometre per hour speed limit.

Sure, they ticket a handful of law-breaking citizens each time, but once beyond that speed trap, almost every driver without fail returns to dangerous, near highway-level speeds.

Unless we want to live in a surveillance state, where authorities monitor every square metre of roadway 24/7 with a police officer or CCTV camera, then our current approach will have limited impact.

The speed limit should inform the design of a street right-of-way. Direct traffic calming measures, such as textured paving, chicanes, speed tables and raised crosswalks, and indirect measures, which I’ll focus on, must be considered.

There are roads with the same speed limit, but on one you instinctively feel when you are driving too fast, and on the other you feel comfortable speeding. It is simply a matter of human psychology, and to ignore such is to destine repeated difficulty in enforcement efforts.

Trust your own eyes and search out the reality. As a guide, here are some key aspects of design—according to reports by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Smart Growth America, and others—said to encourage speeding:

• Larger blocks, that is, longer distances between intersections.

• Wider vehicular travel lanes.

• Multiple, adjacent lanes of one-way traffic.

• Lack of spatial enclosure, that is, sufficiently tall buildings or street trees close enough to visually narrow the roadway.

• Lack of on-street parking.

• Lack of other non-automobile street users.

Of course, the goal, I assume, is not so much to regulate speed, as it is to reduce road fatalities. But, this is also related to the amount of driving done overall. Studies have shown that as the total vehicle miles travelled increases, traffic fatalities typically also do.

According to the WRI report, communities that mix their land uses, have a well-connected street network, and have higher population densities experience less driving, which in turn reduces traffic fatality rates.

Our planning system and regulations either encourage or require large blocks, low street connectivity, buildings spaced far from each other and the sidewalk (low spatial enclosure), off-street parking, segregated land uses, and low density development. Exactly the types of conditions that encourage speeding, increase driving, and discourage walking and biking.

We should probably breathe a sigh of relief that some of our urban centres were built before the formal introduction of such planning in the post-independence era.

Interestingly, how then should we react to those places that were built after, but in one way or another, in contravention of these death-inducing regulations?

For those with the view that grassy, sprawling, car-oriented, planned cities and suburbs are great examples of urbanism, and models that we should aspire to, consider the facts.

As a whole, one may be surprised to know that with all of its strict law enforcement, the US—land of the suburb—in 2017 experienced a traffic fatality rate of 11.4 deaths per 100,000 population. According to figures from the TT Police Service, the comparable local rate was roughly nine deaths per 100,000 population.

It turns out that within that country the rate varies significantly. The densely-populated Northeast experiences lower rates than the sprawling South and West. The compact, concrete jungle New York City is statistically far safer for all street users than the grassy, suburban utopias of Orlando, Florida and Los Angeles, California.

A disciplinarian attitude typically leads to blame being placed solely on individuals, while ignoring the environmental factors that influence behaviour. Perhaps the effort and resources expended on enforcement should also extend to addressing these factors, and in some instances, ensuring that regulations themselves are not an actual culprit. If not, we’ll be stuck in an endless cycle, repeating the same old sad stories about the unique lawlessness of Trinbagonians, and why things can never change.

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com

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