São Paulo, Brazil is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere and the 13th most populous city in the world. It has also been, until recently, “a case study of dystopian sprawl,” according to a recent feature story by Simon Romero in the New York Times.
But Romero reports that a new mayor with a vision is changing things.
“Drawing inspiration from policies in New York, Bogotá, Paris and other cities,” Romero writes, mayor Fernando Haddad has “embarked on the construction of hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes and corridors for buses to blaze past slow-moving cars, while expanding sidewalks, lowering speed limits, limiting public parking and occasionally shutting down prominent avenues entirely to cars.”
I’ve never been to São Paulo, but the principle of “traffic calming” has applications worldwide, including here in Maine, where the renovation of Bangor’s Main Street is already enhancing safety and quality of life.
Most definitions of traffic calming, according to the web site trafficcalming.org, focus on engineering measures that change driver behavior. Rotaries are an example of this. In my old hometown, Blue Hill, a rotary has replaced an intersection once notorious for gruesome accidents. In Bangor, the raised islands on Main Street give drivers something to look at besides other cars. They slow down as a result. Not only does the former four-lane strip look a whole lot better than it did a year ago, it’s a whole lot safer, too.
Traffic designers all over the world are discovering that a mixture of automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles, buses and trains makes communities more efficient and more livable. Still, there’s a learning curve for drivers accustomed to having everything designed around the car. Some drivers respond angrily when they can’t find a parking space, or when they have to cede a lane to a bicycle. In São Paulo, Romero reports, results have been mixed. Accidents are down, traffic is flowing a little less sluggishly, but incidents of road rage are common.
In her book Divorce Your Car! Katie Alvord poses the question: Why is there no pedestrian road rage? A British study suggests several answers. The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.
Traffic calming is designed not only to make driving less stressful, but also to encourage people to explore alternatives. For decades, public traffic policy has meant building more roads and parking lots, while public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure languished. Drivers and car owners have become accustomed to having it their way, like a hamburger handed out a drive-through window in less than a minute. That is beginning to change, and some people don’t like it.
I was once asked by a friend I’d invited sailing: “Are you one of those nice guys on land who turns into Captain Bligh on his boat?” No, but I have been Jekyll and Hyde behind the wheel. I’ve experienced road rage. So have most drivers, at one time or another.
I’ve screamed at engines that wouldn’t start. I’ve flipped people off in traffic. I’ve leaned on the horn when the cars ahead of me won’t move. I behaved badly at times in my driving life. I’m not normally that way. Most people aren’t. A car seems to convey a degree of immunity from the norms of everyday behavior: courtesy, and respect for one another.
But that’s what the car culture hath wrought: a harried world where we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s more important to get from driveway to drive-through to office than it is to stop and greet a neighbor, or look at the trees.
Alvord’s author picture shows her on a bicycle towing a trailer, wearing a tee shirt that reads: One Less Car. It’s a reminder that every bicyclist – along with every bus passenger and pedestrian – potentially removes an automobile from the traffic mix. This means less crowded streets, less demand for parking, fewer traffic jams, fewer opportunities for road rage.
The next time you’re driving – or walking, or bicycling, or riding a bus – down Bangor’s Main Street, take a moment to admire the surroundings. Slow down, look around. Beautiful, isn’t it: the river, the new buildings, the autumn leaves? And the street itself looks good. The traffic seems… calmer, somehow.