Last night the city authorized a few hundred thousand dollars to construct traffic calming measures in several Stockton neighborhoods. It turns out many of the city’s residential streets are dangerous because cars are going too fast. But we aren’t talking about rural communities or streets in high-crime areas: The majority of roads identified as dangerous are actually of the suburban variety. In fact, one neighborhood targeted for traffic calming—LeBaron Estates off of Davis Road– is just 15 years old. This begs the question: If we have to fork out money to fix these roads because they allow cars to go too fast, why do we allow them to be designed like this in the first place?
In all, about $328,000 in Measure K funds will be used this year ($278 thousand for construction, and $50 thousand for pavement marking equipment) in 14 neighborhoods on various types of traffic calming gimmicks in an attempt to slow down speeding motorists. These neighborhoods include north Stockton subdivisions such as the aforementioned LeBaron Estates, Colonial Heights, and Parkwoods, as well as a few areas in the southern portion of the city. What the majority of these areas have in common is that they feature typical suburban streets so wide that they practically dare drivers to exceed residential speed limits. But nothing has happened to these roads since they were built to make them less safe. In fact, they are actually functioning exactly as they were intended: allowing cars to go as fast as possible at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists.
One of the hallmarks of traditional suburban development is wide, slowly-curving, uninterrupted street design that funnels cars in and out of their neighborhoods as quickly as possible. Drive through any recently built subdivision and you’ll notice that you almost never have to pump the brakes. It’s quite pleasant for drivers who can effortlessly hit speeds of 40mph without noticing that they are going too fast, but sadly, it’s perilous for anyone else who foolishly thinks that the street might be used for playing kickball or riding a bike. The same features that are so effective at moving cars also have the unintended consequence of putting pedestrians in harm’s way.
So now we are left with dangerous roads and it’s the taxpayer that has to foot the bill for expensive traffic calming measures. Throughout the city, Stockton must now retrofit dozens of streets in order to curb speeding through residential areas. Normally, a simple stop sign would suffice in slowing drivers. But unfortunately, many blocks in newer developments extend for hundreds of meters between cross streets, meaning stop signs would make no sense. Instead, the city must resort to speed bumps, traffic circles, or those weird chicanes you see on Iron Canyon Circle in Spanos East (see picture below). Once installed, cars may have to slow down, but now residents are stuck with unattractive speed bumps, a constant reminder that the street they live on is just not safe. Moreover, speed bumps can lead to a decrease in property values while increasing the time a home stays on the market.
All of this can be avoided in the future if the city would allow/implore developers to build more narrow streets, alleys behind houses, planter strips with trees and street grid designs that encourage safer speeds. Street grids mean shorter blocks, which in turn should translate into more stop signs, which both slows traffic and gives pedestrians safer avenues for crossing the street. (sidenote: you may note that some streets in grid networks, such as West Oak and West Park streets, are just as dangerous, and you are right. But it’s because the city changed these residential streets into fast tracks for cars zooming to and from the highway. Street grids don’t work at slowing cars down when all stop signs have been removed and streets are converted to one-ways in order to accommodate speeding commuters).
Bottom line: why do we build streets that are designed to allow cars to travel as quickly as possible, and then act surprised when people are speeding? Not only is this dangerous, but it costs us money to correct these mistakes.