At a cost of two million shekels, barriers are being installed at Jerusalem bus stops to keep local residents safe from car-ramming attacks — a form of terrorism that, over the past few months, has made the city’s public transit users feel like sitting (or standing) ducks.
No one begrudges this expenditure. We all sense the human body’s vulnerability in the face of a massive hunk of metal, hurtling toward it at high speed. We all feel the urgency of protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the motorized threat.
Except when we don’t.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recently released its report on road accidents with casualties for 2015. The overall picture isn’t pretty: 355 deaths (up 11% from 2014) and a combined fatality/injury figure of 23,488 (up 2% from 2014).
According to Or Yarok, a road safety organization, pedestrians account for 34% of all Israeli traffic fatalities, compared with an average of 19% for other developed countries.
Children and the elderly are especially at risk. Jerusalem ranks highest among Israeli localities for child pedestrian casualties.
Or Yarok notes that the Ministry of Transportation has slashed its road safety budget, despite the fact that Israeli traffic deaths have increased in number for three years in a row. MK Stav Shaffir has taken the Ministry to task for its complacency in the face of these statistics.
I once wrote an essay highlighting Israel’s need for a Vision Zero program similar to those recently adopted by a number of North American cities, in imitation of Sweden’s highly successful initiative to reduce traffic deaths to zero.
I pointed out that one of the keys to improving pedestrian safety in built-up areas is a change in our attitude toward streets. Rather than viewing streets primarily as corridors for motor vehicle traffic, used occasionally by humans whose safety must somehow be accommodated but by no means prioritized, we need to rethink our streets from a people-oriented perspective: “Even urban arterials that carry large amounts of motorized traffic need to be designed with all users in mind.”
Vision Zero embodies just this kind of attitudinal change.
An entire body of thought is emerging around the idea of “design speed” — the speed at which drivers feel comfortable driving, regardless of the posted speed limit, due to the visual cues conveyed by a street’s design.
The following meme created by Wes Craiglow, a city planner in Conway, Arkansas, illustrates the idea:
A wide roadway, with buildings set far back from the road and no visible intersections is, in Craiglow’s phrase, a “racetrack environment” – even if the posted speed limit is only 20 mph (32 kph).
This concept of building the street “to communicate the need for a slower speed” is only just beginning to catch on here in Israel. Even Or Yarok, which does such great work raising awareness of the price we pay for our car dependency, fails to question the status quo of Israeli street design. The solutions it proposes for reducing pedestrian deaths are ex post facto ones, such as installing speed bumps. Speed bumps are better than nothing, but they don’t address the issue of why our streets invite drivers to exceed posted limits in the first place, or why so many places in Jerusalem where people naturally want to congregate do their best to scare the humans away.
I’m reminded of the above meme nearly every day as I cross an especially problematic thoroughfare near my home:
If you look closely you can see a bus stop recently equipped with the barriers that we Jerusalemites now perceive to be necessary. The roadway itself has long been adorned with speed bumps. This is not surprising, as the road is much too wide (it gets a lot less traffic than the planners seem to have anticipated). Another feature that would tend to invite speeding is the roughly 350 meter (1150 foot) distance between intersections along this segment of the street. (To give some basis for comparison, albeit relating to a different kind of urban environment: Israeli researchers recently found that successful commercial streets have intersections spaced less than 80 meters apart.)
In fact, speed bumps, here and elsewhere around town, often serve as crosswalks where crosswalks ought to be but are not. Residents who need to get to or from the bus stop in the image above will naturally cross at the speed bump, rather than go several minutes out of their way to the nearest crosswalk.
I have seen cars stop short at that speed bump, to (narrowly) avoid hitting pedestrians. It’s great that the neighborhood’s bus stops are protected against car-rammings, but I suspect that simply crossing the street poses a greater risk to local residents.
Speed bumps cannot substitute for crosswalks — or for people-friendly street design.