City Can't Control Personal Choices But Can Control Design

  • Thursday, November 30, 2023

I wear many different hats in this community. I’m a member of the regional planning commission, president of the Community Association of St. Elmo, a civil engineer and a civic educator. I’m not writing today in any of these capacities, I’m writing here simply as the father of three young children. I only mention these many roles because through my experience I am aware of the challenges and hurdles inherent in changes to both public policy and infrastructure. I know it’s not easy to design a street. I know it’s not an easy job to sit on the city council dais. 

I am still struggling to comprehend the tragedy that occurred on Frazier Avenue on Saturday. Many people, myself included, frequent Frazier Avenue and it could have been any one of us that was killed. And this was not, as the mayor has said, “an extreme outlier”. This was the eight time in 23 years that a driver has crashed into that building. This just happened to be the first time that a pedestrian was in the way. 

It is obvious that personal choices played a role in the tragedy that occurred on Frazier Avenue this past Saturday. The choice to drink and drive. The choice to drive confrontationally and aggressively. 

What is obvious to myself and many others is that design also played a crucial role. Drivers respond to the spaces around them. Absent any speed limit or absent the regard for a speed limit, a driver will go slower on a narrow road than a wide one, slower on a curvy road than a straight one, and slower on a busy road than an open one. Reducing the number of lanes on a street reduces the opportunity for aggressive passing and weaving. Bollards trees, and light poles can create barriers to protect pedestrians and buildings from errant drivers. Some engineers shy away from such measures because “someone might damage their car and get mad at the city”. But I think it’s better that someone dent their bumper than another child lose their life. 

City government cannot control the personal choices of people on the street. City government cannot proceed under the illusion that a public safety campaign will turn every person on the street into a model citizen. As James Madison said, “If men were angels no government would be necessary.” What city government can do is change our streets. We have a lot of smart people in this city who are ready and willing to help with this, and there are a lot of changes that can be made on a shoestring budget. 

And with all these possible changes how do we know when a street is safe? I can tell you one way that doesn't require expensive consultants, traffic studies or engineers like myself. Just ask parents with young children how comfortable they feel walking down the sidewalk. How tightly do they hold their child's hand as they walk from storefront to storefront? 

So I challenge our city government to apply these principles not only on Frazier Avenue but in pedestrian hubs throughout our city. City government cannot control personal choices. City government can control the design of our streets.

Nathan Bird

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