Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

We all want the same thing

By David Ragland

When Solaiman Nuri and his daughters Hadessa, 9, and Hannah, 12, set out on a bike ride Saturday morning, April 7, along the sidewalk of Treat Boulevard in Concord (legally, according to the Concord Municipal Code), there was no reason to anticipate that their trip would be cut short by a reportedly out-of-control vehicle leaving the road and crashing into them, killing Hadessa and her father.

The Nuris, all of whom were wearing helmets, were doing what is considered a good and desirable thing: partaking in physical exercise, strengthening family ties and building community by bringing human life to the Saturday streets of Concord.

Treat Boulevard is a well-paved, multi-lane, signalized street with sidewalks, designed to move drivers quickly between their homes in nearby neighborhoods and places for work, school, shopping and recreation. It adheres to roadway design practices that have been in place for decades.

So what went wrong?

My fellow researchers at UC Berkeley’s SafeTREC and I cannot speak to the particulars of the crash that occurred that Saturday, because we have no direct knowledge of the conditions and causes of that horrific and tragic event. We can, however, speak to a message that this tragedy carries in terms of broad questions about how our existing roadway design standards may contribute to the potential for such crashes. We in no way dispute the responsibility of all roadway users to behave safely.  However, if events like this do not spur us to look in our societal mirror, we’re not sure what else could.

Roads designed like Treat Boulevard can communicate to drivers that they are the only important users.  Studies have shown that high speed limits (Treat is signed at 45 mph) and large volumes of auto traffic have a significant negative effect on pedestrian safety. (Bicycling has not been as well-studied, partly because so few people dare to bicycle along such roadways.)

Why?  As the old saying goes, “Speed kills.” The risk of serious injury or death for a pedestrian or bicyclist increases exponentially at speeds above 20 mph; being hit by an automobile traveling even at 45 mph almost ensures the victim will die. In addition, multi-lane roadways not only carry more auto traffic, they are designed to be “forgiving" to drivers, meaning that it is expected that drivers will make mistakes and have room to correct for them.  However, studies have shown that giving drivers more room for error in urban areas does not make them safer.  In fact, it may increase the danger for all other roadway users by encouraging drivers to speed or engage in other risky behaviors like talking on the cell phone. In this way, it directly contradicts efforts to make people feel—or actually be—safe walking and bicycling.

In contrast, adding protective measures such as on-street parking and street trees, and reducing the number and width of travel lanes, can slow automobile traffic and create an environment that communicates that the roadway is a place that welcomes people of all ages and abilities—not just fast-moving automobiles.  Wide sidewalks and separated space for pedestrians and bicyclists can further enhance the experience for people traveling along these public roadways. Research from the last two decades has shown that pedestrians and bicyclists are more comfortable using streets with these characteristics.

A recent study of ours shows that motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders “get it.” All expressed broad support for roadway designs that slow traffic and make roads safer. We titled the study, “We All Want the Same Thing.”  While recent national efforts have resulted in better incorporation of pedestrians and bicyclists in engineering standards and street designs, the heartbreaking events of that Saturday remind us that we still have a lot of work to do before achieving it.

This was written by David Ragland, PhD, Director, SafeTREC (Safe Transportation Research and Education Center), UC Berkeley, along with Rebecca Sanders, SafeTREC researcher and PhD candidate in City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley and Phyllis Orrick Communications Director, SafeTREC

Email SafeTREC

Related news stories:

Town Mourns After Father and Daughter Are Killed in Bike Accident, NY Times, April 13

Father, young daughter killed by speeding vehicle in Concord, Contra Costa Times, April 7