Thursday, June 11, 2009

School zones

I blew through a school zone this week on my way to my dad's house. I never even saw it. That's a problem because I'm sensitive to school zones and pedestrians and cyclists and if I can't see it, how many other people can't see it.

Later I went back and looked at it and it was plain enough and in full view--no real reason not to see it, but then no real reason to see it either. And that's the point. One should be alert while driving, but alert to what? We should create contexts for that to which we should be alert. When you enter a school zone, you should be alerted by more than signage. I'll get to my plan in a moment.

Beyond poor identification this school zone and most school zones suffer from other elements of poor design. They can be hard to identify, it's very easy to speed and it's difficult for children to cross. Or at least it's no more difficult to speed and it's no easier for children to cross. And, logically, it should be easier for children to cross in that particular zone and it should be physically more difficult to speed. All we've done to affect that easier crossing is a painted crosswalk and all we've done to affect those slower speeds is signage.

Of course there's also punitive enforcement, but what good is that after a child is hurt--so what if you lock the driver up at that point.

What we're attempting to do in a school zone is to change the environment--we want a safe place for children to cross the road. But creating that environment with a sign and street paint is like creating a baby room in your home by repainting the garage. The space simply isn't appropriate and it's the same with the school zone.

Speed bumps, winding the road and other traffic calming measures are certainly effective, but we needn't be even that heavy handed. To slow speeds, the best way is to make drivers aware of their speed in the first place. With wide roads, wide shoulders and barren easements flanking them, there are no speed judging reference points. Drivers can't tell, really, how fast they're going. I mean, they have a spedometer, yes, but you don't feel a spedometer. So let's get rid of that. Bring in the curb, eliminate the shoulder, place street lamps and signage at the very edge of the road--crowd the road. It won't change throughput, but visually it will create a distinct space. Motorists will notice they're in something different and can then identify it as a school zone. Just as important, with street elements brought closer to the travel lanes, motorists will have better indicators of their speed. They'll be able to feel their velocity with posts and signs whizzing by just outside their doors. What's more, with the curbs brought closer to the lanes, when children do cross, they'll have less road to cover. Currently they must cross shoulder, travel lanes and shoulder before reaching the opposite side. Less time in the road is less exposure to danger.

That may work; it may be safer, but really the technique isn't as important as the principle of a solution appropriate to the space and the needs of the community. The mistake we make is to have a "school zone module" that we install wherever we need one instead of studying the space, considering options and executing the best one. Perhaps that could best be described as give-a-damn. Just with schools alone you have different needs. Junior high and high school students will use a crossing far differently than elementary students. Yet implementation is the same whether it's a public elementary school or a parochial high school. Customization is expensive, but as soon as someone's hurt then, retrospectively, no cost is too high. And really, it's less expensive when you do it right in the first place.