What pedestrians and cyclists want most is to feel safer on Mass Ave. They already are safe. Traffic calming aims to make drivers feel less safe than they are, the opposite.
Auto and air travel are perceived as much more dangerous than reality, mostly because media rushes to produce dramatic visuals and descriptions whenever and wherever there is a crash. Previously, people relied on personal experience and that of friends to learn what was dangerous and not. Today, media makes people aware of accidents everywhere. The reality is that air travel is exceedingly safe. Fewer people die on Massachusetts roads than from drug overdoses. The overdoses don’t get media coverage, but plane and car crashes do. The pollution from coal and oil fueled power plants has killed and injured more people than that from nuclear plants, yet nuclear is perceived as more dangerous due to more media attention on nuclear risks than smokestacks that no longer emit black smoke. White smoke somehow seems safer than black smoke, even when we personally don’t know the contents of either.
Safety and freedom are often at odds. Since 9/11, Americans have lost freedom in the name of safety. From warrantless wiretaps to airport checkpoints, we have lost something in exchange for greater real or perceived safety. Freedom is a funny thing. An indoor house cat may yearn to go outside, yet, once there, is petrified by the openness and freedom. Stereotypical business executives seeking a dominatrix to free them from decision making and directing others for a short while is one version of freedom. Another was typified by Route 66 and new interstate highways of open road which made travel much easier and fun than congested small roads.
Freedom from decision making
Increasingly newer roadway changes have freed drivers from thinking and decision making. Left turn lanes, lane marking, traffic lights, bike lanes, bump outs, signs, and homogeneity all free drivers from having to think and make decisions while driving. Its like the passive activity and distancing from reality of TV watching. Driving in a car isolated from sensory input other than visual, has made driving more unreal and more like a video game with no perceived personal harm risk. The unfortunate consequence is driver inattention and distraction with other activities, not increased safety. Cell phones just happen to be the popular distraction of choice. Traffic rotaries, conversely, demand attention to both negotiate a curve and merge with other traffic. The result is that rotaries are the safest of simple intersections.
People assume the level of risk they are comfortable with
People compensate for safety features with riskier behaviors. Head injuries in rugby are lower than football because football helmets encourage players to use their heads to impact other players. Such is the nature of protective gear. Likewise, long time spans of safety breeds complaisance and lax procedures adherence.
Perception of Safety results in more dangerous behavior
On roadways, the perception of greater safety encourages more risk taking and inattention, by everyone. Pedestrians don’t look or observe crossing signals while crossing, cyclists pay less attention to other vehicles while in bike lanes, and car drivers pay less attention when they are tracked like cattle in chutes. Bike lanes might actually be safer than shared lanes, but compensating riskier behavior by cyclists can null any gain, resulting in no statistical harm reduction. Likewise, curb extensions show no reduction in harm for pedestrians, perhaps because they start taking less care crossing.
Perception of Danger results in more cautious behavior
This is good and bad. If people perceive danger while driving, they will more likely use seat belts. People are more likely to buckle up for highway driving than low-speed local driving, despite highways being actually safer, yet perceived more dangerous. Just recently, Arlington had a Feast of the East street fair with police and street side concessions. Suddenly, pedestrians crossing Mass Ave increased J-Walking and ignoring crosswalk signals. A perception of greater safety resulted in more inattention and less caution. Studies bear this out – as traffic speeds drop below 30mph, Jay Walking increases.
We want to balance caution with avoidance
Too much fear scares off people from driving, bicycling, or crossing certain roads they perceive as unsafe. They choose alternate routes or not to participate. People have varied thresholds. What fixes avoidance in some breeds inattention and risky behavior in others. In US street designs, the balance has swung to breeding inattention as can be seen in statistics and government awareness campaigns. Outside the US, accelerating use of roundabouts and shared space (no delineation of car, bike, or pedestrian spaces on roadway) have produced great decreases of accidents from making everyone pay more attention.
next, my vision for Mass Ave to somewhat sooth perceptions and increase real safety…