Monday, December 12, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

“Atlantic Cities” is an occasional email from the publishers of “Atlantic” magazine.  It offers articles on current thinking in land development alternatives.  The editorial focus favors new urbanism concepts, but with an acknowledgment that the discussion has multiple aspects.  For many of the articles, the comments add substantially to the depth and breadth of the conversation.

In a recent article on  ”Debunking the Cul-de-Sac”, the writer reports about a current study of accident rates in towns incorporated before and after 1930.  The underlying assumption is that the earlier towns have traffic systems that include larger areas with grids or other traffic layouts with a less-hierarchical street pattern, which is more typical of urbanist development, and the later towns have larger areas with the more contemporary arterial-collector-local approach, which is more typical of greenfield development.   The findings are that the two types of towns have similar overall accident rates, but the cities that were incorporated earlier have lower incidences of fatal accidents.  The researchers suggest that more grid-based traffic layouts, although often in configurations that wouldn’t conform to current traffic engineering standards, require a higher level of driver caution, therefore making accidents less likely to involve injuries or death.

I didn’t review the underlying study, so can’t comment on the methodology or statistical significance.  From an anecdotal observation of Petaluma, where I live, I find the results credible.  Accident rates between the older west side and the newer east side seem similar, but fatalities seem to occur more frequently on the east side.  But that observation is not scientific.

More importantly, I find this type of study, which finds additional, non-evident benefits from new urbanist development, to be unsettling.  Whether the additional benefits are reduced traffic fatalities, better community involvement, or increased public health, they feed the myth that proponents of new urbanism are attempting to coerce everyone into living in new urbanist developments.

I can’t speak for every urbanist advocate, but I suspect that many share my perspective, which is that we mostly wish to ensure that urban alternatives exist as a viable lifestyle choice.  For eighty years, public policy has favored greenfield development.   I suspect that the goal of most new urbanist enthusiasts isn’t coercion, but solely a level playing field, perhaps with a few added incentives to counteract the general public perception that the current biases reflect “free enterprise” when they really reflect deeply ingrained patterns, often imposed by governmental policies, that date from the time of our grandparents.

None of this is intended to criticize either the writer or the authors of the study that she reports.  I’m sure that they all have a high regard for the objective truth of what they’re reviewing.  But it’s a shame that their efforts may be used to feed a coercion myth that gets in the way of good balanced public policy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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