Safe for a firing range. Not safe for a city street.

Safe for a firing range. Not safe for a city street.

At basic training for the U.S Army, we did an exercise late one night where I and my fellow trainees were prompted to crawl about 100 yards through a course containing barbed wire, trenches and other obstacles while machine gun fire blasted over our heads. I remember looking up and seeing the tracer rounds fly from a tower to a target back behind the course. The bullets were well over our heads -- I am sure I could have stood up and they still would have been well above me -- but it was disconcerting nonetheless. While it was very unlikely that I was going to be killed by a stray bullet, it was far more likely that I would be killed by one than my friends back home who weren't crawling beneath M-60 fire.

Imagine my drill sergeant set up an M-60 nest in the middle of the street and a nice big target a couple blocks away, also in the middle of the street, then began firing from one to the other. He'd hit the target every time -- he's a pro -- and so there would really be little to no risk of getting hit. Would you walk along the street? 

Probably not. I wouldn't. In fact. I wouldn't let my kids go within six blocks of this if I knew this were going on. Is that irrational? Statistically speaking it perhaps is, but when a small mistake means the difference between life and death, why risk it. What is the upside that justifies the downside risk?

At the end of last month there was a terrible incident where a car left the roadway, killed a child and injured another, while they were walking through a park. Here's the news report:

A child is dead and another is in critical condition after a car struck them in Delaware Park.

The vehicle left the road while traveling westbound on Route 198 - the Scajaquada Expressway - just past Parkside Avenue around 11:30 a.m. It struck a three year old boy who was taken to Sisters Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:15 p.m. His five year old sister is in critical condition at Women & Children's Hospital.

The two were out walking with their mother in the park, and one or both may have been seated in a stroller.

Changing the speed limit on the Scajaquada stroad.

Changing the speed limit on the Scajaquada stroad.

Sadly, the unique thing about this incident is not the death of a child -- children getting run down and killed by vehicles happens ALL THE TIME -- the unique thing is the reaction to this specific tragedy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the speed on Highway 198, which runs right through Delaware Park bisecting a number of community amenities and neighborhoods, to be reduced to 30 mph. His directive included the following:

While law enforcement agencies are still investigating the circumstances surrounding this terrible crash, it is clear that immediate action needs to be taken to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians on the portion of the Scajaquada Expressway that passes through Delaware Park. 

For this reason, I direct you to immediately lower the speed limit on this section of the roadway to 30 mph, install speed messaging boards, and construct park-appropriate guard rails to protect pedestrians.

These actions are to be taken as the Department of Transportation continues to investigate long-term solutions to prevent further tragedies on this part of the Expressway.

This administration will continue to take every available action we can through engineering, education and enforcement to avoid crashes like this in the future.

This might seem logical to many of you, but I want to direct your attention to a nuance that demonstrates our confusion over the tradeoffs we make each day when designing our transportation systems. The governor has directed the DOT to (1) lower the speed limit and install the signs that indicate that, and (2) build guard rails. In the language we use here at Strong Towns, Cuomo is saying (1) make Highway 198 more like a street and (2) make Highway 198 more like a road. Stop firing bullets but also put up protective barriers.

The question we should be asking here is this: Is Highway 198 a road or a street? Is it a connection between two productive places OR is it a platform for creating wealth? If it's a road, which it seems like to me, then lowering the speed limit is the wrong thing to do. With the way this highway is engineered for high speeds, an artificially low speed limit will create a dangerous situation. If this is going to be a 30 mph stretch (still too fast to be compatible with people outside of their cars), then the roadway needs to be redesigned so that the typical driver only feels comfortable when driving at safe, neighborhood speeds. Lowering the speed limit might be good politics -- it is an action that can be taken immediately to give the veneer of doing something -- but it's not good policy, even as an interim step.

How about the guard rails? Again, if we're building a road and so the goal is moving cars quickly, then the guardrails are a good interim step, but long term we will need something more robust to keep people and traffic safely separated. I note that the governor called for "park-appropriate" guard rails, which I take to mean guard rails that won't harm the view of the park as seen from the driver's seat. If that's the case, then we're confusing the purpose of a park here just as badly as we're confusing the purpose of a highway. Urban parks are not aesthetic amenities for passing motorists. There's no return on that investment. Urban parks are meant to provide value -- improve the quality of life -- to people living within walking, biking or transit distance of the park. If we're doing it right, that value should be reflected in the value of the tax base, the real creation of wealth. 

Highway 198 in Buffalo. Click to explore in GoogleMaps.

Highway 198 in Buffalo. Click to explore in GoogleMaps.

All of this confusion goes back, of course, to the original bad decision to run a highway through the middle of a neighborhood. You have a park, a college, the river and lots of housing. These should not have been so casually disregarded, but they were. If Buffalo today were to eliminate Highway 198 -- turn it into a true parkway with 20 mph neighborhood design speeds -- I would applaud. I'm guessing that many in the neighborhood would as well. After a transition, there would be many opportunities for growing their tax base and improving the community's wealth. For a whole bunch of reasons, I doubt this will happen.

If it doesn't, that leaves Buffalo only two other viable options. Build your barriers high and thick to protect your people from stray cars OR accept a certain level of tragic, random death and injury as a byproduct of the stroad you have built. Both of these are expensive, unproductive and just plain sad uses of public resources.

If bullets were being expertly fired by a marksman at a target along Highway 198, New Yorkers would go berserk, even through the chance of accidental death would be minimal. I would not blame them for this reaction, but I'm completely baffled as to why we routinely accept much greater risk from drivers and their automobiles. I also don't know why we continue to accept incoherent, half-measures as a response.

Put in a real barrier to make it a road or slow the cars to make it a street. The continued street/road hybrid approach of this and countless other stroads is only going to lead to more needless tragedy, with the side effect of our cities going bankrupt in the process.

#slowthecars