Your Questions Answered: How Do I Talk to My Council Members About Slowing the Cars?


Earlier this month, we announced our newest platform—The Strong Towns Knowledge Base—where you can submit your most pressing questions and get them answered by both the Strong Towns staff and the many experienced, knowledgeable members of the Strong Towns Network.

Since its launch, we’ve received several great questions that can help both the submitter and you—our readers—take action locally. For example:

(We’ll get to answering these questions shortly—in the meantime, we encourage you to leave your own insights and feedback in the comments.)

We know the Knowledge Base, in addition to our blog and podcasts, means you have a lot of content to juggle. That’s why every week on Friday morning we’re going to post an update from the Knowledge Base. We’ll take a new question or two that was answered that week, or maybe some excellent, insightful comments we received, and spotlight them on our blog.

(You can check out last Friday’s update from my colleague Daniel, where he tackled a crucial question that readers from across the country have often asked us: How can downtowns in disinvested, midsize cities incentivize retail again? What are some cities that have successfully done this?)

This week, we’ve answered the following question: How do I talk to my council members about slowing the cars?

We love this question and imagine you can relate. We’ve all thought to ourselves (or yelled aloud) that drivers should slow down where people are present—for example, in our downtowns and on our neighborhood main streets.

In this article, we’ll help give you the knowledge and confidence you need to find a common ground with local officials who might be skeptical, and help them understand why local government should act to slow traffic.

Remember: these are partial answers. No question like this can ever be definitively and conclusively answered, but we don’t want that to stop us from providing a start—or you from chiming in with your comments! The Knowledge Base is a living document, so if you’ve got more to add, head over to help.strongtowns.org, read the article here, and add a comment.

How do I talk to my council members about slowing the cars?

Your elected leaders do care about the safety of their constituents, whether they choose to drive, walk, or bike. And they’ve likely shown it in their own way—ensuring crosswalk signals are working properly or proposing to lower the posted speed limit.

You should acknowledge your council members’ awareness and willingness to help using the knowledge they have. But it’s essential they understand that streets won’t be safe until they’re redesigned to slow down cars, which will not only make the street safer but also more economically productive.

That means, depending on the interests of the council members, you can hit several pertinent, compelling pain points to help them understand why they need to slow the cars.

  • You likely have a particular street in mind that you’d like to discuss with your council members. Before you meet, it’s essential you understand where that street exists in the context of you city: is it a street (where people mingle, such as in a downtown) or a road (where vehicles should move quickly and adjoining activity should be limited)? Assuming it’s the former, you have the premise of your pitch: you want to slow the cars on this street because it’s where people—on foot, or maybe bike, scooter, or wheelchair—are doing life.

  • Few would outright deny that where people are walking and biking, the local government should work to ensure they can do so safely. However, this is where many skeptics will likely bring up a logical yet incorrect solution to dangerous traffic speeds: reduce the posted speed limit. This article illustrates how street design—not posted speed limits—determines the speed at which a person feels comfortable driving. If you want to slow traffic, narrow the street; add “friction” through things like curb bumpouts and bollards; add sidewalks and bicycle facilities; and reduce visibility by planting more street trees. These things may seem counterintuitive. But they cause drivers to feel more uncertainty and thus slow down.

  • Elected officials respond best to statistics and case studies. Essentially, if you want your council members to consider your suggestion, you need to show that other cities (preferably with a similar population) have successfully implemented it. This article shows how (and why) three different cities slowed the cars on key streets. The design elements vary—one city added a roundabout, another narrowed the street—but the motive is the same: slow traffic to make the streets safer for people.

  • You’ve identified a street where people exist; explained why design determines speed; and given examples of cities that have redesigned their streets to make them safer. As you’ve learned, you’re pitching a solution that will save lives. That can’t be understated. However, there’s a final benefit to top it off: slowing the cars will also often make a street more economically productive. That’s because, as we’ve explained in this article, people will feel safer walking. The result: more people patronizing local businesses and boosting the local economy.

We’re hopeful this information will give you the wisdom and confidence you need to talk to your council members about slowing the cars. If this information is helpful or if you have additional feedback and insights to share, please let us know in the comments below.