By Derek Chisholm, guest columnist
I love my cars, and I love high-horsepower V8 engines. However, even someone like me eventually learns that our city streets are not the place for speed. It’s, literally, the difference between life and death.
In crashes involving people walking, the risk of killing someone, or being killed, increases slowly until speeds reach 30 miles per hour. Above this speed, risk increases rapidly. At 20 mph, there’s a 95 percent chance an adult is going to survive being hit by a car. At 30 mph, those odds drop to 55 percent. At 40 mph, you have virtually no chance at 5 percent.
The reasons behind these increases is tied to the difference between speed and kinetic energy, which increases much more quickly than velocity. In other words, a small change in speed, or velocity, results in a large change in kinetic energy. The increase isn’t linear. For children and older adults, or for crashes involving SUVs and other large vehicles, even slower speeds can be deadly.
New Orleans is a dangerous place for people simply walking down the street. We rank among the highest statewide for crashes involving pedestrians. Our pedestrian fatality rate consistently exceeds the national average. Why? It’s partly due to drivers who consistently exceed the speed limit. It’s also a direct result of how our streets are designed.
New Orleans streets have been built to accommodate more and more cars for more than 100 years. In the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods on the east bank most of the streets are narrow, having originally been designed and built for walking, horses and carriages. Even after 100 years, it’s difficult to drive too fast on these narrow streets with so many cars parked on all sides and the deteriorating conditions in between.
On the west bank and areas beyond the center of the city, conditions are very different. Wide, multi-lane roads are everywhere. It’s on many of these wider roadways, both east bank and west bank, in the urban center and in the suburbs, where the most serious crashes are occurring. It’s where our focus for designing safe and accessible streets must change.
Simply put: Many of our major roads aren’t safe — for people driving, walking, biking, or riding the bus.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell released her plan to improve transportation at the beginning of May, called Moving New Orleans. It covers a lot of ground. As a professional planner, president of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Planning Association, and member of the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition, I want to advocate for the widespread introduction of traffic-calming measures such as lower speed limits, lane reductions, longer pedestrian crossing times, and yes, additional traffic cameras to make traveling to work and visiting friends easier and safer for everyone.
And as a means to ensuring the city commits to making transportation safe, equitable and sustainable for the years ahead, we need a solid understanding of how we’re moving, and how fast. We need a data-driven policy that’s publicly accountable and can be sustained through this administration and the next.
Once such a policy is established, and we’re collecting better data, on major roads connecting people to jobs, where congestion allows, the city should consider lane reductions and other traffic-calming measures. Too many of our neighbors are seriously injured or killed from excessive speeds, illegal turns and drivers not stopping at crosswalks.
Still, in many cases, people are simply choosing to not respect the rules of the road, all the while knowing people’s lives are at stake. Start with your own behavior: Do you use the turn signal consistently, do you come to a complete stop, do you stay at 20 mph and below in school zones? We also should hold accountable those family and friends we ride with who drive too fast. Their lives, as well as those walking and biking, can be quickly ruined by a crash.
Everyone out there, especially people walking, need us drivers not to crash into them. They need us to stay at or below the posted speeds, observe school zones, put away the smart phones, stop at the stop bars, use our turn signals and preserve open crosswalks. Lives are at stake: our own.
Derek Chisholm is a driver, a cyclist, and an urban planner and designer in New Orleans.