AMA: Why does the city let my car be slowed down?


Even on Google maps, there’s a truck double-parked on this block of N. Walnut. Often there are trucks in the left and right lanes right across from each other, narrowing traffic to the center lane. I hear many gripes about this.

Q: Are there or are there not any local ordinances that prohibit delivery trucks and moving trucks on main roads during rush hour? If not, why not? If we do, why aren’t they enforced? We should not have Walnut or College restricted to a single lane due to two delivery trucks on opposite sides at 7:40am. — Driver 8 Take a Break

Q: Many of the new curbs in town are dangerous: they stick out a bit too far, cars hit them and pedestrians use them as a gauge for standing in the street waiting to walk across. Why? — Drivin’ My Life Away

A: Dear Drivers: like in the previous AMA column, my new readers have made assumptions that may be unwarranted. In your case, they’re about what city streets should be like.

Let me dispense with a small assumption first: we only have 100 full-time sworn police officers in the city. To enforce traffic everywhere that traffic infractions occur would be to create a literal police state, or to make the city into a panopticon. (We’re sort of seeing the first signs of it already.) It’s simply impossible to satisfy everyone’s expectations about the behavior of others through policing — did I really just have to write that?

To a more specific question: Is parking on the street illegal in Bloomington? On most two-way, two-lane streets, it is. On the three-lane, one-way North Walnut, it’s not. This is the only ordinance I find in the Municipal Code regarding trucks blocking traffic:

15.32.140 Obstructing traffic. No person shall park any vehicle upon a street, other than an alley, in such a manner or under such conditions as to have available less than twelve feet of the width of the roadway for free movement of vehicular traffic.

This ordinance has been on our books since at least 1983. If two lanes are blocked on the 200 block of N. Walnut, there’s still a lane at least 12 feet wide for thru traffic. So, no, Driver 8, from what I can tell, it’s not illegal, at least, not on certain arterial streets. (I wouldn’t take any actions on opinions on this blog. I may literally be a writer of laws, but IANAL.)

I’ve heard complaints about this happening at all times of day, not just morning rush hour, for which I’ve had little sympathy. Part of me wants to know: when is it that locals think stores should receive shipments? This might be because I used to be a merchant upstream on Walnut St. myself, back in the Thousand-Ands. (You know, “two thousand and five.”) I received the occasional shipment from a double-parked truck, but never with the frequency to generate this complaint.

Or is the gripe being caused by resentment of beer trucks in a notoriously student-centered block of downtown? (I may have to trademark the phrase That’s An Issue for Another Post.™) I don’t hear about that particular phenomenon in any other location, just between the Bluebird, Brothers and the Vid.

Regardless, every time I’d hear someone gripe, my merchant brain would think: why on God’s green earth would I want cars to go faster on N. Walnut? It’s already a speedway; at least ten percent of my customers came entirely on foot; there are lots of stores lining the street. For all sorts of reasons, we should want people to go up Walnut s-l-o-w-l-y, at least so they can see my sign and my wares. I had zero incentive to encourage the beer trucks farther north to move on.

By the way, counter-intuitive though it might seem, the slower the speed of a lane of traffic, the greater the car-carrying capacity of that lane. It has to do with the greater headway required between cars at faster speeds. A lane at 35 mph can carry about 700 cars per hour; at 25 mph, the same lane can carry 850. Slower speed limits mean higher throughput.

I have a similar response to Drivin’ My Life Away’s concern about newer curbs. If cars hit them, it could be that they’re going too fast for the environment.The curbs were designed to shorten the distance pedestrians need to cross the street. That they narrow the lanes of traffic, forcing cars to go slower, is intentional — the curbs’ “sticking out” is a feature, not a bug.

The transportation designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie, in his excellent talk at CNU 22 in Buffalo two years ago (a video you really have to watch all the way through), called streets “the principal public space of cities.” They are not solely for economic exchange; they’re for social exchange and expression as well. Or, as he put it, “display” and “encounter” as well as mere “movement.” In other words, city streets, like city buildings, are supposed to be mixed-use. Highways, like suburban buildings, are single-use.

If you’re only using the street so you can get somewhere as fast as your vehicle is capable of, you may have a case of what I’ve come to call “motorist privilege.” People with it — usually people behind the wheel of a large automobile — don’t just disdain pedestrians; they disdain urban places. They believe that, because their cars can go 100 mph, they should be able to — that they should be prioritized over other users of the road. But 85 percent of pedestrians hit by a car going a mere 40 mph get killed. Only when you bring car speeds down to 20 mph — the fastest speed at which the human body was designed to move under its own power — do fatalities become an afterthought. Instead, as a society we’ve given roads, even in very dense cities, over completely to cars, to a segregation of forms of traffic (which Hamilton-Baillie presents very eloquently). Not all roads should be highways. No streets in cities should be. (That’s what boulevards are for.)

Drivers, if you’re really concerned about safety, you should be asking: how can we get cars to go 20 mph wherever there are pedestrians? Another way to think of it: how many streets would have more pedestrians if cars were only going 20 mph? There are ways to do it that don’t insult drivers or induce road rage. Really, watch BHB’s talk; it’s so worth it.

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