Safe Streets 2012: Opening brainstorm, invitation and stretching exercise

Here we are, it suddenly 2012, and time to get down to work on Q1 of the 2012 Safe Streets Challenge. This first quarter is to be given over to reaching out: making contacts and collecting information, ideas,  analysis and points of view concerning alternative concepts, approaches and examples, in the hope that we will eventually be identifying and drawing attention to a very broad range of  useful things to consider and  study together in the hope of rendering our streets safer, more convivial and more efficient (bearing in mind that we also need to be a eternally vigilant  when it comes to “more efficient” for whom and what).

What we are going to see as we move ahead is that this is a road with a lot of deep, quasi-invisible and potentially dangerous potholes on it.  If we are looking for a smooth ride, we will do well to find ourselves another topic.  So if youi are still here, watch out for the bumps.

Scrutinizing the title:
If we are going to think together about “safe streets” over the year ahead, what better place to start than with taking a close look at our title. For any of those of us who have dipped into this more-complex-than-it-may-look topic on different occasions and in different places, we can see is that there are a wide range of proposed responses and attitudes about who should do what to obtain what. And that to sort our way through this potential mess, we need to be sure to ask these simple questions each time that a new idea or proposal pops up, so as to be very sure that we know exactly what it is that needs to be done, how, for whom, etc..

There is a lot of ambiguity out there when it comes to talking about safety, and we are going to see many examples as we collect and scrutinize them over the course of this first quarter of 2012. So if we need a theme for Q1 perhaps it should be: “be sure to ask the simple questions”. I can think of no better way to keep this horse from running away with us.

To get the ball rolling, let me share with you a couple of comments and ideas, starting with the second half of our title which may be more loaded than it looks.

Streets versus roads:
What we are concerned about this project over the year ahead are “streets”, that is public spaces within communities that have a variety of social and human as well as tour transport functions. What Jan Gell and others have repeatedly referred to as “the space between buildings”. This contrasts sharply with what are called “roads”, i.e.,  by and large defined channels down which exclusively motor vehicles range, as they move deliberately and with their own moral, economic and legal code toward final destinations. As has often been said, a street is a destination in itself — whereas roads are all about getting to their distant destinations.

These are two very distinctive worlds and there is a huge difference between them which needs to be kept firmly in mind as we move ahead in looking at different kinds of approaches and technologies, so that we do not get confused and end up mixing up one with the other. One of the things we are going to see again and again is that there are an extensive array of approaches and technologies which may work very well in the context of roads, but which may be entirely inappropriate, even dangerous in some way, or at the very least in need of substantial modification, when it comes to a street environment.

In our present context over the year ahead it is going to be important to keep this distinction consistently interview, because there are a number of well-funded projects and programs which have high media profiles which are above all devoted to increasing road safety.  This is without any doubt very important, but a very different kind of focus.

It will be important for us to keep an eye on these projects and programs, with the possibility of eventually running across interesting measures which in time and with great discretion may find have a role to play when it comes to the space between buildings.

But caveat emptor!  We can be pretty sure in advance that much of what concerns these other programs is quite different from the environment we are dealing with here.  Still it is worth having a close look, and indeed there may be situations in which the things that are being looked at and proposed in these programs to make roads safer may well be partially or even totally inappropriate in a street environment. But all this we will see as we move ahead in our outreach mode over this first quarter of the year.

What do we mean by “safety”? 

“Safety” is a significantly more challenging word and concept, and as such it is not one that I can even start to exhaust into this short opening note. Rather than trying to answer what may seem to many to be a very simple question, let me instead recast it in the form of another  short question, namely: “safe for whom and from whom or what”?  To get a feel for this basic question, let us move out onto the street and consider what happens with a lot of cars moving about on it. how to make that street more safe?

The simplest example is that of a car in which someone you love, possibly yourself, is at the wheel. If we want the people inside the steel box to be safe, the response is easy: make it as heavy and strong as possible. This, we know of course, leads to a particular kind of behavior on the part of the people inside the box, and above all of course the driver. that is to say his behavior is directly determined by the weight and strength (and speed) of the vehicle which he more or less controls as he makes his way down the street.  No surprises there!

On the other hand if we are concerned about the people outside the hurtling box, who by the way on most streets will be a considerable majority, then may be an argument for making that box itself as fragile and light (and slow)as possible, so that any eventual incident would play itself out on something approaching equal terms between the two parties involved.

If we take this to an extreme conclusion, we have now moved drivers out of cars and put them onto something totally much like a bicycle, and if this does not settle all of the safe streets issues, in particular when it comes to inconsiderate and selfish cyclists (and they do exist), we nevertheless have a situation which is a lot closer to parity. QED, we have just moved toward a far safer street.

This is of course grossly simplistic, but is proposed here is a quick intellectual gymnastic that may help warm us up as we begin to dig more deeply into these issues,, on the grounds that each time we wish to come to some conclusions that may be important for public policy purposes, we best be certain that we have gone all the way back to the beginning of these fundamental issues and choices..

Let me leave it at that for today, since the objective in this first quarter is to spread our net as widely as possible and get ideas, information and proposals in from many people with hopefully diverse backgrounds, values and attitudes toward what this topic is all about.

It is going to be an interesting year.

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What is a “safety nazi”?  I have heard this expression recently from the mouth of someone who is highly knowledgable on our topic> What does s/he ever mean by that?

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