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Going With a Slower Flow

Cars may no longer be king in the Southland as speed humps and other devices to 'calm' drivers drivers turn up on residential streets.

June 04, 1996|JANE SPILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Southern California drivers will see strange new signs, bumps and curves if a movement to make cars slow down on residential streets picks up speed.

Known by the buzz phrase "traffic calming," the concept seeks to balance the rights of residents with those of drivers. Its advocates say cars have invaded neighborhood streets in numbers and at speeds ruinous to the quality of life, and cite statistics that show that being hit by a car is the leading cause of injury death for children ages 1 to 9 in California.

"People want kids to be able to play in the street," said Joe Faust, a traffic engineer who installed some of the first local traffic calming devices more than 20 years ago in Santa Ana. "As long as the traffic volume on a residential street is less than 2,500 to 3,000 cars a day, the residents are willing to live with that. As volume climbs, it feels like a flood of traffic by the home. " . . . As speed goes up, there's a perception that the number of cars is increasing. If you could keep the traffic going slow, it would probably be all right."

The traffic calming movement has a strong base in Western Europe, where thousands of streets have been retrofitted with barriers, both real and psychological, to reduce the speed of cars. Australia and Japan also have active programs.

In the United States, Portland, Ore., has been a leader since 1984, when residents demanded that the city protect neighborhoods from traffic. Today, the city has eight full-time staff members who work on traffic calming with an annual budget of $2 million. Portland employs everything from intersection chokers to speed humps, traffic circles and other devices to take streets back from cars and improve neighborhoods.

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As for here, "the car has been king for so long in Southern California that traffic calming is a kind of radical concept," said Susan Hartnett, former manager of the Portland program. "Cars and the mobility people get from cars is tied to the American sense of freedom, and when you affect that in ways that are perceived as negative, you can really get some very strong negative responses."

Still, the idea seems to be spreading here. Pasadena, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Paramount, Santa Monica and Whittier are among the cities that have installed traffic calming devices on their streets. Long Beach has just completed an ambitious plan to calm traffic in 23 neighborhoods, closing some streets and putting speed humps on others. Traffic calming also has become a regular item on the agenda at traffic engineering conferences in Southern California.

"California started out building pretty wide streets, which allows the motorist to feel much more comfortable and much more free, so they go faster," Faust said. "So we narrow streets--make them curvilinear, make them meander--to make the motorist feel much more confined and tight, so they slow down."

Culver City learned the hard way how not to run a traffic calming program when officials installed barricades to stop cut-through commuter traffic on McDonald Street in 1987. People removed the barricades or drove around them.

"There was one case where a man was standing in his yard watering and the people drove right in front of him across his front lawn," said Art Kassan, the traffic engineer who oversaw the project. "There were even reports of gunshots being fired one night by one side or another."

Culver City now takes a different approach, he said. "We basically require a neighborhood to create their own program, study the problem and decide what they want to do. They form a committee, and I give them technical information about traffic devices available."

Speed humps--which are gentler than speed bumps--are one of the tools to calm traffic. They don't affect cars, buses or firetrucks so much that emergency access or transit routes are impeded. Kassan says drivers going 35 mph will slow to 25 mph with speed humps. Humps also are inexpensive to install--about $2,000 to $2,500 each.

Curb extensions, also called chokers, narrow the street visually and physically and give more of a small-town neighborhood dimension to a street. Kassan said one of the psychological tricks is just to paint stripes, called edge lines, about eight feet from the curb, as if it's a parking lane. That in itself decreases speed.

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Traffic circles are another device used extensively in Europe and just beginning to be used to slow down motorists in Southern California. These range from very small circles at intersections to cause cars to slow to go around them, like the circles recently installed on Higuera Street in Culver City, to large rotaries used extensively in Europe and New England.

By eliminating the requirement to stop, in favor of yielding the right of way, traffic circles result in cars producing less pollution and less noise.

A meandering route is another device that was used on Higuera Street. Some street parking was lost, but there now a curving greenbelt for walkers.

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