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VIEWPOINT: Street design as if pedestrians matter

GRAND FORKS--Pedestrian safety at school crosswalks and nearby intersections has been a topic of conversation in Grand Forks lately. Furthermore, many people on social media have said this is an issue at several schools around town, not just one.

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GRAND FORKS-Pedestrian safety at school crosswalks and nearby intersections has been a topic of conversation in Grand Forks lately. Furthermore, many people on social media have said this is an issue at several schools around town, not just one.

I've also seen a lot of potential solutions offered, ranging from hiring more crossing guards, to beefing up police patrols, to increasing fines for people who speed through school zones.

But one solution hasn't come up yet, and it's probably the most important one: better and safer street, intersection and crosswalk design.

When the talk in Grand Forks turns to traffic-calming measures, a couple of responses are offered that typically end the discussion. First, we hear that there's no money to spend on these measures. Second, we hear that the the measures don't work.

After all, speeding is a choice, we're told, and people are going to speed and drive however they want, regardless of what's on or near the street.

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Regarding the comment about money: it's a fair point, but only to an extent. Some solutions are expensive, like retrofitting the concrete on streets, sidewalks and crosswalks.

But other solutions are inexpensive and easy to implement. Recently, a group of St. Louis residents worked with the city to install speed bumps and public art near a school intersection that had a long history of accidents. With very little investment and a bit of creativity, the problem was solved.

Regarding the comment that speeding is a choice, it absolutely is. The problem with using that as an argument is that it discounts the fact that our behaviors are partially a product of our built environment.

We have a few streets in town that continually need to have flashing speed limit signs and police stationed on them to deter speeders. We also have streets that don't need those measures. The difference isn't in the number of cars or the number of speed limit signs. The difference is in the design.

Show me an area where police need to continually set up to catch speeding drivers, and I'll show you a street design that encourages speeding and is unsafe for pedestrians.

For decades, cities have adopted the same safety design principles for neighborhood streets that they've used for highways. On highways, wide shoulders and buffer zones are added to wide driving lanes to help drivers take corrective action if they veer off of the road at high speed. There are no pedestrians crossing highways, so pedestrian safety is not taken into account, and rightly so.

But on neighborhood streets, wide buffer zones and wide traffic lanes encourage drivers to drive fast, lowering awareness and decreasing reaction time. This is a problem when there are pedestrians present.

On neighborhood streets, lanes should be narrow, and buildings, trees and other amenities should be close to the street so drivers can see their surroundings clearly and get their sense of awareness raised.

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There is plenty of research showing that tree canopies and houses that create a sense of enclosure slow drivers and create a safer environment for everyone.

Research also shows that a pedestrian struck by a car traveling 30 mph has only a 50 percent survival rate, while a pedestrian struck by a car traveling 20 mph has a 90 percent survival rate.

The people who've taken action and raised awareness of these issues in Grand Forks should be commended. As a father of young children whom I hope will walk and bike to school, I owe these citizens my thanks for acting to improve the safety of all children, including my own.

Having crossing guards at intersections near schools is fantastic, and I hope it continues.

Meanwhile, we have a choice. We can build streets that are safe for pedestrians, or we can build them so that cars can move through at a rapid pace.

A street can't do both. It simply doesn't work. In fact, trying to achieve both goals ends up accomplishing neither and puts people in danger.

If we're serious about making our streets and crosswalks safe for pedestrians, then we must accept that the only way to do so is to get cars to slow down. This also would require accepting the trade-off, which is the few seconds that would be added to our commute each day.

I think it would be worth it, and I believe that others who care about the safety of our citizens-especially the well-being of children-would feel the same.

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Holth is the co-owner of The Toasted Frog restaurants in Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo.

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