Safe Streets, Livable Streets

By Eric Dumbaugh
Washington, DC (Summer 2005)- Transportation safety is a highly contentious issue in the design of cities and communities. While urban designers, architects, and planners often encourage the use of aesthetic streetscape treatments to enhance the livability of urban streets, conventional transportation safety practice regards roadside features such as street trees as fixed-object hazards and strongly discourages their use. This study examines the subject of livable streetscape treatments and finds compelling evidence that suggests they may actually enhance the safety of urban roadways. Concerns about their safety effects do not appear to be founded on empirical observations of crash performance, but instead on a design philosophy that discounts the important relationship between driver behavior and safety. This study traces the origin and evolution of this philosophy, and proposes an alternative that may better account for the dynamic relationships between road design, driver behavior, and transportation safety.

Beyond simply acting as thoroughfares for motor vehicles, urban streets often double as public spaces. Urban streets are places where people walk, shop, meet, and generally engage in the diverse array of social and recreational activities that, for many, are what makes urban living enjoyable. And beyond even these quality-of-life benefits, pedestrian-friendly urban streets have been increasingly linked to a host of highly desirable social outcomes, including economic growth and innovation, improvements in air quality, and increased physical fitness and health, to name only a few. For these reasons, many groups and individuals encourage the design of livable streets, or streets that seek to better integrate the needs of pedestrians and local developmental objectives into a roadway’s design.
There has been a great deal of work describing the characteristics of livable streets, and there is general consensus on their characteristics: livable streets, at a minimum, seek to enhance the pedestrian character of the street by providing a continuous sidewalk network and incorporating design features that minimize the negative impacts of motor vehicle use on pedestrians. Of particular importance is the role played by roadside features such as street trees and on-street parking, which serve to buffer the pedestrian realm from potentially hazardous oncoming traffic, and to provide spatial definition to the public right-of-way. Indeed, many livability advocates assert that trees, as much as any other single feature, can play a central role in enhancing a roadway’s livability.
While most would agree that the inclusion of trees and other streetscape features enhances the aesthetic quality of a roadway, there is substantive disagreement about their safety effects.
Related Resources:
Safe Streets, Livable Streets
Research: trees make streets safer, not deadlier
22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees
Journal of the American Planning Association