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Traffic calming devices in Pinellas neighborhoods have unintended consequences

I live in a quiet Clearwater neighborhood on a street where authorities have placed not one, not two, but three types of traffic calming devices. That still is not enough, apparently, because still more are planned.

The desire for traffic calming has reached a fever pitch in much of Pinellas County. The result? Stop signs where stop signs wouldn't normally be. Speed humps and speed tables. Curb bump-outs. Roundabouts.

I, too, want safe streets. But where is this going to end?

The push for traffic calming isn't initiated by governments, usually, but by neighborhoods — or more precisely, some residents of those neighborhoods who want to slow traffic or move it somewhere else. Government obliges, without considering the cumulative impact and without any consistency in how those devices are engineered or applied. For example, stop signs are put up to slow down traffic, though federal standards say stop signs may not be used for speed control. A speed hump may be so low it is barely felt or so high it jerks the steering wheel out of your hands if you hit it in the dark.

The other day I watched a fire truck go down a street that had speed humps. The heavy truck came to a near halt to go over each speed hump before slowly, laboriously accelerating again. I wondered how much speed humps are delaying emergency response times.

Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer can answer the question: roughly 10 seconds per hump. Meyer did a test on two streets of the same length, one with three speed humps and one with none. It took 35 seconds longer for a fire truck to travel the street that had speed humps. Rescue trucks and ambulances also must slow way down, especially if they are treating a patient in the back.

Speed humps, he said, have the effect of moving your home farther from the fire station. Meyer's department has an average emergency response time of 4 1/2 minutes, but if speed humps keep proliferating, he fears the response time will get longer, putting lives and property at risk.

Dunedin city commissioners are concerned, too. At a meeting last month, they confronted the unforeseen consequences of their installation of traffic calming devices — not just longer response times, but dumping traffic into other neighborhoods and creating bad feelings among residents.

"When you're pitting neighbor against neighbor, street against street and neighborhood against neighborhood, you just have to question the policy," said Commissioner Julie Scales.

Dunedin has installed 27 speed humps. The city thought the humps would encourage drivers to stay on collector roads rather than cutting through neighborhoods. Instead, drivers have just moved over to the next nearest residential street without speed humps.

"When it comes to volume, we're not solving the problem, we're just transferring the problem," said public works director Doug Hutchens.

The humps do reduce speeds, he said, but only when properly spaced. Put them too far apart and speeds actually increase as drivers accelerate between the humps. Better methods of reducing speeds, he said, are police enforcement of speed limits — certainly we need more of that throughout Pinellas — speed feedback signs that tell drivers how fast they are going and education campaigns. But neighborhoods have asked the city for 22 more speed humps and it is difficult for elected officials to say no.

St. Petersburg has installed hundreds of traffic calming devices in 76 neighborhoods since 1997. The city has avoided some of those unintended consequences, said transportation director Joe Kubicki, by developing a neighborhoodwide traffic management plan each time there is a request for traffic calming, and by trying other methods such as stepped-up speed enforcement before installing obstacles in the roadway. The program has been enormously popular with neighborhoods, he said, though he admitted other motorists may loathe the speed humps and traffic circles.

It is time to stop and consider where the traffic calming trend is taking us. My neighborhood has extra stop signs, so-called fog lines painted on the pavement to artificially narrow the travel lanes, speed humps, and coming soon, roundabouts. Our public streets, built to provide access and easy movement of traffic, are being turned into obstacle courses.

Diane Steinle may be reached at dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Traffic calming devices in Pinellas neighborhoods have unintended consequences 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 11:55am]

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