As the populations of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods grow, it's common for local governments to consider widening streets. The conversations usually focus on traffic-related concerns, such as alleviating congestion, accommodating new developments, and preparing for population projections.
However, it's essential local governments understand that widening a street presents safety concerns as well. Wide streets confine people who walk to the edge, outside drivers' field of vision. Think narrow sidewalks on a wide street. This gives drivers a false sense of security—encouraging them to speed.
Narrower streets create edge friction. Speed-reducing elements, such as people walking, buildings, and other drivers, enter drivers' field of vision. Therefore, drivers slow down because speeding appears more dangerous—for both themselves and their surroundings.
Below is a meme created by planner Wes Craiglow of Conway, AR, and shared on social media by the "Transportation Psychologist," our friend, Bryan Jones, that can help you visualize why narrow streets are safer.
Imagine yourself behind the wheel of a car on each street. On which street would you drive faster? On which street would you exercise more caution? Likely the second image. That's because in the first image—with wide lanes, long block lengths, and open skies—communicates to drivers that higher speeds are appropriate.
The second photo represents the most basic, frugal approach to designing a street for slow speeds. It’s not perfect. It lacks sidewalks or bicycle facilities—and yes, many places ought to have those things. However, it causes drivers to slow down because of the uncertainty and sense of heightened risk.