NMA Traffic Calming Fact Sheet ( PDF )
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The term “traffic calming” is simply a device to put a favorable “spin” on tactics used to obstruct, divert and slow traffic. Proponents of these tactics are usually persons who live along urban or suburban streets and object to motor vehicle traffic passing by their homes.

Although proponents usually couch their complaints in terms like “speeders” and “reckless drivers,” the true irritant for “traffic calming” advocates is “heavy” traffic. Their desired objective is to divert traffic to other streets outside their neighborhood. The devices employed to accomplish this diversion of traffic include stop signs, speed humps and bumps, lane narrowing obstructions, and absurdly low speed limits.

Increased traffic on residential streets is often caused by misguided and ill-informed management of the main arterials and collector streets. These streets are designed to carry most of the traffic, keeping it off of residential streets. Misguided proponents of “traffic calming” always fail to realize that the reason they are seeing more traffic on their residential streets is because the same tactics have already been applied to main arterials and collector streets. These include improper installation of stop signs, mistimed traffic signals, and under-posted speed limits that have no relation to actual vehicle speeds. Throw in construction and congestion, and it is no surprise that residential streets are experiencing increased commuter traffic.

The solution to this problem is not to further obstruct traffic flow by pushing the problem into someone else’s neighborhood. The real solution is to upgrade and improve the traffic handling capabilities of main thoroughfares. This means implementing physical improvements, as well as raising speed limits and synchronizing traffic controls to accommodate actual vehicle speeds. If main streets provide convenient access between home, work and shopping destinations, motorists will use them, versus alternate routes through residential neighborhoods.

I. Know Thy Enemy

Traffic obstruction advocates are local residents, usually few in number, who have decided to rid their street of unwanted traffic. They may use a collection of politically correct excuses, usually espousing a safety concern or the politically correct “it’s for the children” argument. However, their overriding concern is most often “heavy traffic.” Because they are local residents, they can attend public meetings and harangue elected officials, unlike motorists who simply pass through a community. The debate is usually one sided and the local officials eventually cave in to the demands for traffic obstruction installations. From their perspective, it’s the easiest thing to do.

II. Know Your Advantages

If you also live in the community and you can attend public meetings, your influence will be equal to or greater than your opponents’. Your presence puts elected officials on notice that they can’t eliminate the source of their aggravation by appeasing the other side. Now they have to contend with you, your allies, and your arguments.

III. Know Your Allies

Along with other residents in your neighborhood who do not relish more irritation in their daily travels, there are other sources of support to oppose traffic obstruction projects. Devices that physically impede vehicle speeds hinder emergency response services such as the police, EMTs, and fire trucks. These same devices create problems for public works departments, road maintenance crews, and delivery services.

Traffic engineers are often stymied in their attempts to stop the improper use of traffic control devices, like stop signs, because they have no support from the citizenry. They only hear demands from “squeaky wheels” who want a stop sign on every corner to “slow down traffic.” If nobody is coming out in opposition to traffic obstruction, these engineers are less likely to fight the very council that determines their promotions and raises. They may be thrilled to find that there are people in the citizenry who understand that traffic obstruction goes against the general body of traffic engineering knowledge.

Representatives from such factions, combined with a few local residents, can provide formidable opposition to traffic obstruction projects. Also, you may find elected officials who oppose traffic obstruction projects.

IV. Finding And Gathering Support

As a citizen activist, you will engender a degree of sympathy from the local newspaper. Approach the editors or reporters and let them know that you are forming a citizen’s group to oppose traffic obstruction projects. With a little encouragement, the paper may do a story about your efforts. This is a tremendous opportunity to explain why you think traffic obstruction tactics are harmful to your community. Including your address and telephone number will make it possible for potential supporters to contact you. If it is not possible to arrange for this kind of article, a letter to the editor can serve the same purpose. Do not be discouraged by a small response. If you are starting this fight alone, even one more person on your side will double your capabilities. Personal visits to the police and fire chief, public works superintendent, and the city traffic engineer may encourage them to work with you or suggest other supporters. Do not overlook local car clubs, businesses on effected streets, neighbors, and like-minded friends.

V. Arguments Against Traffic Obstruction Devices

Traffic obstruction devices:

A. Can increase response time for emergency vehicles. When seconds matter, having to slow to pass over speed bumps and humps or navigate narrow roadways can mean the difference between life and death, or the loss of one’s home. The fact that some of these devices can seriously damage emergency vehicles and other vehicles along the roadway is also a concern.

B. Can increase congestion on other streets and create problems in other neighborhoods. If traffic obstruction devices divert traffic to other streets, they may compound congestion problems that already exist in those areas. If not successful in diverting traffic to other streets, traffic obstruction devices will compound congestion problems on the streets on which they are installed.

C. Will increase vehicle wear and tear, air pollution, and noise. Braking and accelerating in response to speed bumps, speed humps, stop signs, and traffic signals increases fuel consumption and emissions. This can contradict other efforts to reduce emissions and contribute to a community becoming or remaining a “non-attainment” air quality zone, thereby being subjected to federal mandates and restrictions.

D. Can increase street maintenance costs. Speed bumps and humps impede plowing and street cleaning equipment. Removable devices may soon be available, although they will require additional labor to install and remove them. Municipalities must maintain and repair stop signs and traffic signals, at taxpayer expense, of course.

E. Increase a community’s liability for accidents attributed to such devices.

F. May cause physical discomfort, even pain, for disabled persons or persons with physical ailments. Being jolted or jostled by speed bumps and humps can be painful for persons with injuries or painful illnesses.

G. Create neighborhood friction. Not all persons (not even most persons) on a given street will appreciate having to run an obstacle course every time they drive to or from home. Some traffic obstruction opponents blow their horns or yell verbal insults when having to slow or stop for speed bumps or humps. Frequently, the response to unnecessary stop signs is to ignore them.

VI. Presenting Your Arguments

Again, use the local newspaper to broadcast your reasons for objecting to supposed “traffic calming” projects. A letter to the editor will again substitute for an actual article. Letters from multiple supporters (of your position) will add momentum to your efforts. Remember, local officials read “letters to the editor” to gauge local opinion.

Personal visits to local elected officials will put a human face on your arguments and will add credence to the degree of your sincerity. It also puts them on notice that you are not going to go away if they decide to ignore your concerns. Encourage your supporters to make similar visits and to regularly talk with their local elected officials.

Always arrange for someone to attend public meetings where “traffic calming” projects are likely to be discussed. If public notices do not list the topics to be discussed, your friends in the public works department, or an advocate on the council or board, can probably keep you on top of the issue, should it be a topic of discussion.

VII. Solving The Problem

The mere presence of organized opposition will often stop the advance of traffic obstruction projects. However, heavy traffic in residential neighborhoods will continue, as will the agitation to reduce this traffic. If the problem is not corrected, your victory will be temporary.

A strategy that encourages traffic to move to major streets will have the greatest effect on reducing through traffic on residential streets. Raising speed limits, synchronizing traffic lights, removing four-way stop signs, and improving access to roadside businesses will bring traffic back to the main arterials, where it belongs. You can present this as a “win-win” solution.

If you offer positive alternate courses of action, your municipality cannot argue that it has no choice but to install traffic obstruction devices. You will have proven that these devices do not solve the problems of traffic congestion. You will have shown that they create new and more serious problems for city departments, emergency services, and the general motoring public. You will have offered suggestions that will reduce traffic in all residential neighborhoods, not just the ones slated for traffic obstruction devices. Finally, you will have offered suggestions for improving traffic flow on the city’s main thoroughfares.

VIII. Conclusion

You now have a basic framework for organizing an effort to defeat “traffic calming” measures that ultimately divert, congest and confound urban traffic. Your situation may differ from the generalizations offered here. However, the suggestions we offer should put you on solid footing and start you in the right direction toward a successful campaign.