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November 17, 2006

Traffic Calming

You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Slow down in town”. They’re an often futile attempt to encourage speeding motorists to be more respectful of the neighborhoods they zooming through, especially of the pedestrians. I wouldn’t exactly call it road rage, but why is it that when we’re behind the wheel our goal is to get on down the road as fast as traffic will allow, the speed limit be damned?

Of course in our own neighborhoods our interests are reversed. We curse “those idiots” who speed down our local streets ignoring the signs (and bumper stickers).

Increasingly, local neighborhoods are serving as short-cuts around clogged arterial streets, spreading out the traffic into our sleepy, bucolic ‘burbs. But there is a way to enforce the speed limit without radar traps. It’s what traffic engineers call “traffic calming”.

You might not know that the first US city to develop a master plan for neighborhood traffic calming was Hartford. And the second city will be Stamford. Already focus groups are underway seeking stakeholder input. And next spring there will be community workshops seeking neighbors’ input. It’s all part of a $1.1 million project lead by Hartford-based Urban Engineers. (For more info on this project, check the website

More than just “speed bumps”, engineers have a slew of street re-designs in their repertoire that can force us to reduce our speed. Among them…

SPEED TABLES: Think of these as extended speed bumps with a six foot long ramp up, a ten foot long flat table and a six foot long ramp down.

ROUNDABOUTS: Small traffic circles with landscaping in the center make us slow down as we go around, eventually taking a right turn to continue our journey.

CHICANES: These are the stubby picket-fence-like mini-roadblocks seen on some private streets, alternating their placement on the right and left sides of the road, forcing drivers to make a zigzag maneuver down the street. The same effect can be achieved by placing parking spaces alternately on the right and left sides.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS: These are extensions of the sidewalk into car parking areas at corner crossings. Again, you gotta slow down.

SIDEWALKS: It’s amazing how many of our communities lack these pedestrian amenities, forcing hoofers to compete for space on the asphalt with cars. Sidewalks get pedestrians out of the traffic and encourage us to walk and leave the car at home.

CROSSWALKS: What a concept! A place where pedestrians have the right of way over cars, sometimes even mid-block and without the need for stop signs or red lights.

ROADBLOCKS and MAZES: These were inspired by anti-crime efforts in drug dealing neighborhoods (“crime calming”), making it hard for drive-thru drug buyers to find their way in and out of a neighborhood. Local residents know how to maneuver the maze, but casual short-cutters won’t try it again.

Of course, all of these traffic calming techniques assume that the major traffic arterials, where the cars belong, can be kept flowing with their own traffic tricks. Otherwise, we’re just spreading the gridlock into the neighborhoods.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at or

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