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Austin Traffic Calming Seeks to Soothe Neighborhood Traffic – And Aggrieve Speeding Drivers

Joy Diaz, KUT News

More than a dozen streets in Austin are about to be invaded with bulldozers whose mission is to re-shape them. Once the streets are re-worked, the hope is they will in turn help slow down the drivers who use them. On the first week of April, the city will unveil which so-called “traffic calming” projects it will fund.

Twice a year, Austin’s Transportation Renee Orr reviews dozens of applications from Austiniteswho believe their streets would be safer if there were a way to make drivers slow down.

“We don’t have enough money to build every eligible request,” said Orr, looking at a long list of last year’s request, “so we rank them against twelve criteria and then we order them by that ranking number and we start funding at the top of the list until we run out of money.”

This time around, Orr ran out of money after approving fourteen projects. These are streets with a large number of cars driving at least five miles over the speed limit. On some, people drive almost twenty miles over the posted speed limits. Other streets have a high number of speed related crashes, or accidents between cars and pedestrians or bikes.

Credit Joy Diaz, KUT News
Viewpoint Drive in southeast Austin is a project that was awarded due, in part, to the high number of speed related crashes in that street.

The projectsare all over the city. One is in South East Austin at Viewpoint Drive. That’s where Ken Simmons lives.

“There’s another neighborhood that’s to the south. Sometimes people from that neighborhood use [Viewpoint] to pass through getting out to the main road," he said.

City records show more than 2,500 cars travel Viewpoint Drive every day. Still, heavy traffic is not the main problem there. Orr said she’s so “familiar” with Viewpoint Drive that she didn’t even need her notes to describe it.

“It’s a wide street, development on one side, there’s no houses on the other, so, people go really fast," she said."We’ve documented that there have been a lot of crashes, so, it’s one we are hoping we can resolve.”

One family who lives at the corner of Viewpoint has re-built their porch twice, after cars crashed into it.

As with all the city traffic calming projects, Viewpoint will get a customized treatment. Engineers are charged with designing an approach that fits the street’s traffic patterns and the community’s goals.

Across the street from the St. Edwards University campus, a traffic-calming project is half way done. A bulldozer removes the pavement where a new pedestrian island will go. More islands down the street are flanked by speed bumps.

Renee Orr with the city’s Transportation department said they’re supposed to slow traffic. She said her team of designers take an approach opposite than the one they use when designing a highway. Instead of aiming for wide and straight spaces, they “try to make [drivers] less comfortable going at higher speed.”

Orr said they “do things like shorten [the] line of sight so [drivers] can’t see all the way down to the end of the street.” Another strategy is to “narrow the travel lanes,” all in the hope of making drivers less comfortable going at a higher speed.

All fourteen shovel-ready projects are being paid for with funds from the 2010 bond package. The application period for the projects funded with money voters approved last November is now open.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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