As part of ongoing efforts to address crime, cities and neighborhood councils across the country and around the world have turned to the principles of an approach known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). The CPTED approach puts a fair amount of emphasis into designing and constructing buildings and places in such a way that allows them to directly use the form of the built environment to deter crime and boost social safety. Similar to the urbanism measure of “eyes on the street” (which indeed can be considered a form of CPTED) that looks to provide lots of opportunity for people to observe an area, CPTED expands on it with measures aimed at many other areas of the built environment, from bathroom entrances to walls around houses to public spaces. Many people understand the basic goal of CPTED, as evidenced by its support in many corners.
However, while it’s generally accepted that design can influence crime in society in general, many people continue to insist that when it comes to traffic crimes, people should be able to self-police and if they can’t, that law enforcement should target them. (Though automatic enforcement that would catch all lawbreakers, not just people from certain segments of society, is frequently strongly opposed.) As a result, road design and construction in this country for the better part of a century has resulted in what amounts to the antithesis of CPTED on our streets. While we don’t usually build buildings without locks and just expect people to not pay unauthorized visits, that’s exactly how we design roads. Places that should be quiet streets are often roads are built features like wide lanes, paved shoulders, and clear zones intent on enabling fast travel with minimal damage when things go wrong, even in areas where slow speeds are desired. Then we act surprised when people travel fast through those areas.
The cruel irony is that many of the practices were ostensibly driven by a desire to increase safety, not undermine it. Open road practices and designs made their way down to the local street level, where wide lanes, shoulders, and clear zones have decimated many neighborhoods. But while these features work to keep traffic moving safely on highways through the countryside, they haven’t brought the same safety to communities because unsurprisingly, designs meant to keep traffic moving along at 70 MPH don’t work so well on thoroughfares where people live, work, and play. The resulting environment continues to encourage drivers to tool along at as near to that highway speed as possible. Meanwhile, in communities all over the country, the people who have to deal with the fallout continue to ask for traffic calming measures to slow speeding drivers and deter traffic from cutting through what should be quiet streets.
While many more communities are now talking about the connection between street design and road user behavior, there has not been a lot of movement toward viewing it as a form of CEPTD, which might be helpful in gaining broader community support for more controversial treatments. That could be because too much traffic crime is viewed as inevitable or an individual problem that affects other people and if they would just follow the rules, things would be fine. That argument is frequently mentioned, but viewing the street design as a CEPTD issue helps connect the dots to realize that these aren’t just “accidents”, they are very much related to the design of the environment. This shift in thinking will save thousands of lives, so hastening that transition will mean that it happens not a moment too soon. Let’s all help make it a reality.