New technology invariably arrives before it is understood well enough to get the most from it with the fewest harms. The internet is the preeminent example these days.
Another is increasingly in the face of people as they move about in their communities and beyond. A rapidly enlarging mix of more capable vehicles and their high-risk operation has increased injuries and fatalities, and stressed everyone on the roads.
This period of transportation chaos is just beginning and will get far worse if not addressed. The technologies behind the destabilization of personal travel are still in limited use, but in years — not decades — they will become commonplace. Before then the situation in the street will become unbearable.
Municipalities already are seeking a fix. Atlantic City is re-engineering it main business street, Atlantic Avenue, to reduce auto collisions with people on foot or wheels.
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Cape May, the historic civil resort of the Jersey Shore, plans to consider reducing speed limits throughout town.
Mayor Zack Mullock said police have reported speeding has become more common, and it’s obvious to residents as well.
On most Cape May streets, the speed limit is 25 mph, which is routinely disobeyed. Mullock said even that is too fast for most areas of Cape May. “A lot of our streets were specifically designed for carriages,” he said.
Others cited the number of low-speed vehicles, e-bikes and other forms of transportation competing for room. Officials in multiple other shore towns have raised concerns about the speeds of battery-assisted bikes and scooters on their streets in the summer.
City Council member Shaine Meier said low-speed vehicles similar to golf carts should also be part of the discussion. Young children ride in them without the protections required in cars.
Cape May’s Victorian streets and summer population make it an early indicator of challenges posed by new transportation technology. Many municipalities will share its distress when falling costs and spreading popularity put far more electric bikes, scooters and other low-speed vehicles into their traffic mix.
State and federal transportation agencies should already be developing the balance of infrastructure, regulations and enforcement needed to maintain order and safety in the face of this explosion of battery-powered personal mobility.
In areas fortunate enough to have existing recreational paths, preteens and older constantly cruise (without helmets) on electric scooters, and electric bike riders of all ages hit speeds formerly reserved to racing cyclists. That’s far safer than having them on roads and sidewalks, so trail networks will help accommodate the electric revolution.
Speeding by motorists got a boost during the pandemic when police all but stopped pulling drivers over for traffic offenses. In Cape May, Council member Stacy Sheehan said, “We can reduce the speed limit, but if we’re not enforcing it, it doesn’t make a difference.”
A resumption of enforcement by police, however, is unlikely to be enough to bring speeding on all roads under control. One reason is that before the pandemic, enforcement for many years wasn’t more than token and suggestive, and that’s not cutting it anymore. Another is that a significant cause of speeding has been the development of vehicles that are faster, safer for drivers, handle far better and are increasingly equipped with accident avoidance features. Spreading adoption of auto technology will encourage more speeding.
In Cape May, the county has promised to paint a large speed limit on the surface of a main street. A sign was suggested for the entrance to town, stating the 25 mph limit is strictly enforced. The effect of these will be modest and local.
We predict that eventually the public will demand the automated enforcement of traffic laws, offsetting the chaos wrought by new technology with efficient and fair enforcement by networked cameras. Instead of punitive fines and points for rare enforcements, such a system will likely impose small but cumulative costs just sufficient to be effective.
We wish it were otherwise and more people simply would make the rational choice of attentive, relaxed and safer driving. Drivers have seemed resistant to speed guidance, and we can’t think of another effective way to ensure they follow it.
Transportation agencies should be studying the emerging hotspots of street chaos to understand it and respond to its causes and issues. The rapidly transforming personal mobility system needs design and implementation to handle the inevitable complexities and risks on the immediate road ahead.
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