Home > Complete Streets, Cultural Movement, Design the Details, Ecological Design, Economics, Safety Issues, Tools & Ingenuity, Traffic Calming, Transportation Education > “Traffic is a social problem” and what’s needed is “an outbreak of civility”

“Traffic is a social problem” and what’s needed is “an outbreak of civility”

…it is greatly appreciated.


In light of last week’s discussion about speed and America Walks’ four ways to slow things down (MW), we need to recognize that we have within us a great capacity to influence driver behaviors without engineers.

We do this by reclaiming the streets for more than simply moving cars–with or without the help of engineers. We do this by reclaiming the spaces between our homes and the one across the street through simple measures like crossing the street and saying hello to your neighbor. When someone asks how to “slow traffic down” it might be worth it, before getting into this or that design, to ask, “when was the last time you took the neighbor across the street a strawberry pie?

Beautification projects, like the one called to order in TC’s Old Town (MW), are some of the easiest traffic calming programs we have. The flowers are nice treatment, but connecting people together is the best form of traffic calming. These real, grassroots place making endeavors require collaboration and an embrace of the understanding that it’s not your home that is your castle, your castle is your community.

Over the weekend, in an online forum discussion about crosswalks (yes, there are such things), I was reminded of the work by street philosopher David Engwicht’s (PPS). He is known for approaching community issues, that tend to focus on traffic, as first and foremost a social problem and secondarily a design issue. His work is centered on the idea expressed in the following Engwicht quote:

The speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have retreated from their street.


His approach to traffic issues is through community  and the creation of mental speed bumps through three approaches: intrigue, uncertainty, and humorIt is his work that inspired the penguins and DIY signs. He has also been mentioned here in explaining how slower speeds actually decrease trip times and makes streets more efficient (MW).

An expert from his latest book, “Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic,” captures his primary focus.


Let me be frank. Traffic is first and foremost a community problem and residents have no right expecting politicians, engineers and planning professionals to fix it for them…

I have worked in neighborhood after neighborhood where residents were asking the city to spend large sums of money to slow down one of their neighbors. I once chaired a meeting of residents that were asking the city to spend $250,000 to slow speeding motorists. When I asked how many motorists were causing the problem, an elderly gentleman said, “Five, and I can show you were everyone of them lives.”

Asking your city to spend lots of money on forcing you and your neighbors to drive slower and less often seems like a huge waste of your hard-earned cash — especially when you could have the same result, at absolutely no cost, by simply shaking hands with your neighbor and agreeing that you will all act like guests in each other’s neighborhoods. The solution to traffic problems in neighborhoods is not more speed bumps. The solution is an outbreak of civility that slows our rampant individualism. And that is a cultural challenge, not a physical design challenge.


How are you reclaiming the public spaces in front of your home?

In your community? 


Mental Speed Bumps has a website devoted to the concepts with numerous DIY guides for reclaiming your streets, most centered on the idea of developing the social life of your street. Take it for a spin and let us know what peaks your interest.  Creative-communities.com. Here is a quick checklist of some of his ideas:

Slide via presentation by Project for Public Spaces


Announcement: A Traverse City Corridor Steering Committee meeting is Tuesday, June 26 at 3 PM in the training room (2nd Floor of the Govt. Center).  The committee will be reviewing the draft framework plans for the places around 14th St., West Front, East Front, Garfield Ave. and 8th Street.  The public is invited to bring their aspirations for better use of the public spaces on our main street-ways.  Apparently, this meeting was postponed. 



  1. June 25, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    I brought my neighbor across the street a strawberry popsicle.. does that count?

  2. June 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Hockey Night on Washington Street in part with OakPark’s 2nd Annual Canada Day Porch Party


    Everyone welcome.

  3. June 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    This is great! Can you tell me where to find the presentation that image is from?

  4. Janet Fleshman
    September 19, 2013 at 11:50 am

    The build up of traffic and drawing back of people is insidious. As the front yards become noisy and unpleasant, people gradually retreat into their back yards or inside. As those houses turn over, they frequently are purchased by people for whom a livable front yard is not a priority, or they become rentals. Sometimes fences go up. This further detracts from a neighborhood look, motorists perceive the street as a thoroughfare, and the spiral goes on. For those of us trying to turn this process back, its a tough sell both to neighbors who have given up, and to motorists who perceive a personal benefit from racing through “short cuts”. Residents and government can both play a role in improving livability, civic pride and care of the commons should be embraced by both for the benefit of the entire city.

  5. September 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Well said, Janet.

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