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Approaches to Neighborhood Traffic Problems

wide residential street, New Orleans, showing both considerable traffic and high demand for on-street parking

Although neighborhood traffic concerns can run the gamut, this page will help you figure out how to tackle the big four.  We identify as most typical these issues:

  • Traffic jams at particular times of day, places, or event sites
  • "Cut-through" traffic
  • Speeding
  • Intersection conflicts and dangers
  • Conflicts between residential and commercial traffic in the neighborhood
  • Conflicts among vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles

Let's take them one at a time.



Neighborhood Traffic Jams

First and foremost, note when and where neighborhood traffic jams occur, and also the extent of the backup, meaning the number of vehicles that are waiting in each direction at one time. 

Your neighborhood volunteers can do this; there is no need to wait for police or public works officials to come out and observe just yet.  Keep good records of this and cover at least a week so that you can show if there is a pattern.  If you have a weekend problem and only minimal issues on weekdays, which may happen in some touristy areas, you may want to double or triple the amount of observations on weekends as compared to weekdays.

If you can--and we believe that most neighborhood groups would be able to do so--figure out what business, organization, event, or attraction is causing most of the problem.  If it is a particular church, restaurant, or museum that is clogging up your traffic, enlist them to help find a solution.  They should be motivated to do so, as their patrons too are frustrated if they must spend time circling around looking for a place to park or waiting to enter a parking facility.

If there are multiple sources of the traffic jam, and you are in the happy situation of being a multi-destination popular neighborhood, then you have to engage in neighborhood problem-solving.  Do you need a parking facility, such as a lot or a garage?  If so, how can you afford one, and whose cooperation would you need? 

Even more importantly, are there ways to encourage public transportation, bicycling, or walking to and within your neighborhood?  If you have access to good public transportation, perhaps the business association can offer some incentives for the use of it.  You can encourage bicycle use simply by installing well-built bicycle racks and creating protected bicycle lanes if possible.  Look to see if there are ways to improve pedestrian access from other parts of the neighborhood or other neighborhoods, so that more people walk to your popular destinations on the nice days, when people tend to be out and about more anyway.

Take an honest look at whether part of the traffic problem involves poor directional signs showing people where to park or where popular attractions are located.  Those unfamiliar with your neighborhood will automatically slow down, ignore driveways, and make sudden turns if they don't know where they are going. 

If you have public parking, mark directions to it clearly and often.  If you have metered on-street parking, make sure you are not encouraging more turnover than necessary with your restrictive time limits on parking.  If people can only park in one location for two hours, with no renewals possible, you are encouraging those who come for lunch and a leisurely stroll to move their vehicles unnecessarily.

In some instances a traffic circle (also called a roundabout, mini-roundabout, and various other names) may help move traffic along faster.  This technique is especially appropriate for intersections of more than two streets, or where there is a high consistent volume of traffic from two or more directions. They take some space, however, so they are not appropriate where your town or city doesn't own much right-of-way. You would need expert help to advocate effectively for this technique.


Cut-Through Traffic Issues

Another common neighborhood traffic complaint concerns traffic that does not originate in or travel to the neighborhood, but instead uses your neighborhood streets as a shortcut.  Sometimes this happens because a congested major intersection at one corner of your neighborhood aggravates drivers, and they can take advantage of your local streets to reduce the total time of their trip. Or sometimes your local streets just are parallel to a congested major road and therefore an attractive alternative, or rear exits from parking lots dump out into your neighborhood.

Even more aggravating, sometimes this traffic wants to travel faster than your own local drivers, who may enjoy seeing what's new and who's doing what.  Those cut-through drivers just want to get somewhere faster.

The remedies for cut-through traffic are not self-evident, since the solutions also inconvenience neighborhood residents.  However, you can weigh the advantages and disadvantages of these:

  1. Prohibiting entrance into the neighborhood from a major street by creating a cul-de-sac dead end at the edge of your neighborhood
  2. Preventing right turns from your neighborhood onto a collector or arterial street (see our street hierarchy page if you need descriptions and definitions)
  3. Installing raised concrete or asphalt diverters at some point or points so that all neighborhood traffic has to turn a particular direction
  4. Installing permanent or makeshift semi-diverters, which are barriers that prohibit entrance to a particular street but allow exit from it
  5. Prohibiting all truck traffic, or all truck traffic other than local deliveries
  6. Prohibiting right or left turns into the neighborhood at certain high-traffic portions of the day, since often it is the people making the journey to or from work who are most tempted to cut through
  7. Prohibiting cut-through traffic by ordinance, which may have a deterrent value but may not be effective because it would require a police officer to sit and wait for violators

If you decide that cul de sacs or diverters are appropriate for you, try to make these into attractive landscape or streetscape features.


Speeding Vehicles as a Neighborhood Problem

Many times neighborhood traffic issues boil down to complaints about vehicles going too fast. If this is happening in your neighborhood, try these things in this order:

Check to see whether speed limit signs are posted at the edges of your neighborhood and appropriately throughout if you have a large neighborhood.  If not, ask your town or city for better signage.

Discuss the matter with your local police force.  If they say they are too busy to enforce your speed limit, no matter what it is, you have a different problem.  In that case you will want to either escalate your complaint to your city council, or start demanding physical controls on speeding. 

By "physical controls" we mean traffic calming devices, such as speed bumps, speed tables, chicanes (narrowing of the street or installation of barriers forcing a curved driving pattern that will slow traffic), narrowing the driving lanes themselves without necessarily narrowing the public right-of-way, installing landscape islands in the middle of the street that both narrow the street and give drivers something else to look at, or installing barriers at intersections that require drivers to go around them before curving back toward the ordinary driving lane. You also may have seen what we called semi-diverters above, which may be as simple as sawhorses to drive around, or to cut off drivers from entering a side street but still allow residents to exit.

Ask the complainers, and for that matter all members of your neighborhood association, to track where and at what time of day they notice what they consider to be speeding.

An important point also is to discuss and then experiment with whether you consider the legal speed limit to be appropriate. Ask a few neighborhood leaders who will command respect at your city or town hall to drive at the speed limit on a Sunday morning or very very early on any morning, to see whether that feels like a speed allowing a driver to stop quickly for a child or object in the street.

We liked a recent article from the Sightline Institute suggesting that 20 miles per hour may be more appropriate for residential neighborhoods than 25 miles per hour.

If you feel that you have installed all of the traffic calming devices that are practical in your situation, and you also feel that the speed limit is appropriate and posted frequently enough, in the end this is a matter of making enough of a clamor at city hall to get the enforcement you need. 

Videos may be an effective tool in getting your message across, and certainly emphasize children, the elderly, and the disabled in your still or moving photography to illustrate your point.  Better yet, if there is a particular time of the day or week when speeding is most likely to occur, get your city council members out there in person to see it. If you can borrow a speed gun from a local police department, having the council member time some of the cars can be very effective in getting action.


Dangerous Intersections at the Neighborhood Level

If you have an intersection that has a high accident rate, as documented by your police or public works department, or even if you just have an intersection that is subjectively experienced as stressful, you should engage in some problem-solving around this.  Candidates are intersections with poor visibility, unusual shapes (the traffic engineers will call it unusual "geometry"), or high-volume intersections where impatience may play a role in accidents and frustration.

Poor visibility may be due to topography, buildings coming out to the curbline on one or both sides, parked cars blocking the view, or trees or landscaping.   Overgrown landscaping may be the easiest to solve; if there is an ordinance (or a provision of the zoning ordinance) allowing for a sight triangle, neighborhood residents should demand that it be enforced.  If there is no such ordinance, your neighborhood association may need to lobby to have one enacted; such provisions are common in zoning ordinances.

Rows of parked cars that block the view also may be relatively easy to solve.  Usually this situation is caused by parking being allowed too close to the actual intersection.  Your town or city can easily regulate this, although occasionally there is an enforcement problem if people have been in the habit of parking in front of a school, day care center, or dry cleaner "for just a minute."

Building lines and topography present greater challenges.  To resolve these issues, you may have to resort to:

  • A traffic control device, such as an all-ways stop sign or traffic signal
  • Creation or encouragement of alternate routes based on parallel streets that would allow people to continue to their destinations with roughly the same ease and time.

Obviously measures to stop speeding and cut-through neighborhood traffic will be helpful as well.


Conflicts Between Residential and Commercial Interests in the Neighborhood

If you are in a residential neighborhood adjacent to a commercial center, strip, or downtown, you will have to live with the fact that shoppers, diners, and delivery trucks will have to access your general area.  The task is to keep those vehicles from inhibiting neighborhood traffic, peace and quiet, and privacy of the residential area.  A second major issue is to minimize parking impacts.

So to continue in our example, it is futile for residents and businesses to get into a shouting match about congestion, parking, noise, blocked driveways, and so forth.

What is far more productive is a problem-solving session or two, in which common sense rules for the commercial areas can be established.  Businesses banding together can stop employee parking in front of residences, encourage customer parking in appropriate locations, and sometimes figure out cooperative delivery zones for truck deliveries.

Involve your city government in this conversation because minor ordinance changes may become necessary to enforce whatever the decisions are.  A city staff member also may bring a wider perspective on possible remedies and a degree of professionalism.  Don't count on this in smaller towns, but in large cities it may be difficult to capture the attention of the traffic engineers too.  We didn't say that convening one or more productive work sessions would be easy.


Conflicts Among Cars, Trucks, Bicycles, and Pedestrians

Lastly, many neighborhood traffic issues stem from the give and take among various transportation modes.  While the traffic engineers tend to call all of these conflicts, in most instances, someone gives way with only a minor feeling of frustration. Nonetheless, it's important for the neighborhood to try to equalize the safety and opportunity for all kinds of movement.

Take every opportunity possible to raise awareness that all modes of transportation are welcome to use your streets.  You might start a normal public awareness campaign, or you might rely on traffic signs or more creative or even whimsical signs to point out all types of transportation are welcome. 

Bicycling or walking advocacy groups may be helpful to your neighborhood in this regard, as they have experience explaining their needs.  For instance, drivers may be unaware of the dangers to bicyclists of opening their parked car doors into the oncoming bicycle.  Involve these types of organizations if they are present in your broader community.

In sum, resolution of neighborhood traffic issues requires a good deal of problem-solving and good will on all sides.  Sometimes you will have to experiment with solutions until you have the right blend, but if you persist, you will be pleased with the result.  Occasionally you will need to look at neighborhood streets comprehensively, and always should take that approach when you prepare a new neighborhood plan.

For a more comprehensive overview of these topics, you might have a look at this Institute of Transportation Engineers article on neighborhood traffic.

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