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Can Slowth Calm City Traffic?

Jennah Ferrara, November 2011

Neighborhood advocates aiming to decrease the presence of cars in their neighborhoods have been stymied by obstinate drivers entrenched in automobile dependence. Sometimes there's no other choice but to try something new--something more akin to the international Slow movements in everything from food to art to the cities themselves. Some urban planners have been considering a term that's also been used to describe concepts ranging from times of mild economic improvement to Justin Bieber's foray into Slow Music: slowth.

Slowth not only means regulating the speed and presence of cars on city roads, but it also delightfully and appropriately recalls the apt British pronunciation of "sloth," the world's most languid mammal.

When a city follows slowth (or slow transport) philosophy, speed limits are decreased to secure a more steady flow of traffic and a more hospitable environment for cyclists and pedestrians. Slowth has been more negatively defined as "slow growth" or "movement at an unacceptably slow rate." But regarding urban traffic, slowth illustrates how the speediest alternative is not always the most preferable. In this way of thinking, decreasing speed can ultimately result in more efficient travel and healthier communities.

"To get the ball rolling" on slowth's presence in the sustainability lexicon, writer and editor Eric Britton and his staff submitted this entry to Wikipedia, so that as many people as possible would be exposed to this approach:

Slowth is a new mobility transport planning concept, usually deployed in congested urban environments, where transport is calibrated for lower top speeds, but the result is shorter overall travel times across the entire system.... When a city adopts a policy of slowth, the top speeds will be lower, but congestion decreases because the slower speeds result in steadier traffic flow.

This is a powerful model, which urban planners and traffic engineers, with a few notable exceptions, are only recently starting to take seriously. In the report "Speed Control and Transport Policy" (Chapter 10, on speed limits in towns, Policy Studies Institute, 1996) Mayer Hillman and Stephen Plowden describe an experiment in Växjö, a Swedish town of 70,000, which showed very small time penalties arising from some fairly substantial speed reductions at 20 junctions. The Swedish researchers used the results to simulate what would happen if similar speed-reducing measures were introduced at 111 junctions throughout the town and concluded that there would probably be a small net time saving.

In recent years it has gotten steadily increasing attention in the literature but above all as part of the on-street sustainable transport strategies of a growing number of leading programs and projects around the world.

Most examples of transport-related slowth I've discovered have mentioned at least part of the preceding several paragraphs, so I am including them here. A British publisher even released a book in 2010, Slowth: New Mobility, Transport Planning, Traffic Congestion, Urban Design, The Tortoise and the Hare, that admittedly "consists [primarily] of articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online." Yet this rush to publish anything slowth-related, even for 29.00, reflects a perceived and potential urgency among the book-buying public to learn more about these strategies.

The more often a word is used, the greater the likelihood that others will use it too. Some of the authors of articles considering the benefits of slowth requested comments from readers, asking for ideas about how this new concept can be more effectively implemented. Britton maintains the use of this new definition of slowth will lead to more in-depth discussions of sustainable programs and the New Mobility. Why not ponder the potential meanings of an expression promoted by a writer knowledgeable about city transportation alternatives?

The historical background of slowthlike innovations in the U.S. probably began with Donald Appleyard and his revolutionary Livable Streets in 1981, which assessed how car traffic can impact neighborhoods. Dan Burden, longtime director of Walkable Communities, has worked to empower citizens and local officials to calm the passage of cars in their neighborhoods, as well as to structure areas that are more likely to discourage speeding, including elements such as narrower streets, which have been shown to cause slower traffic.

Fast driving is more likely to cause accidents, with speed increasing the severity of injuries and likelihood of fatalities. During a recent European Union-sponsored study, fancifully nicknamed ShLOW (Show me how Slow), experts first gave lectures about the dangers of driving too fast and conducted a ShLOW Camp. University students then developed speed-management projects in their home countries and shared information about the benefits of slower driving with the public.

"Making students across Europe aware of the link between safety and sustainability, ShLOW must be seen as an investment in the future of high quality transport research," the European Commission Research & Innovation--Transport asserted. ShLOW student efforts included speed-awareness trainings in companies, recording the effects of decreased speeds in a high-risk stretch of road and presenting education programs in public schools.

Speed kills, and neighborhoods of all sorts have no more patience with it. The millions of supporters of "Twenty is plenty where people live" campaigns have been successful in decreasing speed limits in residential zones in London and smaller towns in the U.K. Cities in the U.S., such as New York and Hoboken, N.J., have also launched successful efforts. The new bike sharing programs and parklets in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are also slowth-friendly, sustainable alternatives that help create safer spaces for cyclists and pedestrians. If not precisely following the mutating definition of slowth, these are at least in the spirit of changing urban landscapes away from dependence on cars and on destructive speed.

Slow movements have clearly changed the world, with Slow devotees gradually discovering la dolce vita after choosing to live their lives at their own speeds. Dozens of activities have gone Slow since Slow Food grabbed international attention in the late 1980s, when horrified Italians rebelled against a McDonald's built near the historic Piazza di Spagna. This way of being, which emphasized tradition and community, also sparked Cittaslow, or Slow Cities, which exist in 24 countries worldwide. Here's more information about the various Slow movements, including New Urbanism, Slow Consumption and Slow Moves.

The recent recession has also inspired new motivations to explore Slowness in areas as varied as parenting and the Occupations of cities around the world. Two Slow luminaries, writer and journalist Carl Honoré (author of the canonical In Praise of Slowness) and environmentalist, scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki recently discussed their feelings about the future. "It's time to usher in the age of the free-range child." Honoré concluded while discussing Under Pressure, his book about Slow Parenting. Perhaps financial challenges do offer parents more opportunities to reconsider their motivations and require them to make more with less. This movement hopes to give families the freedom to make their own decisions without comparing themselves to others as well as to encourage children to have more space just to exist, rather than to spend all their free time at planned activities.

During an interview at Occupy Montreal in late October 2011, Suzuki spoke about how he hoped the economic downturn would convince young people not only to vote but also to steadfastly make choices influenced by Slow ideals. The mindful experiences inherent in Slowness, or living life at its correct speed, are absent from the frenetic surges to increase wealth.

"What I am excited about is to see all the young people because this is about the future," Suzuki said. "We are now being ruled by the corporate demand. The corporations come above the public, and this is simply intolerable--it can't go on. [The corporations'] only reason for existence is to make money, and the faster they make the money the better it is. That's just not an acceptable way to run the world!"

Links:

New Mobility Agenda This also includes a substantial international blogroll.
World Streets International transportation issues and a blogroll of global relevance
Dan Burden's Street Design Guidelines for Healthy Neighborhoods
Cittaslow Cittaslow (Slow Cities) International
GDRC Guiding Principles for Sustainable Transportation
Sustainable Cities Collective
Final ShLOW report (PDF)

Jennah Ferrara