Around the world, the population of urban areas has grown from 751 million people in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018 — about 55% of the total global population. Projections show that by 2050, up to 68% of the global population will live in urban areas, adding 2.5 billion people to our cities.¹
Urbanization can offer significant benefits for people around the world, including access to electricity, the internet, and other technologies, more efficient resource sharing, access to jobs, education, and economic opportunities, and more. However, with close to 7 billion people sharing space in urban areas, city planners have a big challenge ahead of them. Where will people live? How will we continue guaranteeing access to necessities as populations grow? How will people get around?
As cities continue to grow, it becomes increasingly important to find answers to this last question. More people in urban areas means more people needing accessible transportation, more people sharing the roads and sidewalks, and higher demands for public transportation. Here are a few issues that are particularly important to keep in mind.
Anyone living in an urban area can tell you that traffic is already a burden and our roads are under strain. Unless we address this issue, traffic congestion will continue to increase as urban populations grow. The costs of traffic congestion are significant. In the 15 most congested U.S. cities, commuters “spent an average of 83 hours stuck in traffic in 2017.” Another report estimates that time stuck in traffic costs the average U.S. commuter $1,010 a year in lost productivity and 21 gallons of wasted fuel. That amounts to $166 billion of lost productivity and 3.3 billion gallons of burnt fuel a year. In addition to the damage to the economy, this wasted fuel leads to greater emissions, more pollution, and reduced health and quality of life for citizens in urban areas.
Transportation accidents and fatalities in urban areas are rising right along with populations. Fatalities in urban areas have increased 34% since 2009. There were 6,227 pedestrian deaths in the U.S. in 2018, and 74% of those occurred in urban areas. That same GHSA study predicted that pedestrian deaths would increase to 6,590 people in 2019.
All of these statistics paint a clear, but sobering picture. Navigating urban areas can be dangerous, particularly for vulnerable road users like pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. As more people share the roads, the dangers will become more pronounced.
As populations grow, city planners must find ways to provide accessible, affordable, and convenient transportation for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status. Transportation equity may take several forms in the future, which we’ll discuss more in the next section.
Historically, the primary modes of transportation in urban areas were private passenger vehicles, public transit, and pedestrians/cyclists. These traditional modes of transportation already presented a challenging number of conflict points between motorists and vulnerable road users.
As urban areas continue to grow, city designers, planners and traffic engineers will need to find innovative ways to provide accessible transportation for more people. We’re already seeing some of these new modes of transportation on our roads in the form of ride-sharing apps, multimodal transportation and micro-mobility vehicles like scooters, e-bikes, and mopeds, and an increase in light rail and other public transportation. In the future, as autonomous vehicle technology continues to advance, we may see an increase in self-driving buses, trains, and taxis transporting people in urban areas.
As new forms of transportation are introduced, we need to design and build roads that accommodate them and ensure they can share the road safely and effectively.
As we look to design and build the safe, efficient urban roads of the future, we need to approach the issue with the mindset that we can reduce, and even eliminate, traffic accidents and deaths in urban areas. Several prominent groups are working towards this very goal, including the Vision Zero Network, Toward Zero Deaths, and the National Complete Streets Coalition.
These groups are calling for city planners and traffic engineers to design complete streets — streets that are safe and accessible for all — while integrating safety countermeasures that reduce collisions, injuries, and deaths. Here are a few recommendations for improving traffic safety in urban areas.
Improving traffic safety in urban areas starts with designing more forgiving, more intuitive roads that help increase the visibility of vulnerable road users, implement traffic calming strategies, reduce conflict points between various modes of transportation, and help all travellers safely navigate different situations. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has proposed various safety countermeasures with these goals in mind, including installing dedicated left and right turn lanes at intersections, using traffic safety devices to increase the visibility of crosswalks, and using retroreflective materials on traffic signs and pavement markings.
In urban areas, road diets may have the greatest impact on road safety. Typically, a road diet involves reducing a four-lane road to a two-lane road with a shared middle turning lane. Four-lane roads — originally built to accommodate increasing vehicle traffic — present several safety challenges, including:
Reducing the number of vehicle lanes creates space for high-visibility intersections, protected bicycle lanes, and more visible mid-block crosswalks. Road diets combined with other countermeasures can offer significant safety benefits and reduce crashes by 19-47%.
Traffic safety devices — including traffic signs, pavement markings, delineators and barriers, and reflective markings on vehicles — play an important role in promoting road safety in urban areas. To ensure that the traffic safety devices on your urban roads are effective, there are a few key characteristics to keep in mind.
Traffic signs communicate laws, directions, crosswalks, designated areas like bus stops and pedestrian zones, speed limits, work zones, and other key pieces of information that help increase awareness and confidence for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Visibility is the most important characteristic of traffic signs, and the best way to ensure visibility is to use highly retroreflective fluorescent sheeting.
Fluorescent materials convert invisible ultraviolet rays into visible light, increasing the total amount of light emitted from the sheeting. Studies show that this helps drivers see fluorescent signs more accurately at a greater distance than non-fluorescent signs.
Retroreflective sheeting is engineered to reflect light to motorists in a controlled cone, regardless of the position of the light source. This improves sign visibility in a range of conditions — day or night, rain or shine. The latest advancement in retroreflective sheeting is ASTM Type XI. 3M’s Diamond Grade™ DG3 sheeting meets ASTM Type XI and uses 100% efficient full-cube prismatic technology to reflect significantly more light back to motorists than other types of sheeting.
Pavement markings help drivers and cyclists see and stay in their lanes. This is crucial in situations where motorists are sharing the road with vulnerable road users. Like traffic signs, pavement markings need to be highly visible in a wide range of conditions — including challenging conditions like night, dawn, dusk, and when it’s raining.
Standard retroreflective pavement markings are embedded with glass beads that reflect light directly back to motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, making them highly visible during both the day and night.
Rainy, wet conditions can make it challenging to see pavement markings because of the effects of water on retroreflective glass beads. Advanced wet retroreflective pavement markings can help improve visibility in these less-than-ideal conditions.
Delineators and barriers can mark protected bicycle lanes, extended crosswalks, pedestrian zones, approaching crosswalks, left-turn lanes, and more. For them to be effective, everyone needs to be able to see them. Retroreflective sheeting or linear delineation system (LDS) panels can be applied to these traffic safety devices to improve visibility. Retroreflective, fluorescent sheeting is best for optimizing visibility in a range of conditions.
Studies show that applying reflective markings to vehicles — particularly large vehicles like buses, semis, and work trucks — can help prevent collisions by improving the visibility of these vehicles. The benefits of conspicuity markings go beyond motorized vehicles. Due to the rising number of bicyclist fatalities, the latest reports recommend using reflective marking to increase the visibility of cyclists.
For over 80 years, 3M has engineered infrastructure solutions to improve the safety and mobility of our roads. As urban areas become more densely populated and we look to take advantage of the benefits of urban centres, we’re excited to partner with city planners and traffic engineers to re-envision the future of urban roads.
We’re doing our part by partnering with industry leaders, safety advocates, local governments, and other stakeholders to work towards the shared goal of zero traffic deaths on urban streets and by designing traffic safety devices that help build complete, safe roads for all travelers.