The Effects of Beauty on Speed

I was intrigued by this line from a new paper by John N. Ivan, Norman W. Garrick, and Gilbert Hanson titled “Designing Roads That Guide Drivers to Choose Safer Speeds”:

The aesthetics or “beauty” of a road environment has also been investigated in relation to traffic safety. Drottenborg (1999) studied the impact of speed on streets that appear as “beautiful” due to the blossoming of cherry trees along the streets in Lund during springtime, and similar streets that lack such beautification. She found that the free-flow mean speed decreased by about 5 percent and the number of vehicles traveling at high speeds between 50-60 km/h decreased by about 12 percent during the cherry blossom period.

One imagines a whole new sub-field of traffic engineering, with myriad questions: Do certain buildings or even architectural styles affect driver behavior? Can beautiful people literally “stop traffic”? Road aesthetics in general is a rather lost art; there’s a whole interesting strand of research from the optimistic 1950s, particularly from the U.K., looking into things like which sorts of road-side plants read most legibly at design speeds.

Of course, in so much of contemporary America, what James Howard Kunstler lovingly calls our “National Automobile Slum,” there’s not much present that would make anyone slow down (just the opposite really); indeed, the only seeming role of aesthetics in these environments is to transmit basic information (e.g., branding messages) at highway speed. When one actually gets out of the car in something like a big-box parking lot the effect is rather soul-crushing.

The aforementioned paper (which looked at a variety of locations in Connecticut), by the way, found that, perhaps not surprisingly, “drivers slow down where the road feels “hemmed- in” or there is noticeable street activity, and they speed up where the road feels “wide open” or street activity is less noticeable. This finding is not surprising, but these relationships are quite strong in the observed data, and it is a useful result to isolate this short list of factors that are significantly correlated with actual vehicle running speeds.”

And speaking of aesthetics, roads, and Connecticut, the Merritt Parkway is in trouble. The Depression-era Merritt Parkway had made the World Monuments Fund list of endangered global treasures, joining Machu Picchu, among others.

Built in the 1930s, the Parkway was intended for cars going a leisurely 35 mph, not today’s high speeds. More than simply a road to get drivers from one place to another, it provides a uniquely relaxing experience, said Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, the nonprofit that nominated the road for a slot on the World Monuments Fund list. She touted its gently rolling topography, quintessentially New England landscape and historic stone bridges…

…Newman said he and other Merritt fans are currently at “loggerheads” with ConnDOT over a plan that is underway near Trumbull, Conn., which will restore 12 bridges, but also involves the removal of many trees.

The Merritt is a case where the presence of trees and aesthetics doesn’t seem to affect speed choice for many drivers — I’m always amazed at how fast people pass me. I’d hate to see the Parkway turned into some sterile version of I-95 because of the actions of a few people driving, as the police summons puts it, “too fast for conditions.”

This entry was posted on Monday, November 23rd, 2009 at 10:29 am and is filed under Roads. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “The Effects of Beauty on Speed”

  1. Lauren F. Says:

    The Merritt Parkway is one of my favorite roads to drive on, and I enjoy seeing the various architectural styles of the bridges across the road. That aside, I would have thought that gawking out the window at whatever is more dangerous than the benefit of slowing down while looking–I worry when I try to look at interesting buildings etc. that I am going to look for too long & then smack into the person in front of me, or veer out of a lane. It’s just another type of distracted driving, isn’t it? For the driver, anyway.

  2. Kevin Love Says:

    Another beautiful road that has been steadily uglified over the years is the Queen Elizabeth Way in Ontario. Original ornaments from the 1930’s that are now gone include the Royal Cypher on the lampposts, and the statues that decorated bridges and important places. One example is the lion that greeted generations of people entering Toronto. All gone.

    Now it is just a disgusting, polluting motor vehicle sewer.

  3. Kevin Love Says:

    Here is a photo of the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1940. Note the Lion monument and the Royal Cypher on the lampposts.

  4. Alan Harris Says:

    There is a park that memorializes the Savery Highway in Carver, MA

    It is an nice 1/4-1/2 mile, appropriate for a side trip and picnic spot.
    From the town of Carver’s website: ( )

    Savery’s Avenue, first divided highway in America. Presented to the Public
    in 1861 by William Savery. The trees between the roads and on the
    outside of them were to be left for “shade and ornament for man and beast”.

  5. Omri Says:

    It also works in reverse. In my town, Medford MA, the streets with the slowest car traffic are the ones with the most holiday decorations right now. People aren’t inclined to beautify for the benefit of those who are just zooming past.

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