Rethinking the Urban Speedway

For decades, highway engineers focused on designing wider, straighter, faster roads. Now, moving traffic quickly is no longer the sole goal. Take a ride through Trenton with Gary Toth and Yosry Bekhiet, and you might conclude that these two highway engineers are the last New Jersey drivers who stick to posted speed limits. Bekhiet, behind the wheel of a state-issue Chevy Cavalier, accelerates up a ramp onto the city's downtown expressway, and then holds steady in the right lane at exactly 50 miles per hour. Toth, in the passenger seat, points out the gold dome of the state capitol as other cars fly past the white Chevy. "I drive this road at 50," Toth says, "and people pass me going 75."

State Route 29 through Trenton, like most roads in the United States, was built for speed. The engineers who designed it back in the 1950s had a hunch that motorists might race a little. So for safety's sake, they made the road a bit straighter and the lanes a tad wider than the speed limit suggested was necessary. Engineers at the time believed this to be prudent design - and many of their contemporaries would still agree with that assessment. For most of their long careers with New Jersey's Department of Transportation, this is what Toth and Bekhiet believed, too.

But lately, the two engineers have become convinced that supersizing Route 29 only made it more dangerous. Designing for the speediest drivers, they now believe, simply encouraged people to drive even faster. They note that recent accidents along a short stretch have killed six people. "The traditional engineering solution to road problems is to make the road wider, straighter and faster," Toth says. "Well, wider, straighter and faster is not always better."

Toth and Bekhiet have developed other objections to Route 29's design. The first is a matter of traffic flow. There are only a few spots where drivers can get on or off the highway. This means that Route 29 shoulders nearly all of the burden of moving cars through Trenton. When the road clogs up at rush hour or after a minor-league baseball game, drivers don't have much choice but to wait out the jam. Their second complaint is Route 29's location. It sits on an embankment along the Delaware River, completely severing downtown Trenton from its waterfront. Thousands of state employees work in a building a stone's throw from the river's edge, but their view outside is all concrete and guardrails. "The Delaware River might as well be 100 miles away," Bekhiet says.

None of the engineers' criticisms of Route 29 are anything new. For 20 years, the city of Trenton has been begging the DOT to tear down this expressway. "It's the Indianapolis 500 out there," says Mayor Douglas Palmer. What is new, and is simply astonishing for anyone familiar with transportation policy to hear, is that it's the engineers themselves - finally - who are the ones saying it.

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