I’ve been car-less for my whole life, but recently my boyfriend purchased a car because he needed it for his new job. Now I occasionally borrow it. Whenever I’m driving, I keep myself highly alert for pedestrians and their rights, since 9 times out of 10, I am that pedestrian. I make it a habit to consistently stop for pedestrians trying to cross the street.
A couple weeks ago, while stopping for pedestrians in a designated crosswalk on a speedy one-way street, an angry driver swerved around me and nearly hit the young family trying to get across the street. I voiced my own anger at this dangerous situation on Twitter and someone chimed in with ideas for how to prevent this from happening again: Put your hazards on. Flash your lights. Reach your hand or head out the window and indicate to the driver behind you that you’re waiting for pedestrians. But upon reflection, none of these seems reliable or even truly feasible. (I’d rather not stick my head out the window in sub-zero Wisconsin winters. The window would probably be frozen shut anyway.) The problem is that drivers are moving too fast to see pedestrians, so they do not stop. Me signalling is not going to prevent that.
Borrowing my boyfriend’s car has allowed me to understand this issue with crosswalks more thoroughly from a driver’s perspective. Today I want to look at some different types of crosswalks and show how none of them are really doing their job.
Crosswalks come in a few varieties. The most common is a simple yellow diamond (see above), displayed on either side of the road and in both directions, usually with an arrow pointing into the street, and white lines painted on the road.
Another type of crosswalk is the one that gives you a bit of warning. It’s exactly the same as the first one, except that a few yards before you reach it, there is another series of similar-looking signs that indicate, “Crosswalk Ahead.”
Finally, the last type of crosswalk that I’ve seen is an electric signal that, when a button is pushed by a pedestrian on either side of the street, lights up--usually flashing red or yellow--and is accompanied by several metal signs that say things like “Crosswalk Here,” “Watch for Pedestrians When Flashing” and so on. Sometimes the flashing lights even extend across the intersection, like a traffic signal for cars. You usually only get this latter type of sign in a school zone, near a nursing home, or when several pedestrian deaths have occurred at a given intersection. I’ve seen maybe three of those flashing signs in the entire year I’ve lived in my city. No doubt, local governments think they’re too expensive to build (although I’d wager they are cheaper than a standard traffic light for automobiles).
With the exception of this rare flashing light crosswalk, I think the other two types do a poor job of warning drivers. As a driver, even when I am doing my absolute best to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross, there are just times when a truck is parked too close to the intersection for me to see the pedestrian, or times when someone in a wheelchair approaches the crosswalk but I don’t see him in time to slow my vehicle and let him pass. The signs are not being seen. On a wide, fast-moving stroad this is almost always the case.
The problem is that unlike a stop sign, at which drivers must always halt their vehicle, a crosswalk is viewed by many drivers as optional or only relevant in some cases i.e. when a pedestrian is present. A driver traveling at 35 or 40 miles an hour along a stroad might see that yellow diamond out of the corner of her eye but it’s unlikely that she’ll also be able to 1) notice whether or not a person is standing near the sign and, if so, 2) slow down in time to come to a complete halt in order for the pedestrian to cross. The driver is simply moving too fast to do all of this mental, optical and physical coordination at once. Such instantaneous stopping would only be consistently feasible if we built flashing light signage at every intersection. And we all know that’s not going to happen.
I’ve had this experience numerous time where I notice a crosswalk sign on a busy stroad while I’m out walking, and all I can do is shake my head and laugh, because I know that only 5% of cars are actually going to obey the sign. Even if I stood in front of it yelling and waving my hands, I’d be very surprised if a car actually stopped. Has anyone else had this experience while looking at a crosswalk? They seem like an utterly futile effort, like whispering “Turn down your music” to a neighbor who is blasting a huge stereo system at full volume. It's never going to succeed.
What should happen, and what would essentially eliminate the need for crosswalks, is to narrow our streets with road diets (or more permanent methods), and in doing so, naturally slow the speed of cars. When everyone is driving slower, it will be much easier to keep on the lookout for pedestrians attempting to cross, and much safer for pedestrians to step out into the street instead of having to wait 5 minutes for a break in cars--in spite of the fact that there’s a sign telling the drivers they legally have to stop. At speeds of 15 or 20 mph, it is much easier for drivers to notice walkers and respond accordingly. In this scenario, crosswalk signs can have a positive impact, nudging drivers to keep an eye out for pedestrians.
For example, Brady Street is a popular commercial area near my house in Milwaukee, full of neighborhood amenities like restaurants, hardware stores and barber shops. It’s a two-lane street with parking for cars (and recently bikes!) on either side, and tons of foot traffic throughout the day due to the high concentration of residents in the area, many of whom don’t own cars. Any car driving down the street is forced to proceed slowly to avoid hitting the parked cars and pedestrians. Cars are also driving slowly because they are hunting for parking, or admiring the neighborhood.
Brady Street is several blocks long and has a stop sign, stoplight or pedestrian crosswalk at every single corner. The signage is just enough to remind drivers to look out for pedestrians, and, because they are already driving slowly, it is easy for them to stop as soon as they see a pedestrian approach the curb. This is particularly important because of the high volume of foot traffic, some of which is elderly people in wheelchairs (there are several senior homes nearby) and parents pushing strollers.
The current width and speed of most streets renders crosswalk signs useless. Narrowing our streets with road diets is a far cheaper and more effective way to allow for safe pedestrian crossing. Let's move toward slower streets, instead of pointless signage.
Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.