Springfield, Massachusetts has a deadly problem. If that statement feels like deja vu to you, it's because it should.
In December 2014, a mother and two children were crossing State Street downtown, in front of the public library. They were hit by a car and the 7-year-old daughter was killed. They were doing something that visitors do every single day, as this video (courtesy of Strong Towns member Steve Shultis and his daughter) clearly shows: crossing the street mid-block to get from the library's doors to its parking lot on the other side. Strong Towns president and founder Chuck Marohn was in town that night, and wrote about it in an essay, "Just Another Pedestrian Killed," that has become one of our most enduringly influential.
Influential, that is, except within the walls of Springfield City Hall. This death has not prompted any design changes to the street. Three years later, an open letter from Strong Towns explained that the city could face legal liability for failing to correct a known safety hazard by slowing traffic and providing a safe crossing in front of the library. The mayor and public works director, however, remained convinced that there was "no practical way of making [State Street] safe for pedestrians" (a ludicrous statement unless you define "practical" to mean, "without inconveniencing drivers").
Springfield residents have spoken up for change. Elected officials have come on board, proposing a crosswalk with a button-activated traffic light (i.e. a HAWK signal, a design which has been highly successful in other cities, and is recommended by the Federal Highway Administration).
The usual suspects are still stonewalling this fix, though, as of August 2019. MassLive reports:
The city’s public works director has rejected the idea of installing a crosswalk and pedestrian traffic signal on State Street in front of the central library, saying it would not be safe and would create other serious traffic problems....
[Director Christopher] Cignoli said that pedestrians should not cross at that spot — which is mid-block, and across a four-lane street—but rather at a marked crosswalk at the major intersection of State, Chestnut and Maple streets. Plantings, fencing and stairs were added to discourage the mid-block crossings, but many pedestrians see it as quicker and more convenient option, city officials say.
Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, in support of Cignoli's analysis, said the councilors' proposal "is a false narrative that would put pedestrians in harm's way according to the experts."
A "false narrative"? I don't feel the need to rehash all the reasons why the street's existing design is negligent and why both slowing traffic and creating a signalized mid-block crossing are warranted; again, read our prior articles on the subject for that. But as long as we're on the subject of false narratives....
Introducing the Cult of the Fantasy Pedestrian
The mayor's attitude sadly isn't unusual at all. Its invocation of "experts" to shut down debate is troubling, especially given that the engineering profession is changing rapidly and even many "experts" today would endorse precisely the solution that three city council members proposed for State Street (a HAWK beacon and crosswalk).
But the other problem with the mayor’s attitude is that it reflects a particular sort of magical thinking. It's a belief in what I'm going to call the Cult of the Fantasy Pedestrian.
The Fantasy Pedestrian, you see, is more than happy to abide by the law. Every law. In all circumstances.
The Fantasy Pedestrian always crosses at the nearest crosswalk, no matter how far out of the way it may be.
The Fantasy Pedestrian presses the beg button and waits. They will never under any circumstance be in the road when they don't have a walk signal.
The Fantasy Pedestrian certainly doesn't start crossing on a flashing "don't walk" countdown.
Designing streets for the Fantasy Pedestrian is really, really easy, because their behavior is 100 percent predictable in every circumstance. Just lay out the rules. But designing streets for real people, who take shortcuts and do spontaneous and expedient and sometimes even foolhardy things, requires more critical thought.
A fantasy pedestrian doesn't ever create desire paths. They dutifully follow all the paved walkways.
It's not just Fantasy Pedestrians that adult mayors and directors of public works seem to believe in like children in the Tooth Fairy. There's also the Fantasy Driver: the one who, if you design a speedway-like road with 14-foot lanes and massive clear zones, then put up a sign that says "Speed Limit 20 mph," will actually go 20, and not a hair over.
Belief in Fantasy Cyclists is widespread, too. The Fantasy Cyclist doesn't do scofflaw things like roll through stop signs. The Fantasy Cyclist comes to a complete stop, foot on the ground, at Every. Single. One. They also wear a helmet and reflective gear for every trip, no matter how short. Most of our bike facilities are designed for fantasy cyclists, and our bike laws are written for them.
Systems that are designed to account for fallible human behavior? Whoa, slow your roll, buddy.
This principle goes far beyond street design. It rears its head anywhere that predictable human behavior is at odds with the behavior we wish people would adopt.
My city removed all the benches from a central downtown park a few years ago in response to the unwanted presence of homeless people. (Unwanted, at least, by certain neighbors and city officials) . They quietly undid the change after a few years, because removing the benches proved unpopular with a wide range of citizens who wanted to actually, you know, use the park. And here’s the real shocker, according to SRQ Magazine:
Meanwhile, homeless individuals have continued to use the park, but instead have laid on and trampled upon the grass there instead.
Want to quit smoking? The best approach—the one that works, that’s informed by actual psychology—involves throwing out your cigarettes, enlisting people close to you to keep you accountable, and designing routines for yourself so that you have a substitute ritual ready for when something triggers your habitual urge to smoke. Make not smoking the path of least resistance. For many people, nicotine patches or vaping are also accommodations that can help ease the transition, recognizing in advance that you will be tempted.
Unless, of course, you're an adherent of the Cult of the Fantasy Smoker. In that case, you’ll still resolve to go cold turkey, but you’ll also leave those packs of cigarettes lying around the house, and continue to take workplace smoke breaks with your friends; just tell yourself you're not going to light up. If you slip up, it's your own fault, after all.
There's a Cult of the Fantasy Toddler: the one who will certainly behave like a little angel on a public outing, simply because you told them to. There's a Cult of the Fantasy College Student, who, despite a history of procrastination in high school, will certainly give themselves ample time to finish a paper this time around, because after all, they know they can't afford to procrastinate.
Anywhere you find a black market in goods or services that are much more expensive or difficult to obtain legitimately, you will find that a theologically similar cult has adherents. Anywhere that we underestimate complexity and overestimate our ability to impose order. Anywhere we expect people not to find practical workarounds because we told them not to, despite the endless evidence that they have and do and will.
Is Designing for Real, Flawed Humans Really That Difficult?
Of course, almost no one who has a voice in the design of city streets actually believes that people behave like little robots operating on an algorithm they can't violate. An intelligent adult can understand perfectly well that the Fantasy Pedestrian is a mythical creature.
An engineer, just as easily as a non-engineer, can grasp that it is statistically inevitable that people will cross the street mid-block in front of the library in Springfield, if shrubs and a low chain barrier haven't deterred them yet. An adherent to the cult of the fantasy pedestrian, on the other hand, says, "But they shouldn't cross the street there. It's not safe to let them." As though that ends the debate.
If your goal is to promote public safety, design for the humans you have, not the ones you wish you had.
If, that is, public safety is actually your highest value. Because here's the thing about the Cult of the Fantasy Pedestrian: very few of its adherents are true believers. It's not a devout faith, it's a rationalization. An excuse.
The Cult of the Fantasy Pedestrian is a convenient fiction that allows us to skirt around having to actually voice and defend the following value judgment:
Those in cars matter more than those on foot. In fact, the convenience of those in cars matters more than the survival of those on foot.
Almost no one would ever actually say that; it's clearly a morally outrageous statement. I don't think the mayor of Springfield believes in that statement.
But many of us implicitly adopt that value hierarchy anyway. We do it because most North Americans experience their places as drivers first, and walkers a distant second. So we make an unconscious, emotional decision to sympathize with the driver's desire to move fast and unimpeded. And then we rationalize it (in the same way that most human decisions are fundamentally emotional ones that we rationalize after the fact). We adopt the mythology of the Fantasy Pedestrian: when anyone not driving a car behaves in a way that's unpredictable, illegal, or simply less than perfectly compliant with the rules we've set up for them, we can comfortably wash our hands of whatever happens to them.
Shrug. "Should have gone to the nearest crosswalk."
The pedestrian who breaks traffic laws in any fashion isn't deemed worthy of our protection. Whatever happens to them is sad, but it’s their own fault. Should have obeyed the law. There's no practical solution.
The cult of the Fantasy Pedestrian—or more broadly, that of the predictable, mechanical, infallible human—is no way to design any system. We cannot impose a preferred order on the world through the way we design the physical environment. We need to design in a way that responds to the messy, emergent order that already exists.
All around you, people's actions, not words, are already telling you where they want to go. Start with that. Look at where people struggle—say, to safely cross a street between their parked car and their destination. Identify the next best step, the fastest, easiest thing you can do to address that struggle. Then do it.
(Cover photo via WNYC on Flickr - Creative Commons License)