Friday, March 25, 2016

Pedestrian Safety: Putting the Blame Where It Belongs and Assessing Strategies for Slowing Cars

Brick street in Harmar, Ohio
In a pair of recent posts, I offered perspectives on pedestrian safety.  I wrote first about how the education of drivers isn’t an adequate strategy relative to the high compliance needed for pedestrian safety.  Later, I suggested that the best strategies for pedestrian safety may fall outside the Overton Window for acceptable public discourse.

Although pedestrian safety is never far from the mind of an urbanist, I’ll leave the subject behind for awhile after today, but not before making a couple of final points.

The first point is a distressing perspective on pedestrian safety from a recent story out of New York City.  Some of the details remain unclear, such as whether the police car turn indicator was flashing, whether the officer was talking on a cell phone, and whether the pedestrian was distracted by his own phone, but the facts, and the video, are still startling.

A police officer was stopped at a traffic signal.  Despite the clear visibility of a pedestrian on a far corner, the officer began a left turn upon the signal turning green, striking and killing the pedestrian who was walking with the green light.  And in the court documents submitted in response to the resulting civil suit, the NYPD legal staff made this argument, “Plaintiff’s implied assumption of risk caused or contributed, in whole or in part, to his injuries.”

Really?  Walking on a sunny day in a well-marked crosswalk with a green light is considered to be an “implied assumption of risk”?

Admittedly, it would have been unwise if the victim was being distracted by a cell phone because pedestrians should remain alert to risks.  But describing a pedestrian in full compliance with traffic laws as having “assumed risk” is poor public policy.  And I doubt a car passenger, injured through a mistake by the driver in another car, would be described as having made an “implied assumption of risk.”

I’m suspect that the NYPD legal staff has no real hope of exonerating the officer from her mistake and was only blaming the victim in hopes of reducing the monetary damages.  But this is a case where blaming the victim sends a public message that is both tone-deaf and contrary to the public interest.

As long as we try to define walking in a crosswalk as an inherently dangerous act, we’ll never make progress with pedestrian safety.

Moving onward, one of my earlier posts, in which I wrote about slowing traffic through lane widths and/or strategic location of parking, elicited a question about alternative traffic calming devices such as speed bumps or rumble strips.  It was a question worthy of a response, which I’ll try to provide here.

There can be places for these other types of traffic calming approaches, which are generally described as vertical traffic calming compared to the horizontal traffic calming of lane widths and parking placement.  Personally, I think a well-situated speed table, which is an extended area of raised pavement, can be effective in particular settings, such an intersection where pedestrians are the dominant mode or for pedestrian routes to a shopping center storefront.

But speed tables are an exception.  And most other vertical traffic calming measures, such as speed bumps, are never even offered for public consideration because emergency services departments oppose them as potentially slowing emergency response times.  Personally, I don’t think that assigning infinite weight to one variable, in this case emergency response times, is the right way to build a balanced, well-functioning city, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Even if we set aside the emergency response issue, I think the value of most vertical traffic calming measures is limited.  Rumble strips and speed bumps, much like stop signs, seem often to induce drivers to speed up between installations to make up for lost time.

I spent a recent weekend with a sister and brother-in-law who live in a subdivision protected by steep speed bumps, bumps that if I encounter at a speed above 2 mph will whack my oil pan.  I often note drivers speeding up between bumps in irritation at the time they’re spending traversing the bumps.  I pity pedestrians trying to cross the minefield of drivers distracted by simultaneously trying to travel quickly and to protect their undercarriages.

So I’m mostly dubious about vertical traffic calming measures of limited width.  But there are other options.  A regular reader who lives in a neighborhood with disintegrating pavement has told me, with an apparent straight face, that she has no problem with potholes because they provide traffic calming.

Brick ADA ramp to a brick street in Marietta, Ohio
If waiting for potholes to provide traffic calming seems too passive, David Levinson writing in Streets MN argues that alternative surfaces such as brick can provide traffic calming and a more distinctive streetscape.  However, bricks, and their counterparts in much of the country, cobblestones, are more expensive to install and to maintain than asphalt and also result in more tire noise.

At the bottom line, with the sole exception of speed tables in a few preferred locations, emergency services opposition, driver response, cost, and tire noise undermine every known vertical traffic calming measure.  The horizontal traffic calming measures of lane widths and parking placement remain the preferred alternatives, at least to my sensibilities.

And even those don’t help when a distracted police officer kills a pedestrian with the right-of-way and the police department tries to blame the pedestrian.

When I next write, I’ll finally circle back to the topic of affordable housing and urbanism.  I’m far from an expert on the subject, and fear that expertise is what is needed, but will share what I know and what I believe.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment