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On crosswalks, research and safety campaigns conflict

Marlyn Eres Ali was killed last week in Wheaton, crossing Connecticut Avenue on foot at an intersection with no traffic light. She was in a crosswalk that has wheelchair ramps and a paved median refuge but no markings on the pavement. Why aren't crosswalks like this one marked?

Crosswalk where Marlyn Eres Ali died. By permission of nbc4 news.

Legally, a pair of crosswalks exists at every intersection, regardless of whether there are markings on the road. Most of the general public believes that marking those crosswalks makes them safer to use. But the Federal Highway Administration disagrees. Sometimes, at least.

Its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD, the traffic engineer's bible, states that on roads with 4 or more lanes, speed limits above 40 mph, and heavy traffic:

New marked crosswalks alone, without other measures designed to reduce traffic speeds, shorten crossing distances, enhance driver awareness of the crossing, and/or provide active warning of pedestrian presence, should not be installed across uncontrolled roadways.
Local agencies, reluctant to make cars go slower and short of funds to install the pedestrian warning lights called hawk beacons, usually take this as an injunction to simply leave the crossing unmarked.

The MUTCD bases this provision on studies of crash data. Pedestrians crossing big highways, these studies report, have a greater chance of being hit by drivers at marked crosswalks than at similar unmarked ones.

There are several possible reasons for this.

  • Traffic engineers often locate marked crosswalks at the places where they interfere least with vehicle movement. Pedestrians may put a higher priority on safety when choosing where to cross.
  • Politicians may demand crosswalk markings at the intersections with repeated crashes, meaning the crashes are not a consequence of the marked crosswalk but the cause.
  • Researchers have other suggestions, too, as Tom Vanderbilt discusses on page 198 of his book Traffic.
Whatever the causes of this phenomenon, if it is real, there is an easy way to save lives: FHWA and state transportation agencies could instruct pedestrians to ignore crosswalk markings when they cross highways without traffic lights. Cross at whatever intersection feels safest, not the one with a marked crosswalk.

Of course, you will never hear that advice in a safety campaign. They urge pedestrians, as the current DC effort puts it, to "always use a crosswalk." Pedestrians understand this to mean a marked one, and the campaigns reinforce that belief with images of marked crosswalks.

FHWA safety poster.

The FHWA's own pedestrian safety campaign does not explicitly recommend using marked crosswalks. But—somewhat like advertising for an escort service—what isn't said matters more than what's said. The text assumes that the reader already has an idea of what's going on and carefully avoids correcting that impression. The real message is in the pictures.

Why would highway agencies promote pedestrian behavior that their research shows to be unsafe? One potential reason is that the traffic engineers don't really believe the research. The study results are often inconsistent; the researchers offer many cautions. Scientists know that when you get a result contrary to common sense, it's most often wrong. If it still stands up after checking and double-checking, you may have a great discovery, but more often you'll find a subtle mistake buried in your work.

The other possibility is that safety isn't really what this recommendation is about. Rather, it may reflect drivers' desire, reinforced by the historic biases of the traffic engineering profession, to get pedestrians out of unmarked crosswalks where they slow down cars. Peter Norton has shown that safety campaigns, when they started in the 1920s, aimed to push pedestrians off the streets and make room for cars.

Intentionally or not, the traffic engineering profession gravitates toward conclusions that support its existing practices and priorities. When the research supports a road design that speeds traffic—wonderful! A safety recommendation that would slow down vehicles—unthinkable!

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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the problem is that the apparently correct advice is for peds to go to the crosswalk they feel safest, whether marked or unmarked. but most pedestrians do not realize that there are unmarked crosswalks, and if they did might be unsure of which locations in fact are unmarked crosswalks, or what there exact location on the ground is. An analogy here is sharrows - which only point cyclists to where they already are supposed to go - but serve to clarify that for the uncertain.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 5, 2013 2:26 pm • linkreport

We are all deeply concerned about pedestrian safety. Until face with only solutions that involve slowing down traffic. Then we still say we are deeply concerned with safety while working against it.

by drumz on Mar 5, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

We also experience this issue on a local scale in Maryland when dealing with the State Highway Administration. Mount Rainier has repeatedly asked for additional pedestrian and bicycle facilities on the city's state highways, particularly along Route 1, but the basic response from SHA is that vehicle throughput is most important. This attitude directly hinders redevelopment in the city because Route 1 is an integral part of the commercial town center. Many citizens simply opt to avoid what they perceive to be an unsafe crossing. Installing additional facilities would improve bike and pedestrian safety while also knitting the urban fabric back together.

by Brent Bolin on Mar 5, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

@Brent -- similar problems in Greenbelt. It would be safer and better for economic development if we narrowed the lanes and slowed down the roads and shortened the light cycles. Traffic would move slower, but lights would be shorter, and overall through times would probably be about the same. Maryland could use the economic development in already built areas (rather than paving more farmland). A highway runs through it is a crappy development policy.

But trying to get that accomplished is another story. State highway people say they're interested in "main street" approaches, but it's very new, and there's not much evidence that they're not still in highway mode at the design and planning level.

And they really hate pedestrians and bikes -- we can't get bike beg buttons to cross 201, right in front of the SHA offices!

by Greenbelt on Mar 5, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

for me, this again comes down to visibility. drivers see marked crosswalks easier than unmarked crosswalks that look more like just the rest of the roadway. i'm not saying the studies are wrong, but that's just commonsense to me.

by will on Mar 5, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

I have an idea of where the seeming disparity in marked vs unmarked crosswalks might come from. Every time I've had a close call as a pedestrian, it's been while walking in a crosswalk, with the right of way - including when I got hit by a turning car a couple weeks back. When I'm in a crosswalk with the right-of-way I generally assume that drivers will respect me, since I'm where I'm supposed to be. (Obviously, not always the case, ergo the close calls.) However, when I'm crossing a street NOT in a marked crosswalk, I watch the traffic very carefully to make sure that I'm going to have a gap in cars sufficient to cross safely. In other words, I treat the situation as though my safety is in my own hands, whether cars act properly or not.

The resulting lesson - that, for maximum safety, I should act in that way even when crossing appropriately in a marked crosswalk - may be simple, but is also depressing. I'd prefer not to be on high alert at all times.

by CapHill on Mar 5, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

Brent-fellow "Mountie" here. Some days I think we should just tear up the paint, put in narrower lanes and bike facilities and dare the SHA to do something about it. Some days I wish we'd sue the hell out of the SHA citing the pile of evidence regarding how roads like that are neither safe (outside a motor vehicle), nor economically productive. Other days I just wish the chief would periodically do an all hands on deck speed/yield to pedestrians sting around the circle. Most of the time I just cringe at what RI Ave. could be if vehicular traffic was tamed and it was attractive on a human scale. Slapping a 25 mph sign down doesn't change the highway geometry of that road and won't change driver behavior.
Have we ever approached the SHA to say we'll take that piece of roadway (38th to Eastern) off your rolls? It would be a huge liability, but there's probably an even bigger upside.

by thump on Mar 5, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

Have we ever approached the SHA to say we'll take that piece of roadway (38th to Eastern) off your rolls? It would be a huge liability, but there's probably an even bigger upside.

Can we do that? Anyone know of precedence for that?

by Tina on Mar 5, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

Keep fighting the good fight! I've spent a bit of time walking in the suburbs, mostly in NJ, and it's just demoralizing. It's seems like small things but having to run across unmarked crosswalks because vehicles don't slow down and walking on unpaved toepaths on the side of the road, really makes you feel like a second class citizen.

by Alan B. on Mar 5, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

@Greenbelt - yep! But, ever wonder how Hyattsville got daytime on-street parking in front of their new Route 1 development? Losing a travel lane seems more onerous to throughput than a pedestrian or bike facility.

@thump & Tina - I hope any fellow Mounties will say hi sometime AFK. I will however throw a wet blanket on taking over our stretch of Route 1. If you look at the city's residential streets I think you'll see that we don't have a lot of resources to invest in maintaining our infrastructure. I shudder to think what we'd be on the hook for if we were responsible for Route 1 and its 22,000+ vehicles/day. (I'm also not convinced it would even be legal under state law.)

The good news is that the redevelopment project at the corner of Route 1 and Eastern Ave will require SHA engagement, so we have a fresh reason to engage them on our concerns. (They also owe us streetscaping on Route 1 that was planned but never implemented.) We've also been engaging our friends in Ward 5 to discuss bike lanes and other improvements along Route 1.

by Brent Bolin on Mar 5, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

Every time I walk, I assume the motorists are trying to kill me.

by Cavan on Mar 5, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

Losing a travel lane seems more onerous to throughput than a pedestrian or bike facility.

It is..but they lose those lanes outside rush hours. It certainly slows people down. Of course, our problems w/ speed aren't during peak periods anyway, traffic is already moving too slowly due to volume, it's early morning/late night and on weekends when speeds are insane. Might be worth talking about converting the inside travel lanes to parallel parking on the weekend along with "back in, pull out" parking on the outside which further narrows the travel lanes visually and provides for increased numbers of spaces.

we don't have a lot of resources to invest in maintaining our infrastructure

I knew that...that's just my dream scenario. OTOH, while the liabilities would be significant, I think we're more than capable of capturing surrounding land values if we were to do something "radical". That's especially true if we're looking at another 10-20 years of the status quo.
Having local communities take over the state highways that pass through them is something I've seen Charles Marohn at strongtowns kicking around for a while. The vast majority of these roads aren't working for the communities they run through and, in the SHA's case, are the most dangerous in the state for pedestrians and bicyclists.

redevelopment project at the corner of Route 1 and Eastern Ave will require SHA engagement

Seems like the biggest problem there is the intersection a DC issue...and I hope we're engaging them on this (and Friends of RI Ave for grassroots support!). Left turns from Eastern are scary as hell, and turning cars cause the drivers behind them to move out of the lane suddenly. I've seen so many close calls, and beyond that, the red light running by left turning cars is epic. Also, the crossing distance on our side is over 100 feet, and southbound vehicles turning left into Mt. Rainier aren't looking for pedestrians, only trying to avoid being T-Boned. If you're not a healthy adult, there isn't enough time to get across. My "crazy" vision is another circle there along w/ one at 38th. A circle that provides serious horizontal deflection along Rt. 1/RI Ave to slow people down (of course, speeding is rampant along Eastern as well). I still think that's a flaw in the circle at don't need to slow that much if you're on Rt. 1.

by thump on Mar 5, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

Tina-I tried to email you, but the email Chris gave me didn't work. Tell him to send me something that does.

by thump on Mar 5, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

@thump, ok!

by Tina on Mar 5, 2013 5:48 pm • linkreport

Pedestrians crossing big highways, these studies report, have a greater chance of being hit by drivers at marked crosswalks than at similar unmarked ones.

Logically, it follows that the DOTs should either unmark all of the marked crosswalks, because marked crosswalks are more dangerous than unmarked crosswalks, or mark all of the unmarked crosswalks, so that pedestrians will cross in marked crosswalks and be safe.

I know a lot of people who think that the only legal place for pedestrians to cross the street is at a marked crosswalk.

by Miriam on Mar 5, 2013 6:32 pm • linkreport

@Greenbelt - Ironically, I was just thinking this morning about how pedestrian unfriendly the area outside of greenbelt proper is.(MD201, MD193, US1). I LOVE the fact that MD State Highway has spent so much time and money repairing sidewalks along MD193 and US1 HOWEVER: there are *STILL* places that have NO sidewalks or very poor sidewalks and no easy way to cross without taking life into your own hands. Case in point: intersection of US-1 and Cherry Hill Road. I'm not even sure how to properly navigate that mess.

I do feel that marked crosswalks sometimes create more problems, but in a traffic heavy area, at least it gives the pedestrian a chance when the motorist is expecting them there. I don't encourage what some people do--run across like gazelles. However, sometimes I think that crossing mid-block with no traffic coming is safer due to better sight lines/visibility.

by Bob Smith on Mar 5, 2013 7:27 pm • linkreport

When multi-use trails (AKA bike trails) cross roads, the powers that be almost always want the road traffic to have right-of-way. Yet they paint a crosswalk, which gives right-of-way to pedestrians, and to cyclists using the crosswalk (details vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but as a broad description that describes the law in our area). Then they put up stop signs, which are not a traffic control that pedestrians must obey, which just confuses things. And if you're Virginia or the NPS, then you go out and ticket cyclists and pedestrians for a law that doesn't exist.

A better solution would be to remove the crosswalk paint at the trail crossing. It would then become an uncontrolled mid-block crossing, and in all local jurisdictions pedestrians and cyclists may cross there, but must yield to road traffic, which is what the authorities want. It's not like the paint needs to be there to tell trail users where to cross -- it's obvious where the trail ends and where it starts up again on the other side. Having a marked crosswalk where you don't intend pedestrians to have right of way is just poor design.

by contrarian on Mar 5, 2013 10:51 pm • linkreport

There are many times not crossing at the crosswalk or intersection is safer. If any of the engineers making the guidelines spent any time at all walking in some of the environments they build they'd understand that.

by dseain on Mar 6, 2013 2:28 am • linkreport

No smow post yet?

by Chris S on Mar 6, 2013 8:47 am • linkreport

Good post Ben, but I think that ped safety is nothing more than lip service in the USA (much like politicians claim that families are important but will not provide paid maternity leave).

I've lived all over the world and our ped crosswalk system is the worst of any industrialized nation I've seen. If we really cared about ped safety, then we'd at least use something like a zebra crossing in the UK (

by TC on Mar 6, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

Crosswalks that aren't at lights are practically useless. Even in gentle Bethesda, crossing Wisconsin Ave in a marked crosswalk that doesn't have a light is an adventure. It takes a lot of eye contact, caution, and determination-simply because cars don't want to stop for you in a crosswalk.

Heck, once I was almost hit by a Montgomery County Police car in a crosswalk on Wisconsin Ave. No sirens in it-he just sped past me when I was in the middle of the street in the crosswalk. I had to jump back to survive.

No one cares about pedestrians. Period. It's the Wild West. Accept it.

by Ed on Mar 8, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

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