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Posts about Pedestrian Safety

Pedestrians


When it comes to mid-block crosswalks, Indonesia doesn't mess around

Getting drivers to stop in the middle of a block to let pedestrians cross can be tricky. In the US we use something called a HAWK signal. In other countries they have different ideas. Check out this HAWK-like relative in Kediri, Indonesia.


The yellow script atop the sign reads "Stop! All vehicles stop. Pedestrians have precedence. Thank you." Images and video by the author.

I spotted this peculiar looking traffic signal on a recent family visit to the country. It spans a crosswalk that connects one of the city's main shopping malls with a parking lot and theater across the street. While it uses conventional traffic lights, it functions almost exactly as HAWK signals (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacon) here in the US do (but it's not exactly a HAWK, as those are specific to the US).

The Indonesian version's default phase is a flashing yellow light (in the US, HAWK signals that aren't in use usually remain dark) that warns drivers to approach with caution. When a pedestrian activates the signal's push button, the light immediately changes to red. After about 12 seconds of walk time, the light changes to green for drivers. This lasts for about 10 seconds before returning to flashing yellow.

The Indonesian HAWK signal also has some other features that are unique from those we see in the US. There is an LED signboard that flashes messages to drivers, and even more noticeably, there is a horn that blares when the light is red (you can hear it in the video above).


Images and video by the author.

While the horn is a bit outlandish, planners in the US could learn a thing or two from how Indonesia has designed its HAWK signals. First, pedestrian waits are kept at a minimum, with the light changing immediately after someone pushes the button. This contrasts with DC's HAWK lights, where pedestrians may wait upwards of one minute before getting right of way.


Translation: Attention! To cross, first wait for traffic light to flash, then press button.

The Indonesian version arguably has better signage, with large explanations of how to use the light for pedestrians. Though the LED board itself may be a bit distracting, the message, telling drivers to stop and emphasizing that pedestrians have the right of way, is a good one. Finally, the signal uses standard traffic lights and a simple yellow flashing phase. In the US, some have said the multiple flashing phases and unique shape of a HAWK light can be confusing.


Cleveland Park's HAWK signal. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

Indonesia's version certainly isn't perfect, and if the video and my observations are any indication, people frequently ignored the light. But it put a smile on my face to see the city installed something like this to try to make the roads safer.

I could do without the horn, though.

Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Pedestrians


How urban foresters made Canal Road's new traffic signal way more useful

In December, a traffic signal went up on Canal Road near Fletcher's Boathouse, meaning there's now a safe way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross that very recently did not exist. But if it weren't for the work of DDOT's urban foresters, a key sidewalk leading up to the crossing would still be totally useless.


This sidewalk used to be covered in growth that made it nearly impossible to walk. Photo by the author.

Lots of the District's 8,600 fishing license holders visit Fletcher's to fish in the Potomac River or C&O Canal. It's a popular place to rent bikes, boats, and canoes, and there are great places nearby to have a picnic or walk along the Canal.

For years, pedestrians and cyclists had no safe, direct route from the Palisades and adjacent neighborhoods to Fletcher's Boathouse and the C&O Canal. For example, someone taking the D6 bus to MacArthur Road at U Street NW would have to walk the half mile down Reservoir Road, then bravely cross fast-moving traffic at an unsignalized intersection across Canal Road.


Canal Road and the Clara Barton Parkway form a barrier to pedestrian and cyclist access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The red dots represent existing crossing points, and green dots are existing parking lots. The more southern blue dot is where the new signal went in. Base image from Google Maps, with labels by Nick Keenan.

This changed this past December, when DDOT, in cooperation with the National Park Service, completed a crosswalk and traffic signal at Canal and Reservoir Road. The walk or bike ride across Canal Road became safe and feasible thanks to the crosswalk, a pedestrian or vehicle activated traffic signal, and marked areas for pedestrians to stand.


Pedestrian prepares to cross Canal Road NW using new traffic signal. Photo by the author.

A recently unusable sidewalk near the new signal is back in action!

Even with the work on the new signal underway, the sidewalk along Reservoir Road could have been featured as abandoned urban infrastructure. The actual connection to the neighborhood had in some places completely disappeared. Brush, grass, vines and invasive trees had completely overgrown the sidewalk, and nearly all of the quarter mile sidewalk from V Street down to Canal Road had uncontrolled vegetation growth.

Anyone walking or cycling would need to use the street in many places because the sidewalk was so obstructed.


Photo by DDOT.


Photo by DDOT.

This past August, as the intersection project progressed, I contacted DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) and asked them if they could take a look at the sidewalk. UFA confirmed that the trees were in fact invasive and had not been intentionally planted. And from there, foresters from the agency set about restoring the sidewalk.

The first things to go were bushes and other vegetation along the sidewalk. Foresters also chopped down the numerous invasive trees that had grown between the sidewalk and retaining wall and, in some cases, in the wall itself. Stumps of up to 4" in diameter remained, but they were cut as low as possible. And, finally, foresters removed the leaves and soil that had accumulated over the years.


After cutting down trees and before removing shrubs and vines. Photo by DDOT.


After final clean-up. Photo by DDOT.

The traffic signal and other intersection improvements added a decades-in-the-making crossing to Canal Road for pedestrians and cyclists. It also makes things safer for the 58,000 drivers who turn down into Fletcher's Cove each year. But the less well known efforts of DDOT's urban foresters completed what pedestrians and cyclists really needed in order to make the connection useful.

Pedestrians


Traffic engineers still rely on a flawed 1970s study to reject crosswalks

When St. Louis decided not to maintain colorful new crosswalks that residents had painted, the city's pedestrian coordinator cited federal guidance. A 2011 FHWA memo warns that colorful designs could "create a false sense of security" for pedestrians and motorists.


Shoddy, 50-year-old research is an obstacle to grassroots street safety efforts like this fleur-de-lis crosswalk in St. Louis. Photo from Rally St. Louis.

That may sound like unremarkable bureaucrat-speak, but the phrase "false sense of security" is actually a cornerstone of American engineering guidance on pedestrian safety.

You'll find the words "false sense of security" in Washington state DOT's crosswalk guidelines too. The city of Stockton, California, makes the same claim. The list goes on.

What gives? Well, you can trace this phrase—and the basis of some engineers' reluctance to stripe crosswalks—to one very influential but seriously flawed study from the 1970s.

In 1972, a researcher named Bruce Herms conducted a study of crosswalk safety in San Diego. He found that intersections with marked crosswalks had higher injury rates than ones with unmarked crosswalks. He concluded that marked crosswalks should only be installed where they are "warranted" because they can give pedestrians a "false sense of security," encouraging risky behavior.

But there were problems with the study. For one, Herms didn't actually study why people made certain decisions at crosswalks—that "false sense of security" was just speculation on his part.

Since the Herms study, other studies have refuted his conclusions, including work produced by the FHWA. Nevertheless, the influence of his research from more than 40 years ago persists. As backward as it seems, engineers still refuse to install crosswalks on the grounds that it would harm pedestrian safety. Just a few years ago, for instance, the "false sense of security" argument was deployed to shoot down requests for midblock crossings in Los Angeles.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineer with the Toole Design Group and member of the bike and pedestrian committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devises, is critical of the Herms study.

"When I first came into engineering, I heard a lot about this idea of pedestrians having a false sense of security when in marked crosswalks," he said. "And I just believed it."

But then Schultheiss ordered a print copy of the study to review it.

"I think it was biased," he said, like much of the older regulations. "I don't know, was it him or just the culture at the time."

"His conclusions were terrible."

For example, Herms found that of the pedestrians who were struck, most were hit in the middle or near the end of the crosswalk, not at the beginning. This is a pattern that suggests motorists are failing to yield to people who have already established themselves in the crosswalk, not that people are stepping off the curb inattentively.

"If you make it three quarters of the way across the street, you expect cars to stop," Schultheiss said. "That's the law."

Despite the absence of evidence to back it up, the idea that crosswalks encourage pedestrians to engage in risky behavior continues to enjoy credence in the engineering profession. Official memos like FHWA's 2011 guidance on crosswalk art repeat and endorse the idea, squashing grassroots street safety efforts.

Crossposted from Streetsblog USA.

Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

Pedestrians


Officials are blaming people for walking in the street, but they aren't ensuring clear sidewalks

In the snowstorm's aftermath, local officials are telling people not to walk in the streets. But they're not offering any alternatives to those who don't drive.


Photo by Jason Vines on Flickr.

After the snowstorm, something magical happened. People began filling the streets, to play in the snow or to frequent the few businesses that managed to stay open. Across the east coast, people starting documenting their vibrant, yet unplowed, streets with the hashtag #snopenstreets.

Local leaders have been vocal: "Don't walk in the street"

But city and county officials spent much of the weekend admonishing people for walking in the street, and even threatening to fine people for it.

On Twitter, DC Councilmember Jack Evans told people whose only option was to walk to stay inside if there wasn't a clear sidewalk.


Screenshot from the author. Original tweet was deleted.

In an exchange with Greater Greater Washington contributor Gray Kimbrough, Montgomery County officials dismissed concerns about a dangerous situation for pedestrians on a busy street by saying people should just stay off the roads.

In a press conference yesterday, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker asked people to move their vehicles out of the path of plows, but then went on to ask that neighbors avoid walking in the streets:

"There are people walking in the middle of streets," he said. "It is dangerous. Please, if you don't have to be outside, do not go outside."

In a Washington Post article, DC Police Chief Lanier said that police would cite drivers stuck in the road, but that people could also be fined for walking in the street. "We're going to have to start stepping up and being a little more aggressive about asking our public not to be out, walking in the streets," Lanier said.

At the same time, clear sidewalks aren't a priority

While there is a legitimate need to keep roads clear of vehicles and people so that emergency vehicles and snow plows can pass, those who aren't driving need a way to get around. That's supposed to be clear sidewalks, but efforts to make that happen have been dismal at best.

In DC, police the mayor decided not to fine residents for failing to shovel their sidewalks, even though a new law permits them to do so.

During the Twitter exchange Kimbrough had with Montgomery County, the Montgomery account said the county had not cleared its own sidewalks because the primary focus is on roads for now.

And in many suburban parts of the area, governments don't clear sidewalks on major roads at all, so the responsibility falls to good neighbors.

Drivers shouldn't trump pedestrians after a snow emergency

With restaurants and bars offering specials, sledding hills calling out to kids (and kids at heart), and, you know, people needing supplies after being stuck inside for 48 hours, residents are going to leave their homes no matter what, even with most transit options closed.

But sidewalks aren't cleared, and in many places won't be cleared for days (until the snow melts). So now, with sidewalks impassible, pedestrians are still walking in the street. But cars aren't moving at 6 mph, they're moving at 40 mph. We should make space for our most vulnerable road users first. Otherwise we expose them to unsafe situations.

While the line on Friday and Saturday was generally "stay off the roads," it has since evolved to "If you get stuck and block snowplows, we'll fine you." A message that's basically "it's fine to drive now, just stay out of the way of plows" and that does not stress the importance of slowing down and watching for people walking implies that drivers have more right to mobility than pedestrians in a snow emergency. So does telling people not to walk at all.

Just last night, a snow plow struck a man walking on Georgia Avenue in Montgomery Hills. And two years ago, days after a snowstorm, a driver struck and killed a man on the Sousa Bridge. The pedestrian path had not been cleared. In fact, it had been filled with the snow plowed off the vehicular lanes.

Is this what Vision Zero looks like for our region?

Pedestrians


"Bulb-outs" could make crossing the street safer at key trouble spots

People on foot could get a little more space at the corners of 14th and U NW, Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Those are a few of the concepts in a new analysis of how to make DC's most dangerous intersections safer.


Image from NACTO.

Transportation officials, local community and business members, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and councilmember Mary Cheh toured five of the highest-crash intersections in August and September. A new report from DDOT recommends ways to make each safer.

The intersections were: Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, 14th and U NW, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and Wisconsin and M in Georgetown. Between them, three people died and 12 had "disabling injuries" since 2012, a total DC is committed to reducing to zero.

The report is full of interesting statistics on crashes and small fixes for people walking, biking, and driving. One piece of note is are a few spots where the study team is proposing temporarily or permanently creating some more space for people on foot, such as "bulb-outs" at corners which add to the sidewalk space and shorten crossing distance.

At 14th and U, plans are already underway to rebuild that intersection as part of a 14th Street streetscape project expected to start this fall. That design includes bulb-outs at the corners:

On Benning Road, DDOT will look into adding a pedestrian refuge using flexible posts for the spot where people walking and biking get onto the bridge sidewalk to go over the railroad tracks (and later the river).

The always-thorny corner of M and Wisconsin has large numbers of people waiting on the narrow sidewalks to cross the street (and then short times to cross). The report suggests studying possible bulb-outs for three of the corners to add more space for people to wait.

For New York Avenue and Bladensburg and Columbus Circle, the report doesn't recommend any changes of the same scale, but notes that there are sidewalks and pedestrian islands on New York Avenue that are too narrow and which should be widened, as well as are some missing crosswalks on Columbus Circle.

What else do you notice in the report?

Pedestrians


Construction has made a busy Silver Spring street dangerous for pedestrians

In downtown Silver Spring, a busy Georgia Avenue sidewalk is closed for the construction of a new apartment building. The signed pedestrian detour is very inconvenient, and many people are choosing to walk in the travel lanes of the road instead.


A pedestrian walks in the right lane of northbound Georgia Avenue rather than using the inconvenient detour. All photos by the author.

A couple weeks ago, Foulger-Pratt, the general contractor working on the new building, closed the stretch of sidewalk in the 8600 block of Georgia Avenue to begin construction on the site.

The closure is just north of the crossroads at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, the heart of downtown Silver Spring. A quarter mile from the Silver Spring Metro Station and very close to a number of high rise commercial and residential buildings, the area sees a lot of foot traffic.

While there is a detour for people on foot, it requires them to cross Georgia Avenue twice, along with Fidler lane, resulting in three streets crossings where there were previously none.


A map of the current detour pedestrians must take to get around the construction. Image from Google Earth.


Pedestrians opt to walk in the road alongside moving vehicles rather than using the signed detour.

Closing the right lane could allow for a temporary sidewalk

There's a simple way for the Maryland State Highway Administration to solve this problem: close the northbound right lane of Georgia Avenue to create a temporary sidewalk that's separated from traffic by barricades.

In the right lane of northbound Georgia Avenue where the construction is, on-street parking during the week is allowed except from 3:30-7 PM. Since many drivers are already accustomed to this lane usually being a non-travel lane, it shouldn't be much of an issue for the SHA to close this lane to create a temporary sidewalk.


The closed sidewalk, looking south. Note the parked car in the right lane beyond the construction zone.

While closing the lane may cause some delay at rush hour, doing so could also save lives.

Roads


The feds might pay for smarter drunk driving penalties in DC

Most people would say they favor harsher punishments for drunk driving. But when it comes to keeping impaired drivers off the road, the most important thing is having laws that work.


Photo by VCU CNS on Flickr.

During testimony at a recent DC Council Transportation Committee hearing in favor of laws to eliminate road deaths, Mothers Against Drunk Driving State Legislative Affairs Manager Frank Harris supported increased use of ignition interlock devices, which are mechanisms that test the driver's blood alcohol level and keep a car from starting if the driver is under the influence.

The District barely uses its current ignition interlock program. Right now, only nine people in the District have one, which is a much lower rate than in Maryland or Virginia. Harris said relying on the devices more would be more effective than current penalties.

Revoking licenses, Harris said, is a "hope for the best" policy: there's a risk DWI offenders will drive anyway. With interlock devices, there's a higher chance offenders drive soberly.

The bill currently being proposed for DC would require two-time offenders and offenders with particularly high blood alcohol concentrations to use a device. According to Harris, if DC were to require all DWI offenders to install an interlock device for at least six months, a federal incentive grant from NHTSA of around $200,000 could cover the cost of the program.

25 other states, including Virginia, have such a requirement for first-time offenders.

Interlock devices cost a little less than $3 a day. While most people who are ordered to use interlock devices have to pay for them, most states require manufacturers to provide devices to people who can't afford them, a model DC could emulate.

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