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Posts about Pedestrian Safety

Pedestrians


National links: Ancient ruins that nobody visits

There are ancient ruins in the United States but people don't treat them as tourist destinations like they do ones in other countries. Also, not everyone gets to weigh in on how their city is planned, and Ford Motor Company is trying out a different transportation strategy. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.


Photo by John Fowler on Flickr.

Ancient ruins ignored: The US has a number of ancient cities, including Cahokia near St. Louis and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. But we don't visit the same way we do places like, say, Machu Picchu. Part of the reason may be that ancient ruins in the US don't exactly mesh with the narrative that this land was uninhibited, waiting for Westerners to simply come and put it to use. (Pricenomics)

Not so representative: Metropolitan planning agencies are notorious for overlooking the opinions of people who live in dense urban areas, especially people of color and women. According to researchers in Austin, Texas, while 63% of their regional population is white, white board members represent 90% of the technical advisory council and 85% of the transportation policy board of region's metropolitan planning organization. Women make up 33% and 30% of these same two boards even though they make up half of the total population. (Streetsblog USA)

Will Ford change urban transportation?: The Ford Motor company is making urban travel part of its business model. The company has bought Chariot, a transit-like company that shuttles people from home to work in large cities, and is paying to bring 7,000 bike share bikes to San Francisco by 2017 (there are 700 now). The company says its goal is to drive down the cost of mobility for everyone. (Medium)

Is "out" the only way forward?: Cities that spread outward have produced more housing than those which have curbed the sprawl, according to a Berkeley economist. More units in sprawling areas has meant lower prices, which means cities will face a hard decision going forward: contain development while production in the core lags and prices go up, or sprawl into the outer areas of the region, a solution that brings high transportation costs and environmental damage. (Wall Street Journal)

Crosswalk, redesigned: A series of crosswalks are being redesigned in San Francisco to promote safety, taking into account the fact that drivers hit three people each day. The idea is to make pedestrians easier to spot by using multiple zebra crossings and raised curbs, but also to make the crossings more park-like. (Curbed SF)

Our transportation habits are wasteful: When writing a book on garbage, Edward Humes noticed that we waste a lot of space and resources on transportation, so he wrote a new book called Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. The fact that vehicles designed for five people ferry around one person, for example, led him to think the car is a social, economic, and health problem that needs to be solved. (New York Times)

Quote of the Day

"If you look at legal requirements on levels of nitrogen dioxide in particular, Oxford Street gets in the first week of January what it should in an entire year. That's one of the reason why there's an urgency to air quality plans."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who himself has adult onset asthma, discussing the air quality problems London faces thanks to endless streams of diesel buses. (CNN)

Roads


This Capitol Hill throughway will get safer for bikes and pedestrians, but some say not safe enough

A dangerous stretch of Maryland Avenue NE, a street that runs diagonally through Capitol Hill, will soon narrow from four lanes to two, with a 10-foot median and painted bike lanes. The people making the changes say there isn't enough space for protected bikeways, which would separate cyclists from cars, but bike advocates disagree.


Maryland Avenue NE, where it crosses both 7th and D Streets. A cab driver ran over a pedestrian here in June 2014.

The section of Maryland Avenue between 3rd and 15th Streets has been particularly thorny for people not traveling by car. In June 2014, a driver ran over and badly injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk on the street. Despite the District's Department of Transportation adding flex posts in summer of 2014 to narrow the road and installing speed cameras in October 2015, speeding continues to be a problem.

"Even with all the new barriers, I would never risk crossing at that intersection," a resident told WAMU in 2015. "I always go down to the light because people don't stop. I have seen people not stop for walkers in the crosswalk."

Neighborhood leaders have kept pressure on DDOT to make more concrete changes, and the agency recently accelerated plans to cut the number of driving lanes on Maryland Avenue (a move known as a "road diet").

The proposed changes, which are part of a bigger effort called the Pedestrian Safety Project, will narrow the road from four 11-foot wide lanes to two by converting two lanes in each direction into painted bike lanes and building a 10-foot-wide median that becomes a dedicated left turn lane at intersections. These changes would be a big step forward, especially because as of now, cyclists have nowhere to ride except in the same lanes as cars.


Image from DDOT.

But the fact that the bike lanes are painted lanes that sit between parked cars and traffic rather than protected bikeways to the right of parked cars is frustrating to a lot of people who get around by bike, myself included.

While DDOT claims the painted bike lanes are all that can fit into the project due to space restrictions, Greg Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the region's biggest bike advocacy group, says "there's certainly space" for a protected bikeway.


Image from Google Maps.

Why painted lanes?

According to George Branyan, the pedestrian program coordinator at DDOT and project manager for the Maryland Avenue redesign, the current plan is to go with painted bike lanes that are five or six feet wide. A protected bikeway, he says, would have to be eight feet wide, and between the traffic lanes, the median, and the parking spaces, there just isn't space.

One response to this might be to simply make the median smaller, but Branyan says that isn't an option because at intersections, the median will become a left turn lane, meaning it can't be narrower than a travel lane.

Yes, DDOT could simply remove that dedicated left turn lane. But a big factor here is also the fact that some residents are concerned that if cars get less priority on Maryland Avenue, traffic will back up and more cars them will spill over onto surrounding streets.

Removing the left turn lane could also affect the efficiency of the X8 bus route, which travels the entirety of Maryland Ave NE between 3rd and 15th Streets.

Finally, Branyan says the combined width of the car traffic lane and painted bike lane also serves another purpose: allowing emergency vehicles to pass through traffic. With the painted bike lanes, each lane of travel is effectively 16 feet wide—meaning an emergency vehicle will be able to pass a passenger car in that space.

Not so fast—protected bikeways aren't impossible

Billing says he and his organization are fully behind a road diet for Maryland Avenue, but adds that there is in fact room for protected bikeways.

While removing parking might be politically unpopular, he says, the parked car lane (which is eight feet wide in the proposed design) could be narrower: cars are typically 6½ feet wide, so seven-foot-wide parking lanes should suffice. That'd mean an extra foot on each side of the street.

Billing also says the travel lanes themselves, which are currently slated to be 11 feet wide, could be a foot narrower. That'd provide an extra foot on each side, which is enough when you add it to the six feet currently set aside for the painted bike lanes.

Narrower travel lanes, Billing adds, would have the added bonus of being safer for pedestrians because drivers tend to drive more slowly on narrower lanes, and there'd be less distance to have to cover when walking across the road.

Let's welcome a road diet but push for the best one possible

Under the current design plan, the road's speed limit will remain 25 mph plus the lanes will get narrower. Between that and the painted bike lanes, the current plan would make Maryland Avenue safer for cyclists. But there's also space to make it a whole lot safer.

There is clearly reason to ask why DDOT can't do better by including protected bikeways in the design. Protected bikeways would further contribute to the traffic-calming effect of the design by resulting in narrower travel lanes. And they would protect cyclists from having to veer into traffic to avoid issues like double parked cars and standing vehicles.

While it has taken Capitol Hill residents and safe streets activists time to get to a concrete proposal for a safer Maryland Avenue, this new design should be the beginning of a conversation that focuses on what residents, pedestrians, and cyclists really want from their streets: do we want streets redesigned to be safer while inconveniencing cars as little as possible (as this design seems to do)? Or do we want streets redesigned to put the use and safety of pedestrians and cyclists first, even if it means impacting traffic?

Bicycling


DC's harmful traffic law needs to go, one way or another

If a driver hits you while you're walking or biking in DC, the law makes it almost impossible to collect from the driver's insurance. A bill to fix that is suddenly in jeopardy just hours before a scheduled vote. Please ask the DC Council to move it forward.

As of now, DC's "contributory negligence" law says that if a person on foot or bike who is involved in a crash is even one percent at fault for what happened, they can't collect any damages. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015, which is scheduled for a vote today, would let people collect damages as long as they were less than 50% at fault.

Today, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie plans to introduce an amendment that would change exactly how much a person could collect, using a "comparative negligence" standard that basically means that a person's claim to damages would be proportional to their fault in the crash. It looks as though Councilmember Mary Cheh would oppose the bill if it includes McDuffie's amendment.

Efforts to end contributory negligence, which really does have harmful effects, have been going on for years. There are credible arguments for both McDuffie's and Cheh's positions on how to word the new law, but we need to pass one or the other.

With or without the amendment, the proposed bill will improve the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized road users on DC's streets. That is very much needed, especially as the number of people who use our streets for something other than driving continues to swell.

Update: Councilmember McDuffie moved for the Council to vote on the bill on July 12, and his motion passed.

This morning, 75 people sent 450 letters to Councilmembers urging them to do away with contributory negligence, one way or another. Thank you for your efforts, and look for more from Greater Greater Washington on how pass the bill as the vote nears.

Pedestrians


To make streets walkable, empower pedestrians to cross anywhere

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.


Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer. They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today—pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield. (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don't have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot. Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete. It's not just that roads designed for fast driving aren't good for city living. Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails. It doesn't make streets safe. And it's too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure. Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car. With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility. This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians—a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy. Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly. Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars. And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals—no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike—make roads safer. Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first. Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals. When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal. Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain. It's like economics, where markets usually work better than central command. Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy. Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example—situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York—full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving. Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today's hazardous mess. The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes. Details need to be added. Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets. Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change. But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.

Pedestrians


Timing signals to work for pedestrians is impossible

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post in a multi-part opinion series.


At Arlington's "intersection of doom," the traffic signals are so complicated they're nearly impossible to follow. Photo by author.

Walk signals are not only unsafe and inconvenient, they're also incapable of making pedestrian travel efficient. Engineers simply don't have the time or resources to correctly configure every traffic light for pedestrians.

Traffic lights and signs are not police officers standing in the intersection. When engineers use them to direct traffic as if they were, they impose on themselves a task they cannot carry out. In real-world practice, it is simply not possible to program the lights and place the signs in a way that moves people efficiently. The engineers are short of information, time, and money.

Highway departments don't even have the resources to fully optimize traffic controls for drivers. They traditionally simplify their work by planning for the busiest time of day. But traffic, especially foot traffic, flows all day. Outside rush hour, both drivers and pedestrians find themselves standing and watching empty streets, waiting for slow lights timed to minimize rush-hour backups.

It is possible, as New York and a few other cities have shown, for complex signals to make walking easier. Pedestrians get a few seconds to enter a crosswalk before cars can turn. Or turns are banned while people are crossing.

But if you try to orchestrate movement on foot in this way at every streetcorner, the traffic engineers' job becomes entirely unmanageable. They cannot possibly find the time to adjust every walk signal for the proper balance between walking and driving.

And even when walk signals are properly adjusted, the engineer still knows less than the person walking on the street. Anyone standing on the corner can see whether cars are coming. The pedestrian knows best when it will be safer to cross immediately than to wait for the green light and dodge turning vehicles.

In any case, highway agencies rarely give foot travel much attention outside big-city downtowns. At best, they make a half-hearted effort to meet federal minimums. By-the-book engineering creates hazards in the form of disappearing sidewalks, badly timed lights, and inscrutable signage.

Walk signals are expensive

Not only are walk signals costly in staff time and information, they are a financial burden. Highway agencies say that the cost of installing a full-featured traffic signal is a quarter to half a million dollars, and sometimes more.

There are thought to be more than 300,000 signalized intersections in the United States. (No one really knows the exact number.) Retrofitting all of them with walk signals to current standards would run up a bill in the ballpark of $100 billion.

Incremental fixes just create new problems

The rules for crossing streets grow ever more complex, and they have come to resemble the Gordian knot that the ancient Greeks were unable to untie. Straightening one piece out only creates new tangles.

Rosslyn's "Intersection of Doom," where drivers turn right across a bike path, shows this dynamic at work. After much public agitation, the walk signal on the bike path was set to begin before the green light. But drivers still came through the busy crosswalk when turning right on red. So a flashing don't walk signal went in. Now drivers need eyes on three sides of their heads to comply with the signals.

Signals for the blind have undergone a similar evolution. When walking is controlled by a traffic light, those who can't see use traffic noise to tell whether it's green. But if there's a walk signal, they don't know whether it's lit. So crosswalks with walk signals need pushbutton-operated beepers for handicapped access. More expense, more confusion, and more obstruction of the sidewalk.

The complexity has gotten so bad that FHWA can't even keep its rulebook straight. It required beepers for the blind in 2009, but did not authorize a sign that says what the button is for. Rule-bound engineers are now blanketing streets with signs that comply with the rulebook but misinform their readers.

These miscues are not happenstance. According to the branch of mathematics known as control theory, they are the inevitable consequence of too much complexity. Beyond a certain point, increasing the number of signals sent by an automatic controller creates more error than it prevents.

Alexander the Great is said to have cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. We need similar boldness to make our streets walkable. My next post suggests how that might be possible.

Pedestrians


Walk signals are bad for walking

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post second in a multi-part opinion series.

Conventional wisdom says that walk signals make crossing the street safer for people. But they actually make walking slower and more dangerous.


Photo by Adrian Black on Flickr.

Many pedestrians think the walk-don't walk light helps by letting them know when it's safe to cross the street. But its actual effect is to curtail the right to make that crossing.

When there's no walk signal, a green-yellow-red traffic signal sends drivers and pedestrians traveling in the same direction into an intersection during the same green light interval. What the walk signal does is to give traffic engineers the means to send them ahead at different times. In practice, those on foot invariably get less time than drivers—often only the recommended minimum of seven seconds.

Walk signals push pedestrians off the street in more subtle ways, too. Federal Highway Administration rules require new walk signals (except on very narrow streets) to have timers that show how many seconds are left before you must be off the roadway.

But the timer is useless for deciding when to cross. Under the rules, the countdown doesn't begin until the don't-walk sign begins to flash—at which point it is illegal to enter the roadway, even if there is enough time to get to the other side. What the timer does is to chase slow walkers back to where they started, supplanting long-established laws that let pedestrians keep going if they're part way across when the light changes.

One thing pedestrians do like about walk signals is their visibility. But they aren't needed for this purpose. Red-green lights on streetcorners would be just as visible.

Walk signals are a safety hazard

Not only do the signals make walking slower and less convenient, they make it less safe.

Since—as discussed in the first post of this seriespedestrians are the best judges of their own safety, restricting the right to cross the street is intrinsically dangerous. On top of that, restricting people's ability to enter the roadway on foot trains drivers not to look out for people walking.

A particular peril is the 7-second crossing interval, which comes just when the drivers' light turns red. The only time pedestrians are allowed to step into the street is when the cars that waited at the red light (to travel in the direction perpendicular to where the pedestrian wants to walk) begin to turn across their path.

Timers, too, create hazards. They change the behavior of drivers as well as those on foot. Whether the drivers speed up to beat the light or simply get distracted is not clear, but the effect is real. A recent study in Toronto found that countdown timers cause more collisions than they prevent.

Top-down control is the wrong approach

Dutch traffic engineers have found in some villages that removing all traffic signs and markings actually brings accident rates down. It is rarely feasible to go that far on busy American streets, but the underlying principle—that negotiating the use of shared space makes roads safer—still applies.

The philosophy of the walk signal is just the opposite. A central controller sends instructions separately to drivers and pedestrians. One road user doesn't know what the other is supposed to do—drivers, in particular, are not responsible for looking at walk signals and often can't see them—so everyone must rely on the controller.

Without shared information, the crosswalk becomes a legal no-man's-land. Motorists preparing to make turns don't know whether a person they see on the sidewalk will have the right of way to cross in front of them. When crashes occur, it's hard to prove the driver is at fault.

If drivers and pedestrians are unable to coordinate, the system operates properly only if each gets correct instructions and follows them reliably. But the reality of the highway is far different. Signals are mistimed, beg buttons (the buttons you sometimes have to push to get a walk signal) don't work, snow blocks sidewalks, and of course both motorists and pedestrians regularly ignore the law.

The basic flaw of the walk signal is its underlying concept of protecting pedestrians by separating them from vehicles. This leads inevitably to ever-greater restrictions on movement by foot. And it fails to make walking safe.

Bicycling


In DC's West End, construction projects are endangering cyclists and pedestrians

In DC's West End, portions of the bikeways on L and M Streets, along with the adjacent sidewalks, are closed because of construction projects. The detours are confusing, and the result is that people on both bikes and foot are sharing narrow, unsafe spaces.


Pedestrians are supposed to use the barricaded space that's usually a bike lane along the 2300 block of L street. There isn't any bike space right now. All photos by the author.

On M Street, two separate segments of the sidewalk and protected bikeway are closed. The reason for closing the first segment, located along the 2200 block, is construction for a new fire station and apartments. The second segment, located along the 2500 block, is closed for a project that's converting a former office building into luxury condominiums.

On L Street, the sidewalk and bike lane are closed along the 2300 block for construction for a new mixed-use development that will include a public library, retail, and luxury condominiums. Note that L Street's bike lane doesn't become a protected bikeway until one block later, east of New Hampshire Avenue.

In all three locations, physical barriers separate bike and foot traffic from car traffic.


Image from Google Maps.

The detours aren't very effective

As cyclists and pedestrians approach the M Street construction sites from the east, traffic signs warn that the bike lane will be shifting to the left and that the sidewalk is closing. There are instructions for pedestrians to cross to the south side of the street, where the sidewalk remains open. But with a barricaded path that seems safe right in front of them, a lot of people just proceed through it, similar to what's currently happening at 15th and L Streets NW.

Blind spots amplify this problem, with tall barriers and sharp adjustments to the barricaded path drastically limiting visibility. This is especially dangerous in the scenario where the paths of a pedestrian heading east and a cyclist heading west converge.


Tall barrier walls and sharp curves along the barricaded path on the 2300 block of M Street create dangerous blind spots for cyclists and pedestrians.

Along L Street, there are signs directing pedestrians to use the barricaded space, and there is no space clearly designated for cyclists. Many cyclists end up proceeding through the space since there is nowhere else to go and the visual cues are contradictory (hard-to-see signs and a painted bike lane remain visible).

As you can see in the pictures, the barricaded spaces at the construction sites are extremely narrow. There is not enough space provided to allow for cyclists and pedestrians to safely pass each other. The traffic barriers take up significant pedestrian and bicycle real estate, and the fences are anchored by large cinder blocks that invade the already small space.

There's another option: Close a lane of car traffic

The way construction is set up on the 2500 block of M Street is especially questionable. The stretch includes three lanes of vehicle traffic (in addition to parking on each side, as well as the protected bike lane), but all three vehicle lanes have remained open despite the construction.

Given that this portion of M Street feeds directly into the heart of Georgetown, it sees heavy bike and pedestrian traffic. It would not be unreasonable to close a lane of car traffic along this particularly wide segment of the street to ensure a safe amount of space for everyone.


Cyclists traveling west along the 2500 block of M Street are forced to share lanes with vehicle traffic, as pedestrians walk through the space designated for bikes. Directing pedestrians to cross the street clearly is not a viable solution.

The West End is one of the most walkable and bikeable neighborhoods in DC, but too often, walking and biking are the first to be compromised when it comes to making space for construction. Giving equal priority to all modes of transportation would help keep everyone safe.

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