Posts about Pedestrian Safety
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.
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.
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.
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.
When St. Louis decided not to maintain colorful new crosswalks that residents had painted, the city's pedestrian coordinator cited federal guidance. A 2011
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.
What gives? Well, you can trace this phrase—
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
14th St-pocalypse ... kinda love it. pic.twitter.com/LTWoSTlvAP—
David Garber (@GarberDC) January 24, 2016
Vaughn Sterling (@vplus) January 24, 2016
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.
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.
Montgomery County MD (@MontgomeryCoMD) January 25, 2016
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.
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.
Montgomery County MD (@MontgomeryCoMD) January 25, 2016
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday, DC officials unveiled the Vision Zero plan to make roads safer for walkers and cyclists, as well as drivers. But at the very intersection DDOT made the announcement, pedestrians are already getting short shrift.
A new traffic light recently went in at the intersection of 10th and Maryland NE after years of community requests to make traffic along the street safer. But at the signal's crosswalks, a pedestrian walk signal only comes on if you press a button and wait. DDOT's rules say these "beg buttons" are a bad idea, but they keep installing them anyway.
After requests by the local ANC, DDOT changed the light to be pre-timed from 7 am and 7 pm, meaning it has a pedestrian walk signal during every cycle from green light to red light. But at all of the other lights along Maryland, there's a walk signal during every cycle at all times.
Moreover, at 10th and Maryland, if someone presses the button during a green light, they have to wait for the light to turn red and then green again to get a walk signal, despite the fact that the sensor will extend the green time if more cars show up during the cycle.
The ANC had asked that this signal always be pre-timed but DDOT responded that they would have to study the issue more to ensure that it wouldn't delay vehicles. However, DDOT's own study has shown that many cars are actually speeding at this intersection, with over 90% driving over the 25 MPH speed limit at 5 am.
DC's rules discourage beg buttons
Pedestrian Actuated Signals, or "beg buttons" as they are often derisively called, are more common in outlying areas than they are in the city but can still be found in the District. Another location that has them is the intersection of North Capitol & L and along M Street NE at the NoMa Metro.
DDOT specifically discourages them, including in the MoveDC plan, because they make people wait longer to cross on foot, they're less predictable, and they're more challenging for people with disabilities who may not see or be able to easily reach them. Specifically, MoveDC says beg buttons should not be used near transit stops or in any area where pedestrians are present for at least 50% of the cycle during the hours that see the most use.
This does not mean, of course, that such signals should be used at areas that don't meet these conditions.
While it's true that DDOT has recently made some helpful changes by adding the traffic light and changing the layout of 10th and Maryland, the pedestrian buttons violate the spirit of Vision Zero that the Mayor showcased at Wednesday's event.
Retiming the light to make it so all cycles have a pedestrian phase would make crossing at 10th and Maryland much safer. And on a bigger scale, DDOT's engineers and consultants would do well to follow the agency's pedestrian safety policies a bit more closely.
This morning, DC officials released their plan for Vision Zero, the campaign to eliminate all deaths on the roadways. It lays out analysis about crashes and strategies to make roads safer.
The Vision Zero team collected a lot of data about actual crashes, and also asked people online and at events where they felt unsafe. For pedestrian safety, the most crashes are (not surprisingly) downtown where there are lot of pedestrians. However, people seemed to talk about some other places where the road design or other factors might deter them from walking, like Pennsylvania Avenue SE and the Hill East area.
For bicycling, respondents seem to have talked a lot about places like the 15th Street protected bikeway, where a lot of people are riding and drivers frequently block the box at corners, but crashes happen in some other real hotspots like Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road.
Driving crashes basically seem to happen everywhere people drive, in approximate proportion to how much traffic there is. Drivers seem to be concerned on H Street/Benning Road NE and in a variety of trouble spots in places like Takoma and Petworth. South Capitol Street, Barney Circle, and a lot of spots on Capitol Hill also got many mentions.
More than half of pedestrian and bicycle deaths happened in the 15 high-crash corridors in this map. (Much of the traveling happens there too, so this isn't a huge surprise). But these identify places where changes could have the most impact.
This map shows where camera tickets happen in relation to crashes. There are a few very high-ticket cameras in spots, like the K Street underpass under Washington Circle, but it's not clear from this map that the locations correlate that much with danger spots.
What to do about this?
The report lists a lot of strategies to reduce and eliminate road deaths. You can read them all in the report, but here are a few highlights:
- Fill sidewalk gaps on 40 blocks.
- "Install or upgrade" 20 miles of bike lanes and bikeways. At least five miles would be protected bikeways.
- Build two "protected intersections" as a pilot project. This concept was proposed for New Jersey Avenue and M Street, but wasn't put into effect.
- Create an Urban Design Unit in the Office of Planning. Have it redesign some dangerous public spaces to be safer and also more inviting.
- Pilot some lower speed limits, including two major streets with 25 mph limits, two neighborhoods with 20 mph limits, and some 15-mph limits around schools and other spots with youth and seniors.
- Revise the manual engineers use to design streets so that it mandates designs that accommodate all users, not just cars. There would also be a Complete Streets law requiring this. Mandate that a road's "design speed" as well as the speed limit are right to ensure the street is safe, rather than designing a fast street and posting a low speed limit.
- Organize some "hackathons" to get residents engaged in analyzing safety data and devising solutions.
Increased enforcement, especially against unsafe behaviors, is another real focus. One area the plan calls out is U-turns through bike lanes, dooring, passing cyclists too closely, and other dangerous behaviors around cyclists. It also recommends enforcing good behavior for everyone around work zones and parking garages.
It will be the responsibility of DDOT and other agencies going forward to turn this plan into actual action on the ground. That will require residents continually pushing agencies and also insisting that politicians take the principles seriously.
What do you think about the plan?
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