For the last few months, I've left my bike at home and made my way throughout town mostly on my own two feet. During this time, I've observed a clever strategy, used by countless walkers, for crossing two or three-lane streets. It's especially common among the regulars - the truckers of the pedestrian world - who have optimized their safety and efficiency by repeating the same trip over and over again. It's quite possibly the perfectly rational cross.
The way it works is simple: As you're walking toward your destination, you remain constantly aware of the vehicular traffic coming from either direction. Once a clear break appears, you cross at that moment. There's no wait time, because you continue walking while you watch for the opening. It's highly safe, or at least you have maximum control over your own safety. Before "jaywalking" was stigmatized and banned through a campaign by automobile lobbyists, this was a perfectly acceptable way to approach a typical dilemma.
Walkers are now supposed to wait until they reach the intersection before crossing, but for obvious reasons they do not want to do this.
- Vehicles could be approaching from a number of directions and its impossible to simultaneously monitor all of these possibilities.
- Turning lanes increase the total distance that must be crossed.
- Stoplights encourage a certain number of drivers to speed to try and beat the red light. The severity of a hit would be much higher.
When walkers must cross at intersections, pedestrian buttons can make things more problematic. In Charlottesville and many other towns, a walk signal will not be displayed unless the button is pressed. This means that if you push the button one second after your cycle begins, you will need to wait for another entire cycle before your signal is given. Research shows that only half of pedestrians press buttons at all, and most folks who do press will not wait unnecessarily. They attempt to cross anyway, only deprived of information about how much time remains in the cycle. Unless the button is "hot" and adjusts signal timing or activates lighting, there's no reason to have it at all.
Pedestrians should be empowered by engineering solutions to follow their own safety intuitions. They have a huge incentive to protect their life, and the truly reckless (or inebriated) will ignore signals or legalities anyway. FHWA sponsored major studies of various pedestrian safety devices in high-crash intersections and last year released a treasure trove of information about what techniques proved effective. In many cases, focusing on modifying driving yield behavior and speeds was more effective than attempting to herd pedestrians.
Engineering is incredibly important, but the best engineers will tell you that they offer sets of trade-offs not absolute solutions. The relative values between pedestrians' right to life, motorists' right to convenience, and costs of implementation cannot be calculated but must be provided subjectively by the ones who make the final decision. Hopefully in a democracy, that's you and me.