Monday, March 8

Pedestrian Survival Techniques

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.

  1. Vehicles could be approaching from a number of directions and its impossible to simultaneously monitor all of these possibilities.
  2. Turning lanes increase the total distance that must be crossed.
  3. 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.
The only three times I felt my safety compromised over this period was while legally crossing. On one occasion, watching the walk signal I almost stepped out in front of a truck careening through the red light. On two other occasions, right-turning cars were not paying attention to the crosswalk and had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting me. None of these were near-death experiences, but they underscore the tension pedestrians feel between trusting in official protection and using their own safety intuition.

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.


Brian said...

This is the norm here in Austin - pedestrians cross wherever, whenever they can because drivers aren't looking at crosswalk indicators. The result is a vicious cycle - pedestrians look for crosswalks less, drivers respect them less, discouraging pedestrians from using them, and so on.

By contrast, in Portland, OR, where I recently moved from, crosswalks are nearly sacred, and as a result everyone uses them.

I wonder about this a lot - is it really safer to allow less order and encourage more general alertness, or safer to have rigid codes and enforce order carefully?

I reckon it's an open question.

Rob J said...

The only really safe means of negotiating a crossing to me is eye-contact. Making sure that a driver sees me is the only way I really feel safe crossing any street. Basically, I assume that drivers are not paying attention to me and proceed to treat them as if they're easily distracted.

My favourites are the people who still think it's OK to take a corner on a red while talking on a cellphone. That kind of thing makes me want to host my own driver's license revocation awards show at the end of the year, complete with film clips.

Cheers for the post!

Unknown said...

I would like to add my experience. The techniques mentioned are absolutely correct. Here in NEw Zealand it seems pedestrians do NOT have the right of way and get bullied by vehicles at crossings constantly. This is because pedestrians are only supposed to cross at "zebra stripe" crossings. But at traffic lights most will not wait for the person to cross and still bully pedestrians in risky situations.

Yesterday I took my 2 young children to the bakery in a stroller. In the past I usually cross the street well before the lights in an opening. Yesterday I used the lights to cross. I had to cross 4 lanes and started briskly walking as soon as the walk signal came on. When I got to the median the red man started flashing and a big truck decided I should wait for HIM to make his turn before proceeding. THis means I could have missed my chance to cross and be stranded in the narrow median with cars racing past... I don't think so. I had to push my stroller with 2 children loaded into the path of the truck to make him stop and proceeded (a little more slowly than normal) while glaring at the driver daring him to inch closer and I would separate his head from his shoulders in a split second at the threat of my children being injured.

Truck drivers feel safe in their high perch and protective mass, steel and glass fortress. One look of death from me and they wisely use the brake.... bastards!

It's back to crossing the open road for me.... much safer even with children.

Sean Tubbs said...

Excellent post, Daniel.

As a walker, I'm not usually in a hurry and I'm happy to wait at lights.

As a runner, they infuriate me, and I'm much more likely to engineer my own solutions and cross roads when nothing is coming.

As a driver, I get really annoyed when people who don't use crosswalks cross where they want and don't even look to see if cars are coming.

Sean Tubbs said...

Oh, I also wanted to echo Rob J. that I always try to make eye contact with drivers, and I always run/walk behind them when I'm at a non-signalized intersection. The only time I've been involved in a vehicular accident was when I was a pedestrian and mistakenly crossed in front of a driver who wasn't paying attention. He gunned it, and hit me and my friend, knocking us both to the ground. Thankfully he stopped.

Anonymous said...

In her book "The Hidden Life of Dogs" Elizabeth Thomas noticed exactly the same behaviour amongst dogs that were free to wander around in urban environments. If it's good enough for them...

Unknown said...

I'd beg to differ with Brian. I practice this techique daily in downtown Portland where it is made easier by the one way street grid. This allows you to walk against traffic and cross without having to look over your shoulder

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! Brought to mind traffic in Siem Reap, Cambodia. When I was there a few years ago, there was something like two traffic lights in the entire city and no such thing as stop signs. Basically, traffic flows naturally with people (motorists and pedestrians alike) maintaining their direction and velocity in and around each other.

For a North American, it was terrifying at first but once I got the hang of it, I actually felt quite safe. The key was that because no one (nothing) was telling everyone when it was "their turn" to go, everyone was much more alert and aware of their surroundings. On foot or on wheels you watched for a gap in the flow and started to make your way across with a consistent path and velocity and anyone coming the other way just went around you and continued on their travels. It looks horribly chaotic and unsafe but when you really watch, everyone is aware of what's happening and responds such that the general flow is maintained rather than just their goals are met

Granted that it was mostly mopeds and motorcycles, not a lot of cars and big trucks, so maybe it wouldn't work with less visibility and more "armour" around the driver but still, I think there's something to be said for fewer rules and more personal responsibility.

I'm sure there are accidents there but I didn't see so much as a fender bender my whole time.

Matt said...

I beg to differ with Thomas-- the last close call I had going to work was a car headed the wrong way down a one-way street. Assuming anything is the most dangerous thing you can do when you're the "object" with the least amount of kinetic energy, frankly. That, in a sense, inherently takes you down the path of engineering your own solution, since the engineered solutions necessarily ask that you assume others agree/respect/pay attention to the system at the time you engage.

Option #2, of course, which I'm trying to really get into, is to not be in such a damn hurry all the time anyway, so I can cross where I feel, when I feel, and simply not worry about whether I have to pause for traffic at the time :).

PK said...

A well-trained driver will learn how to "drive defensively", i.e. always anticipate danger.

Of course, there is no such thing as pedestrian training. But as a pedestrian, I should also always anticipate danger as well, and not assume that I always have all the rights of way.

Even if every driver or cyclist are responsible people, you never know if a car or a bike will brake down and spin out of control.

Therefore, when you get the green light, watch the road first before you cross. Every motorist is taught to watch the road before they cross a green light, and pedestrians should learn that as well.

The 3 times you felt your safety compromised is not just the drivers' fault. It's also your fault for not watching the road before you cross. The green man is a guide. But if you ever had a driver's training, you will understand that you need to look left and right before you cross the road.

Pedestrians shall not jaywalk just the same as cars shouldn't go on sidewalks - and they never do. And if they do, there's a hefty fine. In Asia, people get tickets for jaywalking. The lecture that you quoted is not about stigmatization of jaywalking, but poor urban planning. Turning all streets into automobile roads was a very bad decision. That's all it says. That doesn't imply in any way that jaywalking shall be allowed on roads where cars will run.

The design of the pedestrian crossing light button does have room to improve. Perhaps we can replace it with more intelligent infrared to detect the presence of people automatically, like how weights are used to detect cars at an intersection.

Pedestrians have the biggest rights of all individuals who share the road, because they don't even need any training or licenses at all to share such a crowded and busy space. Roads are designed in bias for pedestrians so they know how to use the road intuitively. In contrast, cyclists need to learn how to read the special lane colors and lines. Motorists need to learn all the rules in the driver's manual. And worse of all, truckers can't even go on normal roads - they need to use truck routes. And you know what? There isn't a Google Map for that, while bikes just got theirs yesterday.

When a car or a truck hits a person, yes, the person can die - but there are also enough laws to make sure that the driver's life is destroyed. Imagine all the insurance debt, jail time, loss of driver's license leading to loss of job and all the hassles the driver has to go through. No drivers want to hit you. Honestly.

So give truckers some slack - They drive this bulky slow and bumpy vehicle, which is very hard to see what's surrounding it from the driver's seat, all day all night to deliver your milk.

In short, we share the road, since we live in such a dense city together. Pedestrians have sidewalks. Bikes have bike lanes. Cars have roads. And we cross, we wait patiently for each's turn. And watch out for danger at all times. Very simple. Maximum efficiency for everyone. If we can't learn these basic rules for sharing the road, I doubt we have any rights to complain.

phuzz said...

I think it's slightly easier over here in the UK (there's no jaywalking offence for one), but for an interesting time crossing roads you have to take a trip to Morocco.
Over there to cross a busy road, you gang up with other pedestrians, and then, en mass, you move to the first gap between lanes, and then as there a gap, move to the next gap.
All of this is complicated by the fact that there isn't actually any fixed lanes, and the gaps between are usually full of mopeds.
Still, somehow no-one seems to get hurt, and getting across a road becomes much more of an achievement :)

Daniel Nairn said...

PK, I think we agree on one thing. I was trying to communicate the fact that pedestrians really should be taking their safety into their own hands, and that this is exactly what makes it difficult for walkers to trust intersections even with crosswalks and legal protection. They are the most dangerous place to cross.

I understand that there are consequences for drivers who hit pedestrians and this is a good thing, but they are not as visceral and immediate as what pedestrians are experiencing when they cross. I don't think too many people are reasoning through their probabilities when they decide to run a red light. Basic human instincts usually take over.

I was trying to avoid assigning blame. That depends on the case. (I've been a driver in these situations too). I'm not sure how, based on my brief description of events, you are able to ascertain that I was partly to blame - unless you believe that being a pedestrian and crossing a street is blameworthy in its own right.

Also, Google probably hasn't developed a map for trucks for the same reason they do not offer free scheduling services for freight trains. It's a for-profit industry, and I'm sure there are many software developers eager to provide routing services.

adnohr said...

It's funny, as a kid I remember watching tv and learning that jaywalking was bad, but never understood what it meant, and forgot all about it. Massachusetts had a campain "A little courtesy won't kill you" for teaching defensive drivng. In Boston for college, I just crossed wherever the road was clear and safe. It seems drivers and pedestrians both paid more attention because they expected to encounter the other all the time.
After school, I moved to California where the roads are very different, and where jaywalking is a ticketable offense. There are plenty of places that don't even have sidewalks, never mind crosswalks. The driving is very offensive, and really pedestrians are really on their own, even in parking lots and crosswalks. A totally different culture. The old "walk facing traffic" is a must to avoid accidents.

Jarrett at said...

Excellent article. Crucial issue. In Australia, everyone does what you describe, expect perhaps the elderly. Oddly, Australian "zebra" crossings are absolutely sacred, and everyone will stop if you step into one. A prohibition on turns on red is also an important feature of Australian intersections, one that arguable makes them a little safer, as the common American "free right on red" is often executed without fully stopping, be a driver who's looking for intersecting cars to the left but not peds on the crosswalks he's crossing.

Unknown said...

On the main street of Lawrence, KS, Signal-less crosswalks are placed in the middle of the blocks. They are heavily used and respected by vehicular traffic.

Eric Orozco said...

Two words:

Hans Monderman :)

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem, IMO, for pedestrians and american roads is the right turn on red. With it allowed, I feel safer crossing in the middle, where traffic is only coming in one direction. I get to the median, and now only worry about traffic coming from the other direction. At an intersection, you worry about vehicles turning right, and those turning right across traffic from the other direction.

Samuel A. Falvo II said...

There is an absolute solution to this problem, contrary to this article's implication.

They're called overpasses.

Separate the rights of way for cars and pedestrian traffic, and suddenly, this whole problem goes away completely.

Cap'n Transit said...

PK is wrong; people drive cars on sidewalks all the time. Sometimes they do this accidentally, at high speeds, and pedestrians are often killed. Other times they do it at (relatively) low speeds, and park, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street.

Samuel Falvo is also wrong. Pedestrian overpasses do not eliminate the problem, they in fact make it much worse. If you at least try to read the literature instead of spouting off, your posts will be much better informed.

Free Refills said...

I might add that the more people that cross in this way the better--as it will slow cars down. You can see this in New York City, where the roads are always congested and cars need to be constantly aware of the possibility of pedestrians in the street. It causes them to drive slower than they would in otherwise.

TomW said...

In Alberta, drivers can (and are) hit with an instant on-the-spot fine of $500 if they enter a crosswalk with a pedestrian on it. Consequently, drivers behave better, and I felt far safer corssing at a crosswalk than in most major cities.

Anonymous said...

Because I really needed yet another reason to move to Canada.

Now if yall could just make CD ripping fully legal again...

Anonymous said...

In Finland drivers obey street lights quite well, but walkers many times don't if there are no cars close by. Walkers get loud honks if they don't obey lights and are in danger to get killed by fast moving cars. Some mutual agreement here. Drivers obey lights, but expect walkers to obey too.

Then there are striped crossings without street lights. Law says that cars have to stop in case pedestrian is coming to the crossing. It is more rare that cars give room for pedestrian, but they will if pedestrian just steps on the road.

When I am driving and slowing down to a crossing that has no street lights, pedestrian sometimes just waits there. Then I come to a full stop and there have been cases the pedestrian signals me to drive on...

There is also a law that if a car has stopped before crossing (that has no street lights in this case), the other car on the next lane has to stop too. But this law is not followed many times by drivers, which is bad. If other driver stops and the other doesn't, the pedestrian is in danger to get killed.

Sometimes when I walk and try to cross road, the car doesn't stop. But when I look at the car, it stops. That is weird. Maybe the driver thinks "oh pedestrian is looking for eye contact, he propably wants me to stop instead of waiting until I drive by". Looking works mostly in slow streets like in front of shops.

If you try to cross road where is no official crossing, then you are on your own. Cars won't slow down just to let you go first, unless it is a yard of a mall or such. And not always there either.

Unknown said...

Great article and I agree with what you had to say, but I couldn't help but comment on this statement:

"Hopefully in a democracy, that's you and me."

America - I'm assuming you're in America - isn't a Democracy. It's a Republic. Haven't you ever heard of "The People's Republic of the United States of America?" If you still don't believe me, just say the first two sentences of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Democracy is mob rule. If this were a Democracy, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for minorities to win rights. Look at how far gay rights have come despite an unfortunate majority who are against it (gay marriage laws are near universal in failure when put to a vote). You don't want to live in a Democracy; if the majority ruled in every case, it would be bad times indeed for anyone who dared to be different.

Thankfully, we do live in a Representative Republic where the majority cannot so easily trample over the rights of the minority. I cannot, however, explain why Republicans have such a hard time understanding this and why Democrats have to do the job for them. It seems the party names are backwards, which probably explains why many people insist on calling our system of government a Democracy. They want the protections of a Republic, but only the Democrats are providing those protections. It is easy to understand the confusion.

Daniel Nairn said...

I'm with you Ryan. I suppose I just meant democracy (small "d") broadly. You're right that the constitutional provisions to protect minority rights are absolutely essential.

buurtaal said...

Hi Daniel,

I stumbled upon this post while writing an article for my own blog on the subject of traffic lights and the different attitudes German and Dutch pedestrians have towards them. (The Dutch are definitely more of the jaywalking kind ;-))

I've linked to your post in mine.


striping San Diego said...

Enjoyable read. I agree with one commenter that the best way to ensure safe crossing is to make sure the driver saw you.

Trucking Jobs said...

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Scott Beyer said...

Excellent post, Daniel, and I agree with every word.

Other than protecting the elderly and those with children, I'm unclear why so many mildly crowded intersections need electronic walk signs. Not only are they huge expenses, but the insistence that they be followed to a key is a violation of pedestrian autonomy, which is important when trying to create walkable cities.