Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lipstick on a Pig: Misplaced Trust in Bulb-Outs and Crosswalks?

Back in the fall of 2008, Northeast Neighbors asked the City to consider a median and crosswalk at 17th and Chemeketa.

Yesterday a person in a car hit a blind man walking in that crosswalk and pedestrian median.  John Dashney, the injured man, was one of the very people for whom the median and crosswalk had been proposed and installed.

Just how useful are concrete mitigations applied to roads that remain fundamentally engineered for car through-put?

The big construction activity downtown this week are the new bulb-outs going in on Court Street. Here's one in front of the Capitol.

As as person on foot, I would say I like the bulb outs somewhat.

But as a person on bike I loathe them. At intersections they constrain greatly my ability to position myself flexibly and safely - sometimes I want to take the lane, sometimes I want to scoot to the margin, but always I want situational flexibility to adjust to local conditions and even to adjust to the vibe of individual drivers I might encounter. Bulb-outs take this away.

Maybe that's too much subjectivity and anecdote. I haven't seen much data on the bulb-outs. But it is ironic and tragic that one of the very people the crosswalk and median was designed to help was in fact not protected by it. One of the core purposes for the median and crosswalk at 17th and Chemeketa is now a failure.

Back in September 2008, when the crosswalk and median was proposed, a leader of the neighborhood association wrote in an email:
NEN has requested, through the City C.I.P. process, that a crossing (island median type) be installed on the south side of the intersection at 17th and Chemeketa. [redacted] and I walk every morning and were nearly hit (when a car stopped for us and was then rear-ended by two other cars). John Dashney (who is blind) and [redacted] (who is also blind) walk on the south side of Chemeketa many times daily. We have watched cars whiz by when he is in the intersection, even though he used a white cane. Since Chemeketa is designated a a bike route, we believe that it adds to the urgency. Many state workers also cross there to and from work.

We believe the south side of the intersection is best, because it's the route our vision impaired neighbors [use].
Other recent collisions have involved marked crosswalks. A couple of years ago a person in a wheelchair or scooter was hit on State Street while in a crosswalk. The crashes resulted from driver error and poor judgement - even acts we might judge to be crimes.

Nevertheless, the collisions took place on roadways fundamentally engineered for auto capacity. The bulb-outs and crosswalks are in many ways band-aids, surface treatments that affect very little of the basic structure of the roadways, which remain broad avenues with straight sections that encourage speed and assumptions of through-movement for people in cars. Drivers in cars expect unimpeded movement and resent hindrance. For people on foot, the crosswalks and bulb-outs may be lipstick on a pig.

(Click to enlarge)


The design for Wallace and Glen Creek exemplifies this. After it is enlarged, the intersection will not be safer for people on foot and on bike.

And in fact the River Crossing envisions enlarging it even further.

In defense of cars and roads and prevailing standards, you may say the driver who struck the blind man was arrested on a DUI. She had no Oregon license and was using a borrowed car.  The driver who killed the Chemeketa students on the Lancaster sidewalk was also driving impaired and convicted of manslaughter. It's true that no amount of road engineering can dissuade such bad actors from getting into a car.

But it's also true that as we widen roads and then backfill with mitigations like crosswalks and bulb-outs, our roadway engineering too often increases the damage a bad actor will do. After all, we design roads so that something like 15% of people can (and are expected to) exceed the speed limit or otherwise drive badly!*

Our transportation system also fails to give people good alternatives to driving - useful transit, robust bicycle facilities, pleasant walkways. If we want bad actors to stay out of cars, we should want to give them better facilities that encourage a virtuous decision not to drive instead of punishing a virtuous decision with crappy facilities and a culture of derision around second-class transport. Some proportion of bad decisions can be eliminated!  And for a lot cheaper than tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on roadway expansion - and the incalculable loss of life and well-being.

Drawing conclusions from anecdote and story is hazardous. Patterns and aggregate behavior is a better foundation for analysis. Still, it is not hard to wonder if we ask too much of crosswalks and bulb-outs and ask too little for structural change on our roadways and transportation system. They are helpful, of course, but are they helpful enough?  Making it easy for people to choose not to drive will likely have a greater impact on traffic safety than more crosswalks and bulb-outs.

Just sayin'.

* Maybe an engineer can comment more on the significance of the 85th percentile for roadway design?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

From the SJ today:

"A 58-year-old woman who struck a visually impaired Salem author was sentenced today to 70 months in prison.

Deputy District Attorney Paige Clarkson said that Rose Litherland was high on both methamphetamine and marijuana when she drove her car north on 17th Street NE and hit John Dashney, 70, as he was walking in a marked crosswalk at Chemeketa Street NE on May 29...

In court today, Litherland pleaded no contest to a Measure 11 charge of second-degree assault and guilty to driving under the influence of intoxicants.

She did not have a valid driver's license and is legally blind herself -- though her attorney James Susee clarified that she has cataracts and could see well."

Anonymous said...

Here's a British study about bulbouts!

http://road.cc/content/news/141513-research-finds-measures-aimed-making-drivers-slow-down-increase-danger-cyclists