Monday, December 7, 2015

Why Pedestrian Rights themselves may not be Sufficient

The conversation around the weekend's op-ed on "pedestrian rights" and "safety" seemed mostly all too predictable.

Stay out of the way!
Critical responses and comments to the piece fell into buckets we see quite often:
  • Might makes right: cars are more powerful, so of course it is prudent and right for people on foot to scurry out of the way
  • I am a strong, fast, and defensive walker/biker, and I protect myself; if you are hurt, it is because you have failed to be strong, fast, or defensive, and it's your own damn fault
  • People on foot are a bunch of whining entitled brats, expecting people in cars to inconvenience themselves to slow or stop
  • It's just a matter of civility and politeness; if everybody was nice, paying attention, and not in a hurry, most problems would disappear - "can't we all just get along?"
Much of this recapitulates the basic structure of important debates that we are having in several areas:
  • Is gun violence only the result of bad actors or is it also a manifestation of a system problem? 
  • Is racism only the effect of bad actors or is it something more deeply entrenched in systems?
  • Is poverty only the result of individual bad choices and not trying hard enough or is it an expression of a biased system it is too difficult to escape? 
So is the primary burden on individual road users to make better personal choices, whether they are behind the wheel or on foot?

1937 propaganda - via NYRB
Or do we have a system that makes it difficult for people to make good decisions and actually encourages deleterious decisions and patterns? And then does this system need thorough-going, structural reform?

The position here is that good intention and civility on the part of road users is insufficient in our current system of hydraulic autoism and that we have a system with too much licit jay-driving.

4245 people/day speed more than 10mph over limit
Presentation Slides, Dec 11th
So the talk about "pedestrian rights" is important, but alone it is too modest, too puny even. A framework of individualism and individual rights may not be useful in a large-scale, aggregate way. On an average day 4245 drivers speed 41mph or more in a 30mph zone on South Commercial, for example. Does it have any real meaning to try to insist on the right of a person on foot in this context?

First of all, when we talk about walking and biking as a fitness activity, or as something only fast, strong, and powerful people should undertake, we fail badly to see walking as foundational mobility, something nearly all people do, something kids do, something the elderly do, something the disabled do. Even a person in a wheelchair, who is not technically "walking," is still a person on foot in this sense.

When we talk about safety for people on foot,
this should be our example - but 4245 people/day speed here!
Our definitional idea of people who walk must be broadened to be much more inclusive. And our baseline for measuring "walkability" should not be healthy 30 year olds, but instead should embrace an "eight to 80" philosophy, measuring roads and sidewalks by the capacities of the very young and the old.

New ODOT materials
We must also recognize that there is a machine involved whose weight is measured in tons and whose power is measured by hundreds of horse equivalents. When we think of only a driver and walker, sometimes we erase this asymmetry in power and vulnerability.

Too often there is a presumption of innocence for people behind the wheel. Headline writers, other journalists, even police routinely blame people on foot.

The word "jaywalk" never appears; it's about "drivers"!
Our legal system routinely blames people on foot, or at least does not assign blame to drivers who strike them. "I didn't see them" is usually sufficient.

All the while people on foot are killed all too frequently.
This was in 2014; it's much worse this year
When we have traffic engineering standards that evaluate roadways and intersections by an ideal of "free-flow," sees people on foot as "pedestrian impedance," and sees anything less than free-flow as a "level of service" deficiency, why are we surprised that people on foot are harmed?

The standard: We measure roads only for those in cars
And in this environment where all technical measures for traffic have a goal of systematically eliminating people on foot, how can talk of "pedestrian rights" gain any effective traction when engineering standards, the actual details by which we pour and paint the asphalt and concrete, do not recognize the validity of foot traffic?

What would it mean effectively - indeed, what does it mean - to say that a person has a right to cross the street when we also hold free-flow car traffic as the ideal. In a crucial way, the person crossing is a regrettable compromise, an interloper. The driver who says "I didn't see them" and the system that finds this an adequate explanation is expressing the deep expectation that people don't actually belong on the road.

Our rhetoric that "every intersection is a crosswalk" is way out in front of the rest of the legal system and our road engineering standards.

That's why acknowledging the right of people on foot to the roadway isn't by itself enough and requires the full support of other interlocking systems.


Anonymous said...

As if on cue...this is right at Parrish Middle School -

"Two siblings were hit by an SUV this morning while they were crossing the street in a crosswalk.

At 7:04 a.m., Salem police officers responded to a report of a crash at Capitol and D streets NE.

A 12-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl were crossing the street when an eastbound 2006 Jeep Liberty hit them, said Lt. Dave Okada, with the Salem Police Department.

The children received minor injuries and were taken to Salem Hospital. They've since been released, Okada said.

Another vehicle had stopped for the children, but it seems the Jeep driver did not see them. If a driver sees another car stopped, that's usually a sign that there's something going on and they're stopping for a reason, Okada said.

Robert Knechtel, 61, of Salem, was cited for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. Knechtel cooperated with officers at the scene, Okada said."

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I do not often go out south on Commercial but I had to give someone a ride to the doctors and to the pharmacy at Fred Meyer then home so got a good taste of what it is like to drive during rush hour in that area. I was shocked at how many people were running lights, turning in front of people, cutting people off, changing lanes recklessly. A pedestrian would not stand a chance!

Back in the mid-90's the City did a study of Lancaster Drive. I may have mentioned it here before. They were looking at how to decrease accidents both between cars and cars and pedestrians. The study was not well published. I think I have one of the 3 print copies. However, they did find that there are things that can be done to the streets to make them safer.

The last Street Bond had some of the projects included for Lancaster Drive. It iinvolves more controlled access, more controlled egress (right turns only) and more dividers. Also, are islands to help pedestrians find safe havens in very wide streets.

So, I think that a lot could be done to help make it better for pedestrians. We need to advocate harder for these tools for pedestrians. Also, the education campaign that the City it trying to use is a good idea too.

But in the end, we have to get the drivers to be more watchful and understand they have a great responsibility when you get behind the wheel of a car. As I wrote on another post, it is super hard sometimes to be able to see people on bikes or walking, so there is a lot of work to do to make improvements in what we do and how we do it.

Does anyone know if the City has every seriously studied the downtown traffic flow and what it might mean is they had a different system?

Cara Kaser said...

Susann - there was a Central Salem Mobility Study done a few years ago and available on the City's website at -- look under "Analysis" and then the "Existing Conditions" link.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Thanks, Cara!

And there has been lots of discussion and analysis of it here on posts labeled "downtown mobility study."

Anonymous said...

There is a serious problem.

Behaviors of pedestrians and drivers are subject to change via appropriate government effort.

The change to driver behavior is limited. They will make mistakes and they will drive distracted - no matter what - so there is a very finite limit to the benefits realizable by trying to alter the behavior of drivers.

On the other hand, we can definitely change the behavior of pedestrians and those changes will save lives.

How, you ask.

We make it clear that intersections are intersections. They are not crosswalks. Crosswalks are crosswalks.

If a pedestrian wants to cross a street, then that pedestrian should either wait for traffic to clear or take the trouble to walk to an actual crosswalk.

That should not be so difficult - after all they are pedestrians and it is not like we are talking about mile long hikes here.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Anon, we cannot agree here. You wish to make the public space called a road an exclusive space for autos and their drivers. This is a form of "might makes right."

The priority should in fact go the other way, and drivers should be the ones who are required to take on an extra burden of care towards unarmored, more vulnerable users of the road.

You say "[Drivers] will make mistakes and they will drive distracted - no matter what - so there is a very finite limit to the benefits realizable by trying to alter the behavior of drivers."

But why is that statement more true or important than, "People walking will make mistakes and they will walk distracted - no matter what - so there is a very finite limit to the benefits realizable by trying to alter the behavior of walkers."

We have a system that exacts catastrophic penalties for walking mistakes, and shields drivers from consequences in small errors of steering and braking and speeding.

In every way you argue for "might makes right," and this is unjust.

If you would like to learn more about the way walking has been criminalized and those walking marginalized, see this history of jaywalking.

All intersections have unmarked crosswalks, and people on foot should not have to travel hundreds of feed out-of-direction in order to cross. Just look at the problem faced by the person in a walker in the image above in the blog post. Your claim means that he must traverse two block faces in addition to the crossing length. Some distances to signalized crosswalks do in fact add up to great distances. This is not fair for the walking public, either able-bodied or disabled.

babblefrog said...

Waitaminit. I thought by state law every intersection is a crosswalk. Do they not teach this any more? And at the crosswalk, whether painted or not, the pedestrian has the right of way.

Am I completely misunderstanding this?