Creating a Crosswalk Culture

[One of many attempts to get cars to stop on Snelling.]
Ever since the year 2000, the Minnesota State law has said the following:
(a) Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk. The driver must remain stopped until the pedestrian has passed the lane in which the vehicle is stopped. No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield. This provision shall not apply under the conditions as otherwise provided in this subdivision.
(b) When any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle. [...]
(d) A person who violates this subdivision is guilty of a misdemeanor. A person who violates this subdivision a second or subsequent time within one year of a previous conviction under this subdivision is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

But as anyone who's ever stood on the corner of a busy street searching in vain for a gap in the stream of cars knows, laws are one thing and everyday life is quite another. Even in the Twin Cities' most walkable neighborhoods, its quite rare for drivers to stop for people trying to cross the street. Paradoxically, crosswalks can sometimes be more dangerous than jaywalking. There are lots of spots in the Twin Cities where people trying to cross the street have to take their life into their own hands. Despite the law, and the state DOT's occasional education campaign, stopping for pedestrians is not something that has become commonplace in Minnesota. Not only is the status quo dangerous, it leaves pedestrians as stranded second-class citizens, discouraging walking in our cities. Is there anything we can do about it?

The Massachusetts Example

[Crosswalk in Williamstown, MA.]
I was attending college in Massachusetts right when they passed a similar 'stop for pedestrians' law. My college was in a small town bisected by a two-lane state highway (Route 2). Half the campus was on one side, half was on the other, and all day every day students would try to cross the road, often darting across every chance we got. The state's new crosswalk law provoked quite a change. All of a sudden, thanks to yellow bollards and (I presume) a public information campaign, cars started stopping and waiting for us to cross the street. I remember the feeling, it was amazing, people slowing down and waiting for you without even the slightest bit of effort on our parts. Nothing was required, not one pitiable glance or wave of the arms. Cars simply stopped and waited, and the change in campus dynamics felt wonderful. This is still fairly common in Massachussetts.

Today, while it's still not perfect, you can walk around Boston drivers will often top for you to cross the street, maybe not all the time, but enough to make a difference. In Berkeley, California, it's also common to have cars stop and wait for you. Places like these prove that changing car culture is possible...

The Limits of Education Campaigns

[Is this poster even worth the ink?]
But how do we make Saint Paul and Minneapolis places where pedestrians take priority?  Planners and engineers will say that we need a multi-pronged approach: education, enforcement, and engineering, all reinforcing the same message. So far in the Twin Cities', we haven't been able to coordinate very well. Every once in a while, police will focus attention on crosswalk laws, but nobody is going to enforce a rule that everybody ignores. Likewise, education campaigns that happen in a vacuum are frustratingly pointless, and often seem to blame the victim.

I wrote about this a while back on Streets.mn:
Education campaigns, too, have obvious limits. More than anything, these campaigns provide engineers and policy makers with a “false sense of security,” offering the illusion that they institutions have  accomplished something when (in fact) very little has changed. Placing up a few signs that say “Every corner is a crosswalk” is likely to have almost miniscule effect. How many people are likely to look at the billboards? Of those people, how many will understand what they are trying to say? Of those people, who many will actually care? Of those people, who many will actually change their behavior? What percentage of the time?

My preferred solution is engineering, i.e. designing streets with bumpouts or medians that make it easy for cars to notice and stop for people in the first place. While we're making slow progress towards change, with efforts like Complete Streets design rules. But even on well-designed streets (e.g. East Franklin Avenue) nobody stops for pedestrians trying to cross. Maybe the Twin Cities' just has a dominant car culture? It's depressing to think, but maybe people in our cities will always drive like self-important dicks, and there's nothing anyone can do about it?

[Why did the chicken cross the road?]
During the last month, I've become involved with a group of people in Saint Paul who are trying to brainstorm ways to change our collective behavior. We've got lots of ideas: bumper stickers, pledges, surveys, volunteer tabling, a website, elaborate stunts involved people dressed in chicken costumes.

What do you think? Is this a lost cause? Other than hordes of do-good Boy Scout escorts, or installing absurdly expensive signals everywhere, how can we make it safe for people to cross the street?


Unknown said...

Part of the challenge is the statute itself is not clear in its intent. A literal reading of the statute requires yielding to pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk, but not necessarily to pedestrians who have not yet entered the roadway to cross. There is a chicken and egg problem here. I agree this is primarily a cultural problem, but it is hard to change culture when the statute itself is a bit vague. I wrote a bit about it here.

Evan Roberts said...

There's a large number of drivers who grew up with the old rule and haven't internalized the new one. More of the signs saying "Stop, it's a state law" would be a good idea.

I've taken to being fairly aggressive with appearing to step out, pointing at the yellow sign and saying "it's the law" if the drivers look annoyed at having to stop.

Sean Hayford Oleary said...

Part of the problem is pedestrian behavior. At the roundabout at Portland and 66th, they recently put up large dynamic signs that say STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS AT ROUNDABOUT. The other night, I was driving up there, past the flashing dynamic sign, and toward the 3 (!) "STATE LAW STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS" signs at just the one leg of the intersection I was approaching. There was a woman waiting in the median, so -- following the markings, following the basic law, and following the four signs reminding me to do so, I stopped for her to proceed. She waved me on. Irritated, I gave her a "no, seriously, go" wave and she cautiously moved across.

This is also a chicken-and-egg problem, of course, since so many pedestrians have had their right-of-way disrespected so many times before, and feel like they're endangering themselves to move assertively.

I think the best solution is to focus uncontrolled crosswalk markings (and enforcement) on crosswalks that drivers and pedestrians will perceive as most reasonable. Roundabout crosswalks -- where the car may have to stop, and has to at least slow to 15-20 mph no matter what -- should be considered reasonable crosswalks. On most 30 and some 35 mph streets (especially 2-lane ones), I think marked crosswalks can be reasonable. However, marked uncontrolled crosswalks are also often installed on highways and stroads where they are unlikely to be considered reasonable. See here on York Avenue in Edina, where the design of the crosswalk seems to say, "eh, they'll figure it out." In these situations, I think more aggressive solutions should be implemented, like HAWK signals or other signalized crossings.