Walking represents the foundation of our transportation networks. Driving and riding begin and end with a walk, yet we usually don’t design around those walks. Why is that and what does it look …
Walking represents the foundation of our transportation networks. Driving and riding begin and end with a walk, yet we usually don’t design around those walks. Why is that and what does it look like from the walked perspective? Let’s explore from the sidewalk viewshed.
This is part three of a four-part series exploring the under-representation and under-resourcing of the ability to comfortably and conveniently walk around. For the sake of this discussion and with universal design in mind, wheeling oneself or another around is included as walking.
Pedestrians have the right of way to cross the street at crosswalks. Did you know that this applies to both marked and unmarked crosswalks in Pennsylvania? Or that crosswalks are defined by intersections? In some cases, automobiles must yield when crossing signals are in a walker’s favor. In others, automobiles must yield all the time. Very rarely does explicit signage inform drivers of their pedestrian-yield responsibilities.
Rights for pedestrians to walk a certain way can be difficult to notice when immersed in an auto-centric transportation network. This is especially the case with so many other rules of the road to follow. Let’s look at two examples of walking across the street to see where some difficulty lies.
The first example is an unintended consequence of a laudible but misguided attempt to boost walker safety. The second is a direct consequence of protocols for multi-user intersections that favor drivers.
In Honesdale, and maybe your town, there exist light-up crossing beacons at key crosswalks. These beacons are button-activated and present blinking lights to signal a walker is about to cross the street. Objectively, this is helpful. The visibility of anyone walking increases as lights brightly indicate an intentional crossing.
Culturally, this may be unhelpful. Pedestrians at these crosswalks already have the right-of-way. Turning the lights on shouldn’t be necessary.
In this case, driver behavior is guided toward paying attention to the boldest and brightest indicators of walking. This blinds some to actual people walking. Keeping an eye out for people should be something every driver does when driving through a town. Walkers, as a matter of life and death, have to pay attention to every vehicle, whether it’s bold and bright or unadventurous and muted.
Drivers have reasonable expectations that other drivers will follow stop signs, signal their turns, and pay attention to other vehicles. Shouldn’t walkers, who share the road, also expect others to follow the road’s rules?
An unintended consequence of these beacons is that drivers now yield to flashing lights instead of people. Supposedly to make pedestrians safer, a change was made that increased pedestrian responsibility and decreased the number of things drivers need to pay attention to. This reinforces auto-centric designs and perpetuates a disconnect in our transportation system.
A false story remains: the one suggesting that roads are exclusively for cars. In a downtown, where people walking is both common and vital to the livability of a place, that’s a problem.
In Honesdale and certainly your town, there exist right-turn intersections. Because intersections are also crosswalks, this presents a challenge. A green light means go for somebody looking to safely walk and somebody looking to drive across the street. If you’re walking across a road that a car can turn right onto, you have to look in front of and behind you to safely move forward. Drivers get to look forward the whole time, which is pretty convenient.
That privilege is expanded into red lights. Right turns on red are often allowed when driving. So, in practice, drivers taking a right turn through this type of intersection can move forward with green lights and red lights that automatically cycle. Walkers must push a button to activate a walk signal that only shows up with green.
Often, a walk signal will not appear if the button is not pressed, even when the green light is in your favor. So, in practice, walkers crossing a lighted street must push a button, wait for a green light and hope their action activates a walking signal. If not, they’re left with a glowing red hand directly next to a green traffic light. This offers unnecessarily conflicting information.
When walk signals are not synchronized to a green light, the implication is a walker can’t cross. This becomes all the more problematic when a walk-crossing button has malfunctioned or is frozen over with ice and is unable to be pressed. Walkers can be left with a favorable green light and no supplemental safe crossing signage that both they and drivers are looking for.
Because drivers have, here again, been encouraged to look for the most specific evidence of pedestrians (in this case, a walk signal,) someone walking with a green light and without a walk signal is not seen as necessarily something to yield to. In my personal experience, it may even be something to honk and yell at. For what it’s worth, honking is startlingly louder for those not in a car, and road rage is a lot more intense when shared from a passing pickup truck while you’re standing in the middle of a road.
Walkers have a right to the road shared by drivers who have more privileged access to that road. When was the last time you had to stop what you were doing and press a button to activate a road signal while you were driving? When equal access is easier for some groups of people than others, then there’s an equity problem within that system.
This exploration in parts has thus far covered challenges. I’m a solutions person, but I wanted to focus on these direct examples in a way hopefully to encourage empathy and compassion among those of us with less walking experience. The next (final) part of this series will button things up by covering what we can do. Spoiler alert: It’s all about reducing speeds in village centers.
Derek Frey Williams, Citizen Planner and Walkability Advocate, Canaltown. Visit interweb portals @ canaltown552.com for more local landscape stories told from Honesdale, PA.