Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Crosswalks

CityWatch, Oct 26, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 85

This past week the paths of two teenagers tragically crossed when sixteen-year-old Conor Lynch attempted to run across Woodman Avenue where he was hit and killed by a car driven by an eighteen-year-old motorist who then fled the scene.

The LA Times ran a brief article that included a quote from the LAPD indicating that Conor "was jogging across Woodman Avenue midblock and not at a crosswalk." This simple statement set off a flurry of reader comments that demonstrates the mythology of crosswalks and the subjective nature of transportation engineering.

The readers can be divided into two camps; those who empathized with the motorist and those who empathized with the pedestrian. To be sure, it was evident that all agreed that the events were tragic all around but the blame was frequently assigned to one or the other party based on understandings or misunderstandings of the law regulating the simple crossing of a street.

Some readers saw the jaywalking as indicative of fault, commenting "If it is true that Conor was jaywalking then it was his fault and I feel really bad for Moran."

Others saw the motorist's behavior as the cause, commenting "People drive too fast in the rain and careless all day and night in Los Angeles."

The details of the incident are still under investigation but it is apparent that attitudes and opinions vary widely on the rules of the road, the definition of jaywalking and the efficacy of crosswalks.

Rules of the Road: Pedestrians are permitted to cross the street mid-block. The exception is in locations that are between intersections that are controlled by traffic control signal devices or law enforcement officers.

Obviously, it's never a good idea to step out into the street without checking for traffic, but the notion that mid-block crossings are illegal is simply incorrect. Streets are for crossing, at the intersections in marked crosswalks, at the intersections in unmarked crosswalks, and also in between if the adjacent intersections aren't traffic signal controlled. In other words, the standard is: our streets are crossable unless restricted.

Definition of Jaywalking: Some people refer to pedestrians who cross the street against a red light "Jaywalkers" while others use the term for those who cross the street outside a crosswalk.

Either way, it is simply a "nickname" that is not codified in our vehicle code or municipal code and is actually an antiquated term of derision. 90 years ago, a "jay" was a hayseed who didn't understand the ways of the city, typically accustomed to cutting across fields and village lots.

As for the definition of jaywalking, it's vague and varies, and is about as useful as a discussion of jaydriving. In other words, it reinforces attitudes without clarifying the rules of the road.

Efficacy of Crosswalks: The City of Los Angeles has long been engaged in a debate over crosswalks and their usefulness, resulting in the see-saw battle that sees some advocating for the addition of more crosswalks while the LADOT looks for opportunities to remove crosswalks.

A visit to the City Council's Transportation Committee will yield a wealth of transportation mythology that supports increase of speed limits and addresses the dangers of crosswalks with the explanation that "Crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security."

This phrase has been repeated by transportation engineers and then parroted by councilmembers for so long that it has become accepted as the truth and serves as the core bias that supports the current campaign to increase speed limits, widen streets, and remove crosswalks.

The "false sense of security" theory can be traced back to the 1972 "Herms Study" which included a bit of unfortunate speculation that has taken on a life of its own.

When Herms discovered that there were more pedestrians struck (per person crossing) at marked crosswalks than at unmarked crosswalks, he failed to account for the fact that the crosswalks are typically installed where pedestrian/vehicle conflicts are an issue.

That unfortunate open question has been misinterpreted to the point of absurdity, motivating an entire generation of traffic engineers to dedicate their careers to removing marked crosswalks and failing to provide new ones, all in the misguided belief that they are dangerous and that pedestrians are better served on unmarked crosswalks.

Our councilmembers are quick to reject community pleas for safer streets by stating authoritatively "Our studies show that there are more injuries to pedestrians when there is a crosswalk than when there is no crosswalk. You see, crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security." This is typically followed by a "yea" vote on speed limit increases and street widenings.

At issue is the simple fact that our streets are dangerous, not just for pedestrians, but for everybody.

As speed limits increase, motorists have less time to react to pedestrians and require more distance to stop.

Last year the LAPD conducted a pedestrian sting on Reseda Blvd.

An LAPD officer in plain clothes would cross the street in the crosswalk and motorcycle officers waiting on the side streets would cite motorists who failed to yield to the pedestrian. The LAPD couldn't keep up with the violators.

The unfortunate thing about this sting is that many motorists were traveling under the speed limit but they didn't have the reaction time or the stopping distance necessary to make a safe stop before the crosswalk.

Watching a City of LA vehicle skid to a stop, it was apparent that this street was engineered for conflict.

It's evident that the rules of the road are widely misinterpreted by the general public, typically reinforcing our particular perspective or bias.

The term "jaywalker" is often used but rarely understood, further perpetuating misunderstandings between motorists and pedestrians.

Of greatest concern is the fact that our streets have become politicized, with traffic control decisions being made by people who simply repeat old fallacies in support of the current paradigm of traffic control and the resulting engineered conflict.

The tragic death of Conor Lynch has stirred a debate in our community over how the streets should work and how pedestrians and motorists can both find their place in the mix. It's a worthy conversation and the simplest way to honor Conor is to seize this moment and to work together to make our streets safer for everybody.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

1 comment:

ddplmr said...

Marked crosswalks are essential for safer pedestrian street crossing. They not only help motorists notice people who are in the act of crossing the street, but also tell motorists that this is an intersection that requires more attention in their daily commute paths and keeps them more alert.

At one time in California if a pedestrian put their foot anywhere onto any street to cross, traffic in both directions came to a complete stop. Those days are pretty much gone. But marked crosswalks can bring back some of that basic safety for all of us and should be widely implemented throughout Los Angeles.