To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the first of a multi-part opinion series.
Pedestrians put themselves in danger if they wait for a walk signal instead of crossing the street whenever and wherever it looks safest. There are no definitive studies, but that is what available evidence strongly suggests.
Most research on traffic safety focuses on narrow questions posed by the highway agencies that fund it. Basic premises, like the idea that “jaywalking” is intrinsically unsafe, are rarely investigated.
In the absence of systematic studies, one must turn to indirect statistical evidence.
One useful data set was collected for New York’s Vision Zero program. That city, where residents routinely ignore signals when they cross streets, can be thought of as a natural experiment. The majority of pedestrian deaths, and a far larger majority of non-fatal crashes, occur while crossing the street legally in a crosswalk.
Why might that be? Drivers hit pedestrians when turning more often than when they are driving straight ahead. At a red light, drivers who are about to turn wait alongside pedestrians. The changing signal sends both into the intersection at the same time — maximizing the opportunities for collisions.
Other researchers, working in places with less foot traffic and fewer striped crosswalks than New York, got results that point in a similar direction. They found that pedestrians crossing big highways are more likely to be struck at marked crosswalks than at unmarked ones. On smaller roads, they found little advantage either way.
The Federal Highway Administration took these findings to mean that putting stripes on highway pavement makes it more dangerous to cross there. It used them to justify a ban on new crosswalk markings, except at traffic lights, on wide high-speed roads. A far more likely explanation is that pedestrians are better judges of their own safety than are traffic engineers, whose first concern is usually to move cars fast.
The concept of jaywalking was invented in the 1920s by motoring lobbies to empty streets of other users. Drivers wanted to go faster and automakers sought to sell more cars. Safety, as Peter Norton has shown in his book Fighting Traffic, was no more than an afterthought.
Almost a century has now passed, and our traffic laws are still not geared to safety.