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 fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.

Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer.  They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today — pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield.  (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don’t have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot.  Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete.  It’s not just that roads designed for fast driving aren’t good for city living.  Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails.  It doesn’t make streets safe.  And it’s too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure.  Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car.  With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility.  This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians — a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy.  Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly.  Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars.  And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals — no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike — make roads safer.  Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first.  Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals.  When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets.  Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal.  Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain.  It’s like economics, where markets usually work better than central command.  Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy.  Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example — situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York — full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving.  Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today’s hazardous mess.  The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes.  Details need to be added.  Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets.  Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change.  But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.