Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where the Sidewalk Really Started

London, in case you were wondering.

It all began with a 1764 survey of the local infrastructure by the Commission of Sewers and Pavements (one can only imagine the sins a bureaucrat had to commit to end up on the sewer commission). The commission found that London roads were “defective, even in the principal streets.”

Apparently 18th century Londoners hated walking on cracked pavement and muddy roadway shoulders as much as we do today, because a year later concerns over the commission's findings prompted the creation of the city's first curbed sidewalk. Other cities followed suit, and by 1823 Paris had even enacted a law requiring property owners to install sidewalks adjacent to their buildings. (No one paid much attention to it, as these were the days before binding developer agreements.)

Of course, pedestrians had been on the minds of city leaders long before the apperance of sidewalks. Heavy traffic congestion led Julius Caesar to ban the use of cars and chariots between sunrise and sunset on the roads of ancient Rome--though (no big surpise) he reneged on an earlier promise to grant pedestrians the right of way over other road users. Nor did other pledged improvements, such as road paving, ever materialize.

In fact, it wasn't until 1,000 years after Caesar's reign that paving began in earnest throughout Europe (Paris began the trend in the late 1100s). Paved roadways made walking easier for pedestrians in medieval cities...but it also made walking easier for horses, oxen, and other types of "heavy vehicle" traffic.

The increasing chaos on city streets got architects thinking about how to design city transportation networks that served everyone. Leonardo da Vinci recommended that the problem be addressed by separating pedestrians from other forms of traffic. Here is one of his drawings from the late 1400s, showing how the concept might look:

Although his designs weren’t adopted at the time, da Vinci's vision of pedestrian-only spaces was prescient-- today you can find "pedestrianized" streets everywhere from New York to Costa Rica.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cool Pedestrian Stuff #3: "Divans"

A 1911 New York Times article describes this "novel auto invention" that was intended to prevent vehicles from knocking down and crushing pedestrians. As the article explains, the "scissorlike fender" attached to the front of private vehicles and streetcars and scooped up errant pedestrians, bearing them along in a "sort of divan" until they could be safely deposited elsewhere. The inventor claimed that the device had been proven effective at vehicle speeds up to 60 mph, though I'm skeptical that any encounter with an object traveling so fast--no matter how cushy--would be comfortable for a pedestrian. (Of note: the article blames these crashes on the "careless pedestrian" who steps thoughlessly in front of moving vehicles. Hmm, sounds familiar.)

Researchers today continue to investigate solutions for decreasing the impact (sorry, bad pun) of pedestrian crashes. One solution is to create vehicles that can sense when they are hitting pedestrians and implement appropriate safety mechanisms. In this example, designed by Bosch, the vehicle automatically raises its front hood when it hits a pedestrian to help decrease pedestrian injury.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Enough already. Seriously.

A 60-year-old woman and her dog were killed crossing Shoreline Drive in Ventura on Monday. Although there was a marked crosswalk nearby, the two were not using it when they were struck.

Here's hoping the rule of threes applies in this case, and we won't see any more pedestrian deaths for a while...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A bad weekend for pedestrians

The LA Times reports that a 10-year-old boy was killed and several other members of his family were injured when a driver hit them as they were crossing Tweedy Boulevard in South Gate. The crash occurred when the driver made a left turn from San Vicente Boulevard (which has a stop sign) onto Tweedy Boulevard. The family was walking inside a marked crosswalk that has a brick-style treatment to distinguish it from the rest of the road.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pedestrian killed in Santa Paula crosswalk

The Ventura County Star reported today that a 65-year-old woman was killed and two children hurt while attempting to cross Harvard Boulevard in the City of Santa Paula. Initial investigations by police suggest that drugs and alcohol were not involved in the crash. The driver claims she was not speeding (the speed limit on Harvard Boulevard is 35 mph) at the time. Harvard Boulevard is a four-lane roadway with a two-way left-turn lane in the center.

Although the crossing where the incident took place is unsignalized, the City of Santa Paula recently installed in-roadway warning lights (IRWL) at the intersection. Studies of the effectiveness of this treatment have been mixed (you can find a nice summary of the research here), with most showing only little improvement in pedestrian safety after installation.

Particularly relevant for this case, the two studies that examined whether or not the lights encouraged motorists to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk (e.g. attempting to cross a middle lane of traffic) had "inconsistent" results. As rightly warns, "...caution should be exercised, and perhaps additional treatments implemented if IRWL is considered for uncontrolled crosswalks at multi-lane locations."

This is yet another reminder that mere visual cues are not enough to protect pedestrians. While I appreciate the City of Santa Paula at least attempting to address crosswalk safety, it frustrates me that the City stopped short of more significant roadway treatments like raised medians or intersection bulb-outs. On high-speed, high-volume roadways like Harvard Boulevard these improvements are critical to ensure that pedestrians can cross the street safely.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cool Pedestrian Stuff #2: Donkey Stickers

Living out the dreams of frustrated pedestrians everywhere, the Streetpanthers are a group of activists who have taken the job of enforcing pedestrian laws into their own hands.

Their work takes place primarily in Thessaloniki, Greece. Aside from maintaining a website, online forum, blog, and 1,800-member facebook page, the Streetpanthers roam the streets planting "donkey" stickers on vehicles parked in crosswalks, on sidewalks, and generally anywhere that interferes with pedestrians' ability to safely navigate the streets.

The stickers say something along the lines of "I'm a donkey, I park where I want and ignore the rights of pedestrians"...though from what I gather the original Greek might not be quite so polite.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

True or False Sense of Security?

A warning to Angelenos who travel on foot: LADOT is trying to kill you.

What other explanation is there for LADOT's policy not to mark crosswalks--and sometimes to even go so far as to remove them--in the name of "pedestrian safety"? It's like a doctor saying to a patient with cancer, "Well, this medicine isn't working. Let's just do nothing and hope the problem will go away."

To be fair, it isn't just LADOT that thinks this way. Ever since Bruce Herm's 1972 study of crosswalks in San Diego (in which he found more pedestrians were injured or killed in marked crosswalks than unmarked crosswalks) transportation departments across the country have been dutifully scrubbing out zebra stripes in an attempt to protect pedestrians.

The logic behind this seemingly illogical move is the so-called "false sense of security" argument. This much-quoted phrase comes from the Herms study, and represents his attempt to explain why marked crosswalks were riskier for pedestrians than unmarked crosswalks. Herms hypothesized that pedestrians felt so safe between those bright white lines that they threw caution to the wind and boldly stepped out into the road--only to be hit by motorists, who didn't care in the slightest whether the crosswalk was marked or not.

Despite the fact that this was mere speculation on Herms' part (his study wasn't intended to evaluate how carefully pedestrians crossed streets), the idea has become transportation dogma. You can even find it front and center on LADOT's pedestrian policy page, right after the part where we learn that "the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has found that pedestrian accidents are significantly reduced at unmarked crosswalks located at non-street intersections."

I have to wonder where LADOT is getting its data, given that one of the most comprehensive studies on crossing safety, published in 2005 by the FHWA , shows that there is no statistical difference in pedestrian crash rates between marked and unmarked crosswalks on two-lane roads. Not to mention a 2002 FHWA study that found "no evidence" that pedestrians are less vigilant in marked crosswalks.

Admittedly the evidence is not entirely clear-cut. Some recent research does show that pedestrians are less observant when crossing at marked crosswalks. Elderly pedestrians appear to be particularly at risk, as do crossers at high-volume, multi-lane intersections.

I don't dispute that in many cases marked crosswalks alone aren't adequate to protect pedestrians. Sometimes it takes median refuges, flashing lights, raised crossings, or one of the many other solutions have have been shown to increase pedestrian safety at crossings. But the suggestion that the solution to this problem is to remove marked crosswalks?? It really twists my shoelaces into knots. Pedestrians in Los Angeles--and everywhere else--deserve more sophisticated thinking from their policymakers.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wanted: Pop-culture Publicity

I might not have quite the same rock star clout as Bono, but I'm still hoping to raise awareness about pedestrian safety and here's one big reason why: the World Health Organization estimates that in 2002 about 130,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were killed in roadway crashes. By conservative estimates roughly 52,000 of these fatalities were pedestrians. To put it in another way, twice as many as kids died crossing the street as starved to death.

Funny how I haven't seen any infomercials encouraging me to support a sidewalk in Nigeria for just a dollar a day.

Worse than that? In its most recent status report on road safety WHO predicts that roadway crashes will overtake HIV/AIDS as one of the leading causes of death worldwide. If current trends continue half of the fatalities will be what WHO terms "vulnerable users," aka motorcyle riders, cyclists, and pedestrians--but that little statistic masks the fact that in low- and middle-income countries vulnerable users generally die at much, much higher rates.

So here we have what is clearly one of the world's biggest public health problems, a problem that is only expected to get worse over the next few decades, a problem that disproportionately affects children, the elderly, and the poor, and...silence.

This is partially because the people hurt or killed in pedestrian crashes just aren't the ones that get a lot of face time with policymakers. Much of the world--including pedestrians themselves--holds the attitude that people on foot are second-class citizens who don't deserve the same rights and attention as people who can afford a car. (One study of pedestrian crashes in Mexico City found that while drivers blamed pedestrians or "circumstances outside their control" for crashes, pedestrians blamed themselves).

Perhaps a well-timed documentary from Mr. Gore is in line?