Monday, April 4, 2011

Your Very Own Crosswalk: A Step-by-Step Manual

So you're staring out your window, watching cars race by your local street corner, and suddenly it hits you: "We need a marked crosswalk there!" You grab your phone and as your fingers aim towards the dial pad something else hits you: "I have no idea who to call about this."

For a lot of would-be pedestrian advocates the journey to a crosswalk ends right there because, and I say this as someone who works in one, nobody in their right mind wants to wade into the swamps of a murky local government bureaucracy voluntarily. You might never get out.


I occasionally turn the corner at work and run across some lost soul who just wanted to renew their food handlers permit back in 1983 and has been at the civic center ever since.

But it doesn't have to be that hard--or at least, that confusing. To help you out in your endeavours, I've put together this handy guide to help you turn your favorite crossing from plain pavement to pedestrian paradise. (One caveat before we begin: I've tried to keep this as generic as possible, but since every city/state/country's government is organized a little differently, I can't guarantee I've covered all potential scenarios. Hopefully this will at least give you a starting point.)

Photo courtesy of Streetsblog 

Step 1: Why are we doing this again?

If you're serious about getting a crosswalk installed in your neighborhood, you need a convincing argument for installing it--and by convincing I don't mean generic or self-serving complaints like "people in my neighborhood drive too fast" or "I hate having to walk an extra block to cross the street." These may be legitimate problems, but remember that yours is only one of hundreds of similar requests your city receives. To make yours rise to the top you need to:
  • Be polite - This can be a frustrating process, but rudeness gets you nowhere but the trash can. Letters to your city beginning "Dear pea-brains" does not further your cause (plus they get boring after a while). Along these same lines, ranting letters in ALL CAPS do not endear you to the folks whose help you need.
  • Be sane - Now is not the time to bring up conspiracy theories, aliens, or explicit pictures. Ditto on the chicken/bloody corpse/traffic light costume
  • Get data - Can you spend an hour counting how many people try to cross the road on a typical afternoon? Calculate how many schoolchildren use the crossing to get home? Find out the number of past crashes at your location? The more detailed information you have to demonstrate that there is a problem at your crossing, the stronger your argument becomes
  • Gather support - From your neighbors, your PTA, your local pedestrian advocacy organization (more on this in Step 7)

Step 2. Where are you?

Before you can begin your assault on the local bureaucracy, you have to identify who exactly controls the road you'd like your crosswalk to, well, cross. This might not always be obvious, as sometimes places we identify as their own "towns" (e.g. my neighborhood of Woodland Hills) are technically part of a larger city (in my case, Los Angeles). Even more confusing, some roadways (e.g. Pacific Coast Highway along the Los Angeles coast) cross through cities but are actually highways controlled at the state level.

Here in California, roads will fall into one of four categories:
  • City roadway - roads inside the boundaries of a city, owned and maintained by that city
  • County roadway - roads outside the boundaries of a city, owned and maintained by the county
  • State roadway - roads such as freeways or state routes, owned (and often maintained) by the state government
  • Private roadway - roads maintained by a private community (these are generally low volume roads that don't need marked crossings, so I won't focus much on them)
Other states have different types of jurisdictions (townships, villages), but the concept is the same. Spend some time with a map to figure out exactly which sort of road you're dealing with, but don't worry too much if you can't figure it out. If you get it wrong, someone will be able to correct you along the way.

Step 3: Where are they?

Once you know which jurisdiction you need to contact, you have to decide who within that government to call. Take a gander at your city's website, which typically has a listing of departments somewhere on the home page (and sometimes even a staff directory). You're looking for something with a name like the Transportation or Traffic Engineering department (tip: Street Maintenance is probably not the right choice). Be aware that Caltrans, and I assume most state transportation departments, divides itself into local "districts," each with its own office serving a particular region.

In a pinch you can always call the general city number listed online or in the phone book, but you'll have an easier time if you can start your calls with the correct department.

(Note: A private road is maintained by a set of adjacent property owners/community members. For changes to these roads, your best bet is probably just to knock on a few doors and have a face-to-face conversation.)

Step 4: Who do I talk to?
Start by calling the generic number for the transportation department. Your goal is to make contact with a live person--they probably won't be the right person, but they will hopefully be able to tell you who is. (Beware the generic department voicemail-- messages left here rarely get returned). If you aren't having any luck, see Step 6.

Step 5: What do I say?

The first time you speak with your new buddy in the transportation department, you should identify yourself and briefly explain why you're calling. Some important questions to ask:
  • Is location X (your crossing) under this jurisdiction?
  • Are there any plans to install a marked crosswalk at this location in the near future?
  • Does your jurisdiction have a formal crosswalk policy, or set of conditions that must be before a crosswalk can be installed (tip: sometimes these are called crosswalk "warrants")?
  • Who else should I speak to about this problem?
  • What do you recommend as a next step?
This is really an information-gathering conversation, so you don't need to spend a lot of time arguing your case yet. At this point, you just want to find out as much as you can about the process, and establish yourself as someone to be taken seriously. Be sure to get phone/email contact information for follow up.

Next week: Steps 6 through 9, where we learn some secrets about the inner workings of the city and how to get its attention.


  1. This is great. Sometimes we just need a little help on where to start and how to deal with a situation.

  2. Even though I've spent a lot of time on "the inside," I still find that sometimes the world of advocacy and local government is confusing and difficult to navigate. I hope this series can at least provide a roadmap for the poor soul who's starting from scratch.

  3. I myself find both cycling and pedestrian advocacy groups rather out of touch with reality. Like most advocates for just about any defined group of humans, they see themselves as some sort of oppressed mass with angelic habits and deserving of better by some Godly endowment. Before ANY further privleges, exceptions, unique pathways, etc. are considered... let's get both these groups of city travelers off their cell phones, take out their ear buds and start paying attention to their surroundings, crossing intersections at proper times, looking around themselves and acting as responsibly as they'd hope the drivers of cars on the street and in parking lots would. Because, THAT is not what's happening day in and day out on the streets of the great City of the Angels. Everyone out in public should bare the same sense of safety not only for themselves, but for their fellow residents. The amount of pedestrian and bicycle accidents has increased like never before in our history... that's largely because too many drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are not paying attention. You see many parents on their cell phone or texting while crossing an intersection... they're not watching their kids, they're not teaching them to look around before crossing the street... nothing... it's parthetic. And while there are crazy teens racing each other through traffic every day, there are also groups of cyclists who think they're some kind of rebels, riding around at night, purposely taking up half the road, taunting and yelling at the traffic rightly honking at them who have to go around. Automobile traffic gets sole blame for everything that goes wrong on our streets... and it's far from being warranted all the time. So, before anyone starts thinking their appearance and behavior in public deserves any special consideration, let's think about getting our combined act togther. We'll all be a lot better off for it.

    1. I am over 55 and do not drive a car by choice. I could easily walk to my grocery store or my church IF I could safely get across the 4 lane highway and had a sidewalk. This isn't about pedertrians and bikers paying attention and not following rules. We have no safe way to cross this busy highway. Look on Google maps. JFK BLVD between H Ave and McCain Blvd in North Little Rock AR. There are no crosswalks at all and you have to walk on the highway to get to those two exisiting crosswalks to catch a bus on the opposite side of the street. That is not safe AND makes it impossible to use bus service for the people who need bus service the most. People who can not afford or choose not to own cars!

    2. There are 12 kids at least on my street and we don't have sidewalks. The school is down the road but across a busy street. There is even a back entrance that is RIGHT across that busy street that the county of school maintains...however, that busy street has no visability on either side and my daughter was almost hit last week, not even by the two direct drivers, but by some other jerk - possibly someone that felt the two cars letting her pass were infringing on his ability to be an absolute menace, that PASSED one car that was stopped so she could cross and IGNORED the blast of horns from it and the other car that had graciously STOPPED SO A CHILD COULD PASS. I was already across the street holding onto my three year old so there was little I could do...there should be a cross walk there and I don't believe I am privileged to believe kids, who cannot ride a bus because of their location- if you didn't know that is not allowed - should have a safe route to school.

  4. Teenagers are nuts when they first get their cars. We should raise the driving age to 21.

    1. No, we just need better infrastructure altogether. Requiring us to use cars to get around is the problem. Raising the driving age isn't a solution. You really want kids to take their first shot behind the wheel the same year they can start drinking? That's not only foolish, it's absurd. In Japan where the car isn't the center of transportation methods like in the US, you don't have some if these issues. We need to start thinking about the future brother. The future is public transportation with few cars.

  5. I am very glad I found this site!! My sister was hit and killed by a vehicle in September. I knew something had to be changed and I vowed to her, her death will not be forgotten and I will fight for everything I have for changes on that busy stretch of road (more crosswalks or even a traffic light). I knew some things already however This article provides me more sense of direction where I have to start. Thank you to the person who wrote all the steps and the creator or the site! Great tool!

  6. Thanks for the article. Is the advice similar for getting a 4-way stop? What about asking the city to convert a two-way neighborhood drive into a one way, so they can add twice as much parking to the severely impacted neighborhood by adding in angled lots? We have a very wide road that would easily accommodate this improvement and it'd be nice if our mother could visit, but often she can't find any parking the whole way around. Thanks.

    1. Yes, in terms of general process most street-related improvements follow a fairly similar pattern. For stops, you’re likely to be required to meet some kind of “warrant” to prove the stop is necessary, but that can vary by jurisdiction. The reality is, warrants or no, strong political support can trump a lot of more “engineering” type requirements.

      Converting a street to one-way can be trickier, as it’s a bigger change to the overall circulation system and thus requires more to justify it. Bear in mind that due to the phenomenon of induced demand, adding more on-street parking may not solve your parking problem, and as many cities move towards prioritizing non-vehicle modes of travel you may be hard-pressed to convince a city to change the roadway layout strictly for that purpose.