Friday, November 18, 2011

The Habits of the Western Jay(walker)

Our family is spending the next few weeks on an ambitious road trip from LA to the Pacific Northwest, which leaves little time for blogging, but much time to observe the pedestrian environments and walking habits in cities along the west coast. Aside from vast differences in walkability between a city like LA and one like San Francisco, I've been particularly struck by differences in jaywalking habits from place to place.

Based on my strictly unscientific observations, there is a distinct correlation between the walkability of a city and the tendency of its citizens to cross the street against traffic signals, midblock, and in other officially unsanctioned ways. The pedestrian advocate side of me is enthusiastic about this, but the driving-in-an-unfamiliar-city side finds it disconcerting that when my signal is green a pedestrian might still dart out in front of me.

Proponents of the "shared space" concept, and its close cousin the woonerf, suggest that one solution to this problem is to ditch the traffic signals altogether and reintroduce the idea of the street as common space for all users. The thought is that removing signage and signals would force roadway users to rely on eye contact and social interaction to navigate streets, thus improving roadway safety by eliminating "mindless" driving.

There are several successful examples of this idea out there (e.g. New Zealand, the UK), and just on this trip I've noticed shared space used informally in small towns like Ferndale, CA. But what about in the heart of a big city like Portland or San Francisco? Is it courting disaster to open up major streets to a vehicle/cyclist/transit/pedestrian free-for-all, or is it just returning the streets to a happier time when they belonged to everyone and people paid attention to the environment around them when they traveled?

1 comment:

  1. Jaywalking is a sign of a city friendly to pedestrians.

    Enforcement, and indeed, the existence of jaywalking laws = get out of my way! Car coming through!