Friday, November 4, 2011

The problem of pedestrian crossings

After a customer at an Elizabeth neighborhood bar was killed while crossing Seventh Street, the bar's owner is trying to begin a campaign to add safety measures to the street. (The Observer ran a moving article today on the life of the victim, an Air Force veteran who was engaged to marry.)

A safer Seventh Street is an excellent goal, but the problem is not just for one street in one neighborhood. In another accident late Tuesday, a 14-year-old boy was killed when several cars hit him as he crossed W.T. Harris Boulevard.

The city, to its credit, has been working hard to add sidewalks and tame traffic on many neighborhood streets and thoroughfares.  But those measures, by themselves, aren't all that's needed to make conditions comfortable and safe for people traveling on foot. Pedestrian crossings are essential. Charlotte doesn't have enough of them.

In my possession is the 2008 draft of the City of Charlotte's Pedestrian Plan. It remains unfinished, and thus unadopted. One of the most interesting maps in it shows the distances between signalized intersections (click here for a larger view. If the link doesn't work, we're working on that.). Segments greater than a half-mile (a 10-minute walk) are shown in purple, those greater than a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) are in brown.

Except for a nugget in the center of the map (uptown) the map is a snake-pit of brown and purple squiggles. And I know, from driving around and checking the odometer, that many signalized intersections are farther apart than a half-mile.

For instance, yesterday I used the odometer to check distances between signals (where one could safely cross) on heavily traveled Eastway Drive, North Tryon Street and University City Boulevard, all of them bus routes. I frequently see pedestrians perched on tiny concrete medians as cars whiz past, or crossing in front of cars, typically to get to bus stops on the other side.  My findings:

Eastway Drive: From Central Avenue to Kilborne Drive, no signal for crossing for .9 mile. I saw two pedestrians in the median.
From Kilborne to Shamrock Drive, one-third of a mile between traffic signals.
From Shamrock Drive to the signal at Sugar Creek Road, at Garinger High, .4 mile but no pedestrian crosswalk at the light.
Sugar Creek to The Plaza, .4 mile.

North Tryon Street: From Old Concord Road to Tom Hunter Road (served by two bus routes), 1 mile.
From the newly opened I-85 Connector Road to University City Boulevard, a stretch served by two bus routes but with huge gaps in the sidewalk network, .5 mile.

University City Boulevard: No sidewalks from the light at North Tryon to the light at the Target near W.T. Harris Boulevard, no way to cross for .4 mile.

On first glance you'd say a five-minute walk to go 1/4 mile to a signal isn't so bad. But consider that you have to walk to the light, then back again if, for instance, you're trying to get across a busy street to get to a bus stop. Humans are not prudent, and most people resist walking 20 minutes out of their way just to cross the street. If the street looks clear, they will cross where they can.

I know trade-offs exist. The more pedestrian lights you have the slower traffic will flow. In spots where motorists aren't expecting to see a light they tend not to stop, even if the light is red. Pedestrians who believe they can safely cross might get hit. (Update 6:48 p.m. 11/4/11: One unfortunate example took place Thursday night, when a Davidson professor was badly injured when he was hit while in a pedestrian crosswalk.) (Update Nov. 13: The injured man died Nov. 11.)

I ran much of this past Malisa Mccreedy, the pedestrian program manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation. She replied, via email: "Your effort to bring attention to pedestrian crossings is much appreciated. While the City has a history of working to address the inherited challenges of how our land use and road networks function, it is an ongoing balancing act." CDOT will focus anew on its Pedestrian Plan starting in 2012, she said.


Anonymous said...

Another problem is on Monroe Road between Thermal and Village Lake. I believe there have been a couple of fatal accidents in the last 10 years or so from people crossing the street to get to the bus from the apt complexes. The sad thing is that the crosswalk is not that far away. People are just too lazy to go out of their way. Frequently I see people crossing Woodlawn (no median) near South Blvd 20 yards from the intersection. They stand on the double yellow line, cars whizzing by on both sides.
I would also like to knowo why the city does not consider pedestrian overpasses. Many cities in Japan and Europe have them. My guess is that they are too expensive when you take into account accessibility requirements.

Anonymous said...

Here's another one:

Mary Newsom said...

Anon 6:31pm - Thanks! I knew I had seen another pedestrian accident in today's paper but could not find it online. I'll add that link to the blogposting.

Anonymous said...

If you want to increase the use of crosswalks,give pedestrians more influence on the traffic signal. It seems to me that the buttons that pedestrians are asked to push to influence traffic signal have little or no affect on the timing of the light. Make it so that if a pedestrian pushes one of the signals, the light HAS TO CHANGE within 10 seconds. Only then would there be a good enough incentive to walk the extra distance to a crosswalk.

Mary Newsom said...

Dear anonymous, Nov. 23: You are so right. It's another thing I noticed while in Cambridge, Mass. If you pressed the ped crossing button, the light changed INSTANTLY. Here, you never know if it's made any difference. And at some crossings you never get the pedestrian-walk sign unless you press the button. Other crossings, you get it even if you don't press the button. Confusing.

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