Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Heads, tales and feet

I walked to work today in what must be considered perfect weather for a 4.5-mile hike: a sunny morning, cool but not cold, blooming bulbs and dogwood trees, grass as vibrant green as the eye can absorb. And just as lovely, today I had no near-death encounters with oblivious drivers.

And those near-death encounters have all taken place where there are sidewalks. When it comes to pedestrian safety, sidewalks are vital, but they are only the beginning of the tale. When you use your feet, you also have to use your head. Every street crossing is a hazard. Every driveway is potentially dangerous. Every side street can be treacherous.

So while I was happy to learn that the Charlotte City Council decided on Monday to shift $2 million from street projects to build more sidewalk segments, no one should think that's all it takes to make the city safer for anyone on foot. Let us hope the elected officials and the staff can also turn their attention to some of the other things we lack: Safe crossings. Educated drivers.

Here are some of the hazards when you walk, even with sidewalks: Drivers who forget to look both ways before pulling out of driveways or side streets. Drivers who either don't know or don't care that you have the right of way, even if they are turning. Because I am alert to this, I did not get hit today by the woman exiting a parking lot who pulled right in front of me as I approached on the sidewalk. (I had already decided to walk behind her car, just to be safe.)

The area has seen several high-profile pedestrian deaths and injuries in the past few months. Two young boys were killed in February as they walked with their father on West Tyvola Road. An 18-year-old Garinger High student was killed trying to cross Eastway Drive near the school. A Central Piedmont Community College student was killed on South Tryon Street as he crossed to get to a bus. A Butler High School student was injured crossing the street near the high school in Matthews. In January a man was killed in uptown Charlotte, at Stonewall and College streets. The next day another pedestrian was hit there.

Almost every day as I drive to and from work along Eastway and North Tryon Street, I see people darting across those busy streets to get to bus stops or stores on the other side. One huge problem is the distance between signalized intersections. As this map shows, if you get very far outside of uptown - which to its credit remains the best urban walking area in the city - you find pedestrians get little respect. Tell people they should only cross at signals, and if the signals are a mile apart you are basically telling them to walk as much as 40 minutes extra to do so.

Here's a map the city's Department of Transportation put together about four years ago, showing on how many thoroughfare segments pedestrians have to go at least a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) or a half-mile (a 10-minute walk) between traffic signals. You can't tell from this map, but in some places the distances are up to 2 miles.

That's not the only problem.  The intersection at Garinger High School has a signal. But it has no pedestrian crosswalks, and the intersection design allows cars to turn right from Sugar Creek Road onto Eastway without stopping at all.  Remember, this is right in front of a large high school. The school opened in 1960, and in that era the city didn't even offer school bus transportation to students. (I have a friend who graduated from Garinger, Class of 1961.) So it's fair to say officialdom has had plenty of time to realize that students might be walking to and from the high school.

Another problem: Many of Charlotte's major streets aren't owned or managed by CDOT at all, but by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Those state-owned streets include Eastway and South Tryon Street, sites of two of the recent accidents. Butler is also outside CDOT's jurisdiction.

And finally, even with sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian lights, drivers have to be trained to expect pedestrians, and pedestrians have to be trained to walk defensively, ever wary of motorists turning into your path regardless of who has the right of way.

That means that no one should think just building sidewalks solves the problem.Yes, build them and build more of them. But I'd invite our city council members to get out on foot in their districts around the city, to experience the pleasures of long walks on cool spring mornings, with the birds singing and the traffic humming and a sense of danger in the air.