Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Pedestrian crossings

A lot of the time, pedestrian safety focus goes towards where pedestrians cross the road. It should be obvious why. It is a place where motor vehicles, 1 tonne vehicles generally going between 40 and 70 km/h on urban streets, and pedestrians share. I have a few thoughts on this.

Modern pedestrian crossings at traffic lights in places like Assen look like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk8ggoVD-sE&index=25&list=PLaHGJnCQJ6yj89__tVXGJaEfQ_MiQgzdH. Well, it's filmed on a bike, but pedestrians have the same low waiting times and they never need to worry about delays here. In Edmonton, our crossings are ludicrously long. It can easily be over a minute before we can get the green light to cross. Even at major junctions, like arterial to arterial major, the wait time is often 30 seconds or less and many places have committed to a maximum of 40 seconds or less, almost always shorter. Compare this with the perhaps 20 seconds to wait for the side road to even begin halting pedestrians parallel with the major road as the first indication of stopping traffic and then another 35 seconds perhaps to give even more time. If you're lucky, then maybe you'll catch the button just before the light goes green. Video here for the length of pedestrian delays in Edmonton:

Zebra crossings are a very efficient way for pedestrians to cross the road, but whenever you assign pedestrians priority over motor vehicles, you must ensure that there are natural reasons for motor vehicles to stop for pedestrians. A bend in the road is ideal, but measures like median refuges where possible, a raised table, easy to understand street layout that is consistent for all pedestrian priority crossings, and low to moderate speeds (30-50 km/h). Roundabouts in urban areas are a good place for zebra crossings, as the speed is well moderated and where the traffic comes from is predictable, and you can build the crossing on a raised table, plus you either just left a bend or are about to go onto a bend, making it even safer.

Here is a major change for North America. In Canada and the US, pedestrians always have priority over motor traffic at unsignalized official crossings, even if they are unmarked. This is very different from what almost everywhere else in the world does. The Dutch pedestrians generally do not have priority when crossing a roadway, they only have priority at traffic lights, at zebra striped crossings and they have priority over turning motor traffic, as in, if motor vehicles when turning would cross the path of a pedestrian, the latter has priority. And they also have the same priority as the road they parallel, if they walk parallel with a distributor road on the sidewalk, the sidewalk has priority over side roads. In all other situations, pedestrians do no have priority.

This doesn't really cause a problem. There are several reasons why this is the case. Pedestrians are never expected to cross a large and busy road without assistance, nor are they expected to cross roads with more than a single lane per direction (turning lanes not counted). You can find acceptable gaps in the flow of traffic to cross. Pedestrians also often have a median refuge with which to wait in between the different directions of traffic. This makes it so that you only need to deal with one flow at a time. Pedestrian crossings like this are also usually marked with a pair of broken white parallel lines, so people know where they are even though they don't have priority. The traffic is still calmed, and never faster than 70 km/h in terms of the speed limits and even then I've never seen where pedestrians cross even 70 roads without the slowing down nature of a roundabout close by. Those with disabilities also get priority even at non priority crossings (motor traffic is encouraged to give way, but they don't have to).

The latter type of crossing would mainly be used where access roads cross distributor roads. This helps make the distributor road a road that is intended for flow on the links (but exchange at junctions). Traffic doesn't stop all of the time. And I also believe this assists safety. Whenever someone is assigned priority, it doesn't matter who, they tend to behave with less care and less attention. How many drivers out there rarely even notice minor side roads if you don't see a stop sign, yield sign or traffic light in your way? Not very often. You are even less likely to notice pedestrians given that they are fairly small and with little to make them look all that important. And if you do have priority, all you can do to ensure that you get priority is to confidently walk across and hope the drivers see you and are going to let you go first, or stop so that the traffic stops for you before you begin to cross. This is partly the reason why I support cycle non priority roundabouts with a very similar reason. And given that currently there is very little that will give drivers a natural reason to stop for pedestrians, I do not believe that it is worth it to assign pedestrians automatic priority over 50 km/h distributor roads and even in 30 km/h zones it may be not suitable.

I also don't believe in things like amber flashers to attempt to make things safer. All they can hope to do is to attract the attention of drivers who are paying attention, and often you find drivers who are not very attentive. There is nothing improved about the physical geometry to make things any safer. No improvements to sightlines, no decreases in motor vehicle speed, and nothing to give drivers a natural reason to let pedestrians go first. Same with reflective stripes on the poles that support pedestrian crossing signs as is done in Calgary and even at the JB elementary school crosswalk.

Take a look at the street that you see in this link: https://www.google.ca/maps/@53.4221055,-113.5113706,3a,75y,126.65h,74.1t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1spN5Y-IexjRirdPp8x3ot2A!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo0.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DpN5Y-IexjRirdPp8x3ot2A%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D23.441305%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en. It's a small little residential road with barely any traffic and is an ideal candidate for making into a 30 km/h zone road. But did you know that due to bad wording in Edmonton's bylaws, you can be fined 250 dollars for crossing this road where you like even if you let motor traffic go first? It's legally called jaywalking. St Albert has a more sensible law. On roads with speed limits no higher than 50 km/h, no more than 2 lanes in each direction and isn't separated by a fence in the middle, you can cross the road where you like so long as you don't violate a pedestrian crossing signal and you let motor traffic go first.

Banning jaywalking was promoted in the 1920s when cars became much more common on US streets, the term coined by car companies trying to encourage insult to pedestrians who remained on the streets. Jay used to be quite a bad word to be called, a bad insult. It worked. To this day, we have quiet residential streets where you can be fined 250 dollars for crossing them except at intersections. Europe never adopted laws like that. In fact, in the UK, there is nothing legally stopping you from even crossing on the red man signal. All that tells you is whether traffic that crosses your path has a green light or not. The UK is terrible for pedestrians but at least that law protects people who cross on red at absurdly long wait time crossings. I don't know where the red man is binding on European pedestrians, but there is nothing in the law against jaywalking in the Netherlands. In fact, there are very few regulations about pedestrians at all. You can't walk on the motorways, autowegen or where signed as a no pedestrian area (there is never any need or desire to do so anyway), you walk along the left hand side of the road facing traffic on cycle paths or roads without a separate footway, and who legally has priority where.

In the rural areas, there is almost never a separate footway, but walking is still very pleasant in the Netherlands. Even next to 80 km/h distributor roads. Why? Because there is a separate cycleway instead to walk on that all you need to do to use it is to walk along the left hand side of the cycle path facing cyclists and mopeds for safety. This goes for other places where there is a cycle path but no sidewalk. Given the low numbers of pedestrians that ever walk here and the well designed cycling paths where it is clear that pedestrians are welcomed guests rather than the primary users with cyclists as guests that have to artificially lower their speed, this works very well.

Tell your governments that regulate pedestrian crossings to adopt measures like this, and walking can once again be pleasant and easy ways to get from a to b in a safe and efficient way.

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