Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shifting Values, Shifting Behavior

By Greg Heller

This post continues the discussion about the balance between cars and people. As I mentioned previously, I am seeing a real shift in focus, with much more planning and concern for pedestrians and cyclists. This shift brings opportunities, but also challenges. Here is a Philly-local case in point.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has been out every day this week holding a safety education campaign. The location is the mid-block crosswalk that connects the Schuylkill River Park trail with the multi-use trail on the opposite side of Martin Luther King Drive. The impetus for this campaign was last week’s crash at this location that badly injured a father and son, out enjoying a bike ride.

Here’s the story: A law-abiding driver stopped to allow the father and four-year-old son take their bike over the crosswalk. However, another impatient driver in an SUV zoomed around the stopped car, and struck the pair as they reached the median island, knocking down the “pedestrian crossing” sign, and badly inuring the father and child.

This incident could be blamed on one unsafe driver. However, I have crossed at this and other mid-block crosswalks in Philadelphia many times, and drivers simply do not stop for pedestrians. I have seen firsthand that in other states drivers are extremely conscientious about yielding for pedestrians. I have been plenty of places in the U.S. where drivers slam on the breaks if a pedestrian even gets near the curb by a crosswalk. Many drivers in Pennsylvania are either unaware of the law or unwilling to abide by it.

And so I joined the Bicycle Coalition this morning. About a dozen Bicycle Ambassadors and Coalition members stood at least 20 feet from the crosswalk holding yield-to-pedestrians-within-crosswalk signs. The Coalition stationed some individuals about 100 feet away from the crosswalk, and others just near the crosswalk. They also positioned orange traffic cones on the shoulder and centerline to alert drivers.

Even with all of this activity, when pedestrians were waiting to cross, most drivers still cruised on through. So I tested something. I started waving and pointing at pedestrians when they were waiting. I noticed a significant increase in driver compliance when I did this; more drivers stopped when I motioned for them to glance toward the curb. This tells me that some drivers simply are not paying attention to the curb line – the possibility of a waiting pedestrian.

Another interesting phenomenon was that some pedestrians were hesitant to cross, even when traffic was completely stopped for them. It often took one of us telling the pedestrian “you may cross now,” before the individual took a step into the roadway. Pedestrians in Philadelphia are, sadly, so used to drivers not stopping for them, that they are caught totally unaware when drivers actually obey the law!

After the Bicycle Coalition members leave, I’m sure that the crosswalk will go back to its normal hazardous condition. So what can we do?

I have heard some folks say they think the City should install a pedestrian traffic signal at this location. Certainly there are plenty of other engineering solutions to make this crosswalk safer that do not include signalization (I know something about this since in my day job I am part of a three person team that carries out an annual traffic calming study). However, these types of interventions do not solve the larger issue. We can fix this location, but that would not change the Philadelphia region’s cultural ignorance to the yield to pedestrians law.

What we really need is a total commitment by the City and State to educating drivers about the law, while engineering the roadway to naturally slow traffic at crosswalk approaches, and have heightened enforcement of the law. Other states, regions, and cities have a different culture – one where it is common sense and the norm for drivers to stop for pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk. We should demand nothing less in Philadelphia.

We cannot engineer our way out of safety issues. Traffic calming literature is clear that safe roadways rely on a three-pronged approach: engineering, education, and enforcement. It was evident, standing out there this morning, that many people probably just do not know the law, are not used to complying with it, and do not often look out to the side of the road to see if pedestrians are waiting. Better roadway engineering needs to be coupled with a massive public education campaign, and periodic enforcement by the police.

Public education needs to come from the top. It is great that the Bicycle Coalition is taking this initiative, but ultimately educating drivers is the job of the police and the Department of Transportation. Car drivers do not deserve all the blame. Philadelphia’s cyclists are notoriously bad at following the law – often running red lights, swerving between cars, riding on the sidewalk, or riding the wrong way down one-way streets. We need better education and enforcement across the board if we want to bring true change to Philadelphia and to Pennsylvania.

We can alter the status quo. As our nation begins its shift to valuing pedestrians and cyclists, we also need to shift our behavior, values, and expectations. These shifts will come, but it needs to come from the top and from the grassroots at the same time.

1 comment:

bp said...

good post...I have lived in Philly for 2 yrs now (after living in Providence, Washington DC, NYC and growing up in MN) and the drivers here are by far the worst I have seen outside of my time in Central America. It is very dangerous to step into a cross-walk in this city. You certainly can't assume a car is going to slow down...even at a stop sign (how many times do you see Philadelphians rolling through stop signs? Too many times to count for me.)