Stopping for pedestrians

Typical North Bay arterial

Typical North Bay arterial

A reader recently asked for my advice about adding crosswalk markings in his community.  I provided contact information for a key contact in his town.  But I also provided a warning about the response he might receive.

The crosswalk location of interest to him seemed, at first glance, to be a reasonable place for additional street markings.  The street crossing connected a district that is largely residential with a district that is more mixed-use, offering restaurants, niche retail, and office space.  A number of pedestrians already cross at the spot he identified and it seems likely that more would follow if a crosswalk was painted.

But the location was also on a busy arterial, marked for 35 mph and often driven at 40.  The nearest signals were several blocks away in both directions.

I warned my reader that he was likely to get pushback from City Hall about his suggestion.  And the concern from City Hall would be reasonable, because crosswalks often don’t function as we expect, especially as speeds increase.

Although drivers are required under the law to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks and intersections regardless of the speed limit, the rate of compliance drops at speeds above 30 mph.  The cause is probably a combination of the speed at a car approaches an intersection, reducing reaction time, and of the additional stopping distance required at higher speeds.

On the other side of the equation, pedestrians are often emboldened by a crosswalk, stepping confidently into a street and trusting drivers to respect the painted stripes.

As a result and paradoxically, vehicle/pedestrians often increase when a new crosswalk is provided on an arterial.  Because many drivers fail to respect crosswalks, pedestrians are often more safe when they are careful to cross the street in the absence of a crosswalk.  Perhaps elevated levels of stress have unfortunate long-term health implications, but when the immediate goal is reaching the far sidewalk, fear can be a good thing.

I’m eagerly awaiting a report from the reader about his reception at City Hall.

Shortly after this exchange, Smart Growth America released their “Dangerous by Design” report.  The report looks at the conditions and design standards of U.S. roads for use by non-motorists.  I haven’t yet read the entire report and will likely write further after I’ve completed my reading.  But for today, I wanted to note one particular finding from the report.

A study was done on Florida arterials with speed limits of 35 to 40 mph, counting the number of drivers who stopped for crosswalks where pedestrians were waiting to cross.  They found that only 1.1 percent of all drivers stopped.  Perhaps the rate is Florida is lower than the national average, with drivers in other states more respectful of pedestrians, but 1.1 percent is so appallingly low that it remains an embarrassment regardless of the other states.  And, although it’s only one data point, the Florida study fully justifies the warning I gave to the reader to expect City Hall pushback on his crosswalk idea.

Of course, another way to look at the data is to question whether we’ve set speed limits too high when pedestrians are likely to be present.  Which brings us back to the “Twenty is Plenty” argument.  Perhaps 20 mph is too low for arterials, but even 30 mph could have a dramatic impact on pedestrian safety.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

1 comment to Stopping for pedestrians

  • Jenn B

    In my area we have mid-block crosswalks with blinking lights embedded in the roadway. I like them because the lights increase the communication between the pedestrians and drivers, making sure that everyone knows when someone decides to cross the street.