Durable Growth, Transportation

Pedestrian safety: Education isn’t enough

B Street in Petaluma

B Street in Petaluma

For those who may have been eagerly awaiting my promised thoughts on affordable housing, I must again disappoint.  (I also fear that I may disappoint even when I finally get around to the topic, but that’s another story.)  The topic of affordable housing remains high on my list, but this has become an unexpected well-filled week, largely with interesting urbanist stuff that I’ll share after the dust has settled.

But for now, I’m too booked to do my careful urbanist introduction to the subject of affordable housing.  Instead, I’ll tackle a topic about which I could almost write in my sleep, although my ability to readily discourse doesn’t minimize its importance.  The topic is pedestrian safety.

A Petaluma resident, writing on the website Nextdoor.com, recently posted the following “warning” to his fellow citizens:

“I’m writing to alert you all of a dangerous situation affecting all of us who live in Petaluma: pedestrians in the crosswalks.

“You may not be familiar with crosswalks or what a pedestrian crossing the road might look like, so I’ve attached a photo of some notorious pedestrians using a crosswalk.  A pedestrian is basically a driver who is not currently in a car.  Believe it or not, at some time you yourself may be a pedestrian.

“You are probably alarmed and asking yourself now, “What can I do?”  The answer is simple: when you are driving and encounter a crosswalk, look to see if there are pedestrians on it.  Looking to the left and right is not enough, you may also have to look in front of you. Important: keep in mind that pedestrians are people who are NOT in cars, so if you look both ways and don’t see any cars, that doesn’t rule out the presence of pedestrians.

“- Signed, a resident of B Street and frequent pedestrian who takes his life in his hands every time he walks home from the 4th & C bus stop”

I appreciate his concern and his use of humor to express it, but he’s whacking at the problem with the wrong end of the stick.

I have a theory about addressing public problems, which I call the 10-50-90 rule.  To the best of my knowledge, the formulation is strictly mine, but it’s possible that I read it somewhere and am inadvertently borrowing it.

The 10-50-90 rule comes in three parts.  If getting 10 percent of the population to make a change is your goal, education will work just fine.  If the goal is 50 percent, incentives are required.  And if 90 percent is necessary, criminalization or some form of physical prohibition must be undertaken.

I’ll use recycling as example.  In the mid-1980s, as the recycling movement got underway, we didn’t need everyone recycling everything possible and inundating the fledgling recycling centers.  Instead, we needed a few people to do the right thing and to help the recycling centers ramp up.  Public service announcements, i.e., education, worked fine.

As the 1990s progressed, the perception of the social good of recycling and the ability of the recycling industry to handle more material both grew.  So incentives, such as reduced rates for smaller trash cans with no charge for separated recyclables, came into play.  The incentives worked fine, with the volume of recyclables steadily growing.

Today, we have firm goals for reducing the percent of the waste stream heading to landfills, so there is now public discussion of how to punish those who fail to follow the recycling rules.

As the desirable rates of recycling grew, we progressed from education to incentives to criminalization.  It worked well.

Back to the pedestrian safety issue highlighted by the letter writer, perhaps the shortfall of his approach is now evident.  For pedestrian safety, even 90 percent compliance isn’t acceptable.  Having every tenth pedestrian struck in a crosswalk would be a very unfortunate result.  Instead, as the Vision Zero folks correctly argue, our goal for pedestrian safety should be 100 percent.

The letter writer, albeit well-intentioned, is using education, the 10 percent tool, to argue for pedestrian safety, the 100 percent goal.  He has brought a knife to a gunfight.  (Another way to consider this situation to ask if the drivers most likely to put pedestrians at risk are even reading Nextdoor.com, or capable of seeing themselves in Frequent Pedestrian’s letter.)

So what are the appropriate tools?  Where high levels of compliance are needed, criminalization and/or physical prohibition are the choices.  It’s already illegal to strike pedestrians with cars and that didn’t solve the problem, which leaves physical prohibition.  We need to change the design of the streets to make pedestrians safer.

Before anyone starts sketching complicated crosswalk configurations or designing new warning light systems, let me point out that speed is the single biggest predictor of pedestrian deaths.  If we want fewer dead people in walking shoes, what we need is to slow traffic.  Which is exactly the point that the Twenty is Plenty folks have been making for years, with a growing number of successes in Europe and more of than a handful of adherents on this side of the Atlantic.

But simply posting a 20 mph speed limit sign isn’t enough.  Rather than following speed limits, most drivers are accustomed to driving at the speed that feels comfortable for the road, which is how speed limits come to be set.

So what is needed is to make streets feel uncomfortable at higher speeds, effectively forcing drivers to travel more slowly.  And we know how to do that.

Frequent Pedestrian makes a specific reference to B Street in Petaluma.  I know B Street, often driving it.  I find that my comfortable speed on B Street is 28 or 29 mph, validating the 30 mph speed limit.  I also note that it is an uncommonly wide and open street, with 12-foot travel lanes, Class 2 bikes lanes, and room for parallel parking.

What if we reallocate that space?  At a minimum, we reduce the travel lane widths to 10 feet, giving the extra space to the bike lanes.  And perhaps we also convert the parallel parking into diagonal parking on alternating sides of the street, making the travel lanes into chicanes.  The likely result would be slower traffic and improved pedestrian safety.

There are limits to how far we can push this approach.  Under state law, streets can’t be configured for speeds under 25 mph.

(Isn’t it odd how the lowest allowable street speed is also the lowest speed at which pedestrians are more likely than not to die when hit by a car?.  At 20 mph, most pedestrians survive; at 25 mph most die.  The 25 mph minimum speed limit is like a humane hunting rule for drivers.  If you must hit a pedestrian with your car, make sure he’s dies at the first impact and doesn’t suffer.  More proof that the Twenty is Plenty folks are onto something.)

So, while I applaud the initiative and spirit shown by Frequent Pedestrian, I suggest that his efforts and his humor would be better directed at City Hall and at the State Capitol in arguing for street designs that promote better pedestrian safety.

To keep my desk free for other tasks. I think I’ll defer affordable housing for another couple of posts.  Instead, for my next post, I’ll offer a few more thoughts on the question of comfortable driving speeds, which I introduced above.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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