It’s Past Time To Abandon the Argument That Crosswalks Make Streets More Dangerous

A video by Adam Choit has been making the round on the Internet this week making the case for a crosswalk installation somewhere between Gardner and Pointsettia Streets on Sunset Boulevard. There is no crosswalk between the two named streets on Sunset, creating well over a quarter of a mile of five lane road with no space set aside for pedestrian travel.

Viewing the video made Deborah Murphy’s blood boil.  Murphy is the founder of Los Angeles Walks and the long-serving chair of the city’s pedestrian advisory committee.

” If streets only serve one function, to move vehicles, then we have wasted our money on investing in 6000 miles of single-purpose concrete and asphalt, when we could be investing in streets for people,”  she writes.  “Isn’t it ironic that one week we are cheering the success of a tiny piece of paradise at Sunset Blvd. and Griffith Park Blvd., the Sunset Triangle, yet only 5 miles west on Sunset Blvd and Gardner Street, people can’t even cross the street without taking their lives in their hands.”

Choit’s video is mostly interviews with people walking the street with clips of people taking their lives into their own hands attempting to cross the street. Most annoyingly, when he contacted the Department of Transportation he received a letter outlining why they wouldn’t consider a crosswalk anywhere in this three tenths of a mile stretch. In short, budget cuts, a lack of fatalities and crosswalks don’t really make the street safer anyway.

Observations of pedestrian behavior and safety studies in cities throughout the world have produced evidence that suggests that pedestrians are more cautious when crossing at locations where crosswalks have not been painted.  This extra caution is more effective in reducing the accident potential than marked lines and signs which offer no real protection from an oncoming vehicle.  Therefor, in the interest in overall pedestrian safety, a marked crosswalk, as requested, is not approved at this time.

The letter from LADOT is dated 2010 and attitudes have changed at the Department in the last two years.  However, the argument that crosswalks are dangerous is one we’ve heard before and originates from a widely debunked report that was written forty years ago.  It’s past time to put that argument to rest.

In 1972, a traffic engineer named Bruce Herms noted that there was a higher rate of pedestrian crashes at marked crosswalks in his study area than unmarked crosswalks.  In California, and many other states, people can legally cross the street at any intersection regardless of whether there is paint on the ground.  Herns goes on to assume that the difference in crash rates is related primarily to the existence of the crosswalk.   He does this without providing any other evidence or an examination of other factors at these intersections.

Instead, Herns believes that the crosswalks create a “false sense of security.”  This statement about the “false sense of security” has appeared in many a rejected plea for a crosswalk, not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the country.  LAPD likes to toss around this term when blaming the victims in a traffic crash.  So do former assistant general managers at LADOT who authored their own report using the same methodology and came to the same conclusions as Herms in 1999.

One of the best rebuttals of Herms’ thesis, the one grabbed by traffic officials throughout the country, was written as part of an undergraduate thesis and published by America Walks last month.  It’s a good read, and worth remembering the next time a city official tries to claim that crosswalks make streets dangerous.

But crosswalks don’t just make streets safer.  They also make streets better, especially in a city where being outside should be second nature because of the sunny weather.

“If we are to experience the City of Los Angeles as a place for living – a place for all of us to come together and have fun, a place for colleagues to go to lunch together, for families to join together for special celebrations, for businesses to succeed with vibrant activity along their shop windows, for neighborhoods to connect and for many other activities to take place. our streets need to become the lifeblood of our community.  To do that, they need to be places where people feel safe and are safe.” Murphy concludes.

  • What to make of DOTs that only install 3 crosswalks at a standard 4-way signalized intersection?

  • AmericanaFYeah

    If you want to enjoy a pedestrian experience please drive and park at one of the city’s glorious fake car free zones.  Caruso has generously given us The Grove and The Americana so we can maintain our nostalgia to a small town pedestrian car free experience.  The city streets are for cars.  Plus Nobody walks in LA!

  • “But crosswalks don’t make streets safer.  They also make streets better,
    especially in a city where being outside should be second nature
    because of the sunny weather.”

    Did you mean, “But crosswalks don’t JUST make streets safer…” ?

  • I will never use a crosswalk without signals. I will walk further to the light to cross the street. 

  • Joe B

    (1) Looking at Google Maps, I count twelve unmarked crosswalks between Gardner and Poinsettia. So it’s not true to say that “there is no crosswalk between the two named streets”.

    (2) LADOT should definitely mark those crosswalks. But drivers also need to stop at ALL crosswalks. And LAPD needs to ticket drivers who don’t. HOW MANY HUNDREDS OF VIOLATIONS OF CVC21950 WERE ON THAT VIDEO??? WFT? Why do drivers and LAPD get a pass on this one? What good are crosswalks (marked or unmarked) if drivers won’t stop at them?

    Several thousand traffic citations are the primary remedy for this problem.

  • Anonymous

    One of the telling things about the Herms study is that you will not find a copy of it on line. You will not find a copy of it in the library.
    You will have to work through one of the major research universities like UCLA or Stanford, and then they will have to go into their vaults and find you a copy.  If this is such the groundsetting report, where the hell is it in a format available to the decision makers who invoke it all the time?

  • Ubrayj02

    This film suffers from one huge gap in its attempt to make crossing the street safer: it suggests a solution.

    Installing a crosswalk is not “easy” no “simple” in this context, the way the LADOT does it. Installing a signalized crosswalk (not a traffic signal, but a crosswalk with flashing lights on a boom hanging over traffic) costs $200,000+

    What this means is that the street can remain otherwise untouched, and pedestrians can ask for permission to cross and have a high likelihood of motorists responding to flashing yellow lights and slow the hell down.

    The problem with suggesting a solution is that what needs to happen is that the street needs to be made SAFE. A crosswalk does not correlate with safety in this context.

    The context needs to be changes. Sunset needs to be made safe for pedestrians.

    It is a political battle that needs to be fought on these grounds. A crosswalk is just something an engineer can say, “In my professional opinion, it is safer to not have anyone cross here, let’s build a fence to be safest”. A cry for safety is a political appeal, one that affects customers getting to businesses and people getting around their community.
     

  • Jake Wegmann

    Congratulations to Adam Choit, this is a fantastic video.

    If I were a traffic engineer responsible for configuring streets in LA, I would be ashamed after watching this.

     

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dale and Terry!

  • Anonymous

    The new HAWK signal is an option that can and ought to be installed in this situation:

    http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/pedforum/2010/fall2010.cfm#hawk

  • Anonymous

    Its a three stage problem.  Calm Sunset by widening improving the sidewalks (and add cycletracks), bulb out corners and get accurate pedestrian counts.

    (And there’s the damning thing, you have to have a large enough pedestrian count even thought right now, pedestrians are severely dissuaded from crossing.)

    Then use a HAWK to stop traffic (See 4F of the MUTCD)

    4 lane streets like Sunset need more than just a painted line, because as Zegeer points out, there is the issue of having one car stop, a pedestrian proceed and then get hit by a car in the next lane.  But this can be solved using infrastructure.

  • Erik Griswold

    The other BS that the Road Engineers always stand behind is the CVC gobbily-guk about the crosswalk existing whether it is marked or unmarked when it is created by an intersection. 

    Leaving aside the fact that the “unmarked crosswalks” here in this situation  are created by T-intersections (thanks Developers!) that a motorist travelling in the direction opposite to the “T” will have a hard time recognizing; aqnd even more difficulty if travelling in the number 2 lane adjacent to traffic in the number 1 lane…

    WHO THE HELL HAS MEMORIZED THE CVC?

    If you order the printed version from a Law Book publisher like West (Thomson-Reuters), the book that arrives is as big as the American Heritage dictionary and even the paperback version weighs at least five pounds. 

    Of course not everyone driving on the road in California is licensed to drive by the State of California.  No, I am not referring to persons from outside the country who aren’t supposed to be here, that’s for another Streetsblog post, I am referring to persons from other states who have moved here to pursue whatever.  Oh, but of course that doesn’t happen here and especially not along Sunset in “HOLLYWOOD”; I mean why would anyone move there?

    And even if the driver has been checked out and  licensed by the Golden State’s DMV, there’s a good chance they were not originally from here and  did not learn to drive with the California crosswalk law. 

    Because guess what?  IN OTHER STATES THE CROSSWALK LAWS ARE DIFFERENT!

    Some states the driver does not have to stop unless the crosswalk is marked.  In other  countries (but never mind that, we don’t get many tourists or ex-pats here) the driver does not even have to stop for a marked crosswalk.  So if we have this level of confusion amongst people who are from the USA combined with all the visitors (regardless of status!) why not paint the thing to make it clear who has right of way, even if it is after the fact. 

    Yellow center lines do nothing but give a false sense of security, but they are handy when dealing with insurance adjusters or settling lawsuits.

    But, hey, ink is cheaper than paint.

  • R Coto

    What should be done, since cars are supposed to stop when they see pedestrians on the street, is give tickets to those car that did not allow pedestrians cross the street! You can see their license plates thanks to the video. Thanks for recording traffic violations! 

  • Katie Matchett

    When LA DOT claims that painting the road doesn’t provide adequate safety, it’s important for remind them that isn’t an excuse for doing nothing–it just means we need to do MORE at the crossing site.

    Katie M.
    http://www.wherethesidewalkstarts.com

  • Dennis Hindman

    Here’s a link to a 2005 report from the Federal Highway Administration that concludes, on page 61 of this PDF (page 51 of document), that a crosswalk alone does not significantly change the rate of accidents for pedestrians:

    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/04100/04100.pdf

    Here’s another link, to a University of California at Berkley article about crosswalk markings:

    http://www.techtransfer.berkeley.edu/newsletter/03-2/crosswalk.php

  • WalkinginLADOTCOM

    If you look at Glendale as a model for these fancy lighted/signed cross walks you will see they still do very poorly in pedestrian safety rankings.  Mixing high volume of car traffic with a decent amount of pedestrian traffic is a tough problem to solve.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Put in a crosswalk and test it’s effectiveness by having someone brave enough to cross it dressed up as a snail, as demonstrated in this video:

  • I wasn’t familiar with the term “HAWK” until just now, but I think there is one on Sunset Blvd just a few miles east of here, outside Children’s Hospital, just east of Vermont.  I have no idea if those are more or less expensive than striping some paint on the pavement, and whether they provide more or less safety, but those are things that traffic engineers ought to have done decades of studies on (rather than just continuing to cite one old report that doesn’t compare many other alternatives).

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