Embedding traffic lights in sidewalks to help pedestrians

Incessant smartphone use is leading to urban adaptations:

That is why officials in the city of Augsburg became concerned when they noticed a new phenomenon: Pedestrians were so busy looking at their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights.

The city has attempted to solve that problem by installing new traffic lights embedded in the pavement — so that pedestrians constantly looking down at their phones won’t miss them.

“It creates a whole new level of attention,” city spokeswoman Stephanie Lermen was quoted as saying. Lermen thinks the money is wisely spent: A recent survey conducted in several European cities, including Berlin, found that almost 20 percent of pedestrians were distracted by their smartphones. Younger people are most likely to risk their safety for a quick look at their Facebook profiles or WhatsApp messages, the survey found…

But city officials say their work is justified: The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks.

The direction of change is with the smartphone users: their safety matters and urban planners and officials must adjust.

I assume the future self-driving cars will be able to communicate with smartphones (or whatever devices we are all sporting at that point) to protect cars from the pedestrians. At that point, the cars will be far safer than the zombie or distracted or unpredictable activity of any pedestrian.

When broken sidewalks limit mobility

This story from Shreveport, Louisiana discusses how poorer neighborhoods in the city tend to have more problems with sidewalks:

But Murphy’s citation for walking in the street along Highland’s crumbling sidewalks spotlights the city’s infrastructure failures in the era of the new mayor’s promises to repair and beautify Shreveport’s streets…

For now, there’s no set date when Shreveporters can expect to see most sidewalks installed or fixed, though plans are in progress. And 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect, unsafe sidewalks with missing or poorly-maintained ramps are a common sight…

“If they contact our offices and let us know, we will do what we can to correct those places and make it accommodating for them because a lot of the places around town don’t have those ramps available and we are aware of the issues,” Harris said.

But in terms of fixing the city’s roads and sidewalks, Harris said residential neighborhoods take a back seat to downtown and other highly-trafficked areas…

The Shreveport-Caddo 2030 Master Plan includes a transportation component to address pedestrian issues, but it likely will be years before Shreveport is brought in line with major cities, according to Loren Demerath, a Centenary sociology professor who studies the importance of pedestrian spaces to communities and has been active in local efforts to make Shreveport more bikeable and walkable.

An interesting mix of race, social class, and disabilities all having to do with a simple piece of infrastructure: sidewalks. Without well-maintained sidewalks, it is difficult to be a pedestrian as it either requires a more dangerous route on the road or walking through grass or other areas. If anything, this would be a safety issue in many neighborhoods and discussing safety, particularly when it comes to kids or others who need more protection or space (the disabled or perhaps the elderly), tends to lead to better outcomes. But, it sounds like Shreveport has some work to do in this area and I would guess the city would cite funding issues as a reason the sidewalks are so uneven.

And for those who subscribe to broken windows theory, do broken sidewalks have a similar effect? While the residents may not have much to do with breaking sidewalks, it might just suggest that the city doesn’t care as much about the neighborhood.

“Testing a No-Cellphone Sidewalk Lane”

I’ve always been interested in the walking patterns of people along sidewalks, in public places, or in hallways so this TV test of cellphone lanes on sidewalks looks fascinating:

Sidewalk collisions involving pedestrians engrossed in their electronic devices have become an irritating (and sometimes dangerous) fact of city life. To prevent them, what about just creating a “no cellphones” lane on the sidewalk? Would people follow the signs? That’s what a TV crew decided to find out on a Washington, D.C., street last week as part of a behavioral science experiment for a new National Geographic TV series.

As might be expected, some pedestrians ignored the chalk markings designating a no-cellphones lane and a lane that warned pedestrians to walk “at your own risk.” Others didn’t even see them because they were too busy staring at their phones. But others stopped, took pictures and posted them—from their phones, of course.

Of course, you have to watch the show to find out the complete outcome. But, I would guess most people didn’t pay much attention to the markings. While the experiment targets cell phones, there are lots of ways pedestrians can create problems on sidewalks. Cell phones may be particularly dangerous because people keep moving while not paying attention but other issues abound including people who suddenly stop right in the middle of walking people or others who walk at least three people across and force others to move out of the way.

There are places where such signs or markings do seem to work. It is common in Europe to see signs telling people on escalators or moving walkways to stand to one side to let others pass on the other side. In contrast, Americans tend to clog up such pathways. Similarly, the BART in San Fransisco has markings indicating where to line up for train cars while waiting. This works with a system where the train always stops at the same place but it does create a more orderly system than the free-for-all that is often common around train car doors.

It would be interesting to know why people might or might not follow such directions. Are they not paying attention while walking (this is common amongst drivers who can tune out all of the signs)? Is there a lack of enforcement? Are sidewalks and other walkways seen as more democratic settings (they are public property after all) where people should be able to do what they want?

Suburbanites mad at neighbors who don’t shovel their sidewalks

Readers of the Daily Herald are upset about their suburban neighbors who didn’t both to shovel the sidewalks in front of their houses:

Nothing like hitting a nerve. Last week’s column about pedestrians in peril on unshoveled sidewalks provoked an avalanche of articulate emails. Let’s start with Nancy Johnson who writes, “I live in Elgin where shoveling sidewalks is not required and I struggle to trudge through the snow every winter to walk my three dogs.

“Two winters ago, I fell on an icy sidewalk that resulted from the homeowner never shoveling, and did serious damage to my back. I have tried putting friendly notes in neighbor’s doors reminding them to be good citizens and shovel, but to no avail,” Johnson said…

JR Beck joins three Hanover Park neighbors to clear sidewalk snow near a school and church.

“We all have snowblowers so the work is not as taxing as it once was a few years ago,” he said. “We have managed to keep the walkways clear for the blocks on which we all live.

“But no thanks to the snowplow jockeys who: plow in all the corners where the kids have to cross the streets; and drive so fast that the plows throw snow over the medians and onto the cleared walkways…

“When I replied that I was only talking about commercial properties — dead silence. I have seen people walking in the streets on extremely busy Golf Road and Algonquin Road during rush hour because sidewalks in front of these main commercial strips are impassible.”

A big problem in a really wintry season like the Chicago area just experienced. There are two possible routes of interpretation for this that come to mind:

1. This is another indicator of a lack of suburban community. People can’t be bothered to take care of parts of their property that others use. They put their own self-interest ahead of that of others. Kids may have special status and this makes sense since the suburban life is traditionally about raising children: the argument about kids getting to school or buses seems to be the most effective in motivating people to clear sidewalks.

2. This highlights the importance of roads and driving in suburban communities over the concerns of pedestrians. The suburban life is built around driving from place to place so this gets priority for snow removal. The average suburbanite or business owner may not think there are many pedestrians out there on the sidewalks so they don’t bother to clear them.

Neither reason is particularly positive but this is an ongoing issue in many places. In our residential neighborhood, in which I walk often and also walk out of (to get to the library, several stores, bank), I would estimate only 10-20% of sidewalks were clear, pushing walkers into the street. Even if I cleared my entire sidewalk (which I did throughout the winter), it doesn’t necessarily connect to anyone else who cleared their sidewalks.

A lack of automatic penalties for a New York City driver hopping the curb and killing a pedestrian

Sarah Goodyear highlights an interesting legal area: New York City drivers whose cars kill pedestrians on the sidewalk do not automatically receive penalties.

In New York, unless the driver flees the scene (as happened in the Queens case mentioned above) or is intoxicated, crashes that kill pedestrians rarely result in criminal charges. “No criminality was suspected” is the mantra of the NYPD when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist deaths in general. The tepid police response to traffic deaths is even more jarring when applied to cases in which the vehicle actually leaves the roadway and enters what should be inviolate pedestrian space…

I talked to Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who frequently represents victims of traffic crashes and is an outspoken advocate for pedestrian and bicyclist rights in New York City, and asked him to explain how running your vehicle up onto a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians can be seen as anything other than reckless. He explained to me that recklessness is in the eye of the beholder.“The standard for criminal charges is that the risk you take has to be a gross deviation from the risk a reasonable person would accept,” he says. “It’s about the community norm.”

And the community norm is to accept the explanations proffered by drivers such as the one who killed Martha Atwater – who, according to an unnamed police source quoted in the news, said he had suffered a diabetic blackout. Other drivers are let off the hook after simply “losing control” or hitting the gas instead of the brake. The ease with which pedestrian deaths are accepted by police as just unfortunate “accidents” has led to a deep cynicism among many observers of street safety in New York.

Shouldn’t the community norm instead be an understanding that if you drive your car in such a way that you end up on the sidewalk in the middle of one of the world’s most pedestrian-rich environments, you have somehow failed in your responsibility as a driver? Obviously, there are extreme circumstances, such as mechanical failure, in which a driver is not in any way at fault. But why are we so quick to dismiss the mayhem caused by motor vehicles as inevitable?

Seems odd to me. Frankly, pedestrians are not that protected on sidewalks. The speed and size of cars means the short jump up to the sidewalk isn’t much of an obstruction. But, perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising considering how much Americans love cars and how much cities have been redesigned to accommodate cars.

This reminds that New Urbanists often make this argument about their neo-traditional designs for narrower streets that allow street parking and both sides and trees in the parkways. These conditions both slow down drivers, which could give pedestrians more time to react, and also provide barriers between drivers and pedestrians. Better that drivers who lose control hit inanimate objects than also harm other people in the process.

How streets came to be for cars and not for pedestrians

There is little doubt that American streets and roads are typically made to optimize the driving experience. It wasn’t always this way:

According to Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the change is no accident (so to speak). He has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.

“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s…

Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.

Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'”

A fascinating story: as the car became more popular and the auto industry banded together, understandings of streets changed. If you look at old pictures of streets before the 1920s, they often seem like the Wild West: there are carts big and small (plus animals providing the power), pedestrians, sometimes electric streetcars, and more.

This reminds me of the efforts of New Urbanists to redesign streets so that cars become less dominant. They typically suggest several changes: reducing the width of the road, allowing cars to park on both sides of the road (this makes drivers more cautious), and putting trees close to the edges of the road to create another barrier between cars and pedestrians.

The suburban critic James Howard Kunstler is also fond of showing pictures of barren intersections where multiple 4-6 lane roads come together and the scale dwarfs even the most hardy pedestrians.

It is amusing to think of cars being portrayed today as “Satan’s murdering machines” – even though car accidents are a leading cause of death.

Cultural differences in pedestrian behavior

How you act as a pedestrian is influenced by your culture:

Much of the piece focuses on the research of Mehdi Moussaid, a crowd scientist at the Max Planck Institut for Human Development in Berlin. A great deal of Moussaid’s work looks at how pedestrians respond to sidewalk traffic. When a person is walking straight toward another, for instance, a decision occurs whether to go right or left to avoid a collision. The decision has nothing to do with driving customs; in Britain, walkers avoid to the right despite driving on the left. Still people end up choosing the proper side through the some sort of implicit social understanding, Moussaid concluded in a 2009 study…

Not every society reacts to pedestrian congestion the same way. A recent comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Moussaid has found that it’s a natural tendency to clump together on the sidewalk. In a 2010 study published in PLoS One, Moussaid and colleagues reported that 70 percent of walkers travel in groups — a custom that slows down pedestrian flow by about 17 percent. That’s because when pedestrian groups encounter space problems on the sidewalk they flex into V-shaped clusters that “do not have optimal ‘aerodynamic’ features” just so they can continue to talk, according to the researchers.

I have been known to get frustrated with pedestrians on sidewalks, particularly those who suddenly stop in clumps, forcing other people to go around them. In high school, I remember thinking that the school could paint/put traffic lines on the floor to help remind students that they shouldn’t walk four across.

But I am very fascinated here by the idea that people of different cultures act in different ways as pedestrians. This must be part of the socialization process: children learn how to walk with other people around even though no one ever explicitly says do this or that. What happens in notable tourist spots – which sidewalk behavior “wins out”? Do some people have consistently quicker paces compared to others? Do different cultures have different goals in the average walk, say getting to their destination versus enjoying the stroll?

Improving suburban roads in Montgomery County

The suburbs are full of roads. But, as many have noted, these roads are primarily built for the fastest automobile speeds between Points A and B. Montgomery County, Maryland has put together a plan to improve their roadways:

As a result, Montgomery has actually been in the business of “retrofitting” or “repairing” the suburbs (very gradually, to be sure) since before planners began to call it that. Now, it has undertaken a pilot study on two stretches of roadway in the county to evaluate the use of green infrastructure – strategically placed vegetation and other methods that reduce polluted runoff by using or mimicking natural hydrology – along with measures to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. One is an arterial road that goes through residential areas, the other a wide commercial street. Both showed there was much potential, and Montgomery is now planning to integrate more environmental features into its streets…

Note that the changes are not extensive, for the most part, but incremental: subtle narrowing of traffic lanes to slow auto speed; plantings in medians, along sidewalks and in parking lots to capture and filter rainwater; bike lanes and wider sidewalks to accommodate non-motorized users; striping to mark a people-first pedestrian lane where a sidewalk may not be feasible…

There’s a lot to like about Montgomery’s initiative, including that it brings together three relatively new and successful – but often independently successful – lines of sustainability thinking and planning: redesigning suburbs; green infrastructure; and “complete streets” that accommodate all types of users. It reminds us that the greatest potential for sustainable communities lies with the integration of ideas and purposes. I hope this kind of initiative continues to catch on.

This seems to include a number of techniques New Urbanists have talked about for years.

What I like best about this is that it is hard to argue against these changes. Generally, busy roads are either nondescript or unattractive so these changes help improve the aesthetics. Runoff is a common suburban problem and no one likes having to drive through big puddles. Carving out space for other users of the roads would appeal to a lot of people (as long as the bikers and drivers can get along – not a guarantee in some places). And this should be safer as we know that narrower roads tend to slow drivers down.

The only problem that I could envision: how much do these subtle but helpful changes cost? It might be a good amount of money upfront but then reduced costs (and perhaps even savings?) down the road (fewer accidents, fewer cars on the road so less road maintenance, etc.). Are taxpayers willing to pay to improve already pretty good roads (generally defined as very drivable and fast)?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how much they expand the program.

Looking for sidewalks in Tyler, Texas

A “news app developer” who moved to Tyler, Texas has found that it is difficult to walk around the community due to a lack of sidewalks and development that revolves around the automobile:

Several people insisted I couldn’t live without a car in Tyler–and they were absolutely right. When I landed at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport I hadn’t driven a car in four months. Since I landed, I’ve driven nearly every day. (Mostly ferrying my son to school and various activities.)

I very carefully selected the house I’m renting–an eccentric, hundred-year-old single-story in the Charnwood neighborhood–so that I can get to as many things as possible without driving. It’s within a mile of:

  • 2 parks (Children’s Park and Bergfield Park)
  • 2 coffee shops (Brady’s Speciality Coffee and Downtown Coffee Lounge)
  • 2 hospitals (Trinity Mother Frances and East Texas Medical Center)
  • 1 bookstore (Fireside Books)
  • 3 bus lines (the red, green and blue)
  • Tyler Public Library

Interestingly, it seems like the city knows about the problem. But addressing the issue won’t necessarily be easy:

Now that I’ve been out and walked the streets of Tyler, I have to say I think the plans laid out in Tyler 21 are impressively on-target. Tyler needs to build a lot more sidewalks. However, I also foresee a few challenges that just building more sidewalks won’t solve:

  • Tyler’s downtown is a food desert. It is impossible to live within walking distance of a grocery store. Getting a green market as a downtown anchor should be a very high priority.
  • The lack of pedestrian signals makes travel on foot unsafe. Front and Broadway have some of the longest continuous sidewalks in the city, but crossing either one on foot is nearly impossible. (The tunnel under Broadway at Hogg Middle School is a notable exception.)
  • Too many bus stops lack shelters. Nobody wants to stand on the corner and look lost. If there isn’t a shelter, there effectively isn’t a bus stop.

This sounds like the sort of place James Howard Kunstler would love to visit so that he could bemoan its unfriendliness toward pedestrians. As this writer points out, Tyler would have to undergo some major changes to make it truly walkable. The infrastructure of sidewalks needs to be there but there also need to be places for people to want to walk to. Building the sidewalks doesn’t necessarily lead to a street culture. Can a regional center like this effectively revive itself through building sidewalks and encouraging businesses and residents to take advantage of these new public spaces?

Second, isn’t the bigger issue here who is going to pay for all of this? Perhaps Tyler has some money set aside for this but this could be expensive and particularly in an era of economic crisis, some would argue that the money could be spent elsewhere. (To be fair, some people could always argue that the money could be spent on something more necessary than sidewalks.)

I don’t know much about Tyler, Texas but wouldn’t this plan also involve convincing people to move back into the denser parts of the city rather than living on the fringes in typical suburban neighborhoods? What would be the selling point?

On the whole, it sounds like there is a lot of work to be done.

Tysons Corner: is the protoypical edge city evolving into a “real city”?

One commentator argues that Tysons Corner, the prototypical edge city located west of Washington D.C., is changing into a “real city”:

The expansion of Metro through Tysons Corner to Dulles airport on a new Silver Line will be key to making Tysons much more accessible to DC residents. Currently there is no real downtown and few pedestrians. In a cover story for the Washington Post Sunday business section, staff writer Jonathan O’Connell detailed how Tysons is changing…

Almost under the public radar, Tysons has quietly become a major destination for corporate offices and has 26.7 million square feet of office space, which is why tens of thousands of people drive into Tysons every morning for work. Five Fortune 500 companies have headquarters there.

One major question facing developers and urban planners is how to properly create walkable streets out of what currently exists in Tysons…

Visiting Tysons this spring was for me an odd experience as I felt the place didn’t have much character and seemed rather sterile. As I headed from one mall to the next, I was one of the few people walking along the highway as a never-ending stream of cars whizzed by. If all goes well, hopefully in a few years, Tysons will be more inviting to visitors looking to wander around a new downtown.

So sidewalks will transform this into a real city? I wonder if there is a lot more that would be needed included more housing spread out between the shopping centers and corporate offices. Sidewalks may help in the creation of a downtown but without many mixed-use developments, people will still have to drive from home to these places.

Additionally, simply adding places for pedestrians to walk doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be pedestrian-friendly – the commentator suggests the sidewalks now are sterile and located along highways. As the post suggests, there needs to be a shift toward a “walkable community,” a New Urbanist principle where shops, restaurants, and housing would line these streets and sidewalks so that there becomes a streetscape rather than simply a sidewalk. Plus, “authenticity” doesn’t simply come from a pleasant streetscape – you can find these at “lifestyle centers.” It requires a dedicated population of people, a shared history, and a municipal character that can pull these pieces of infrastructure into a cohesive community.

How much demand is there for such changes in Tysons Corner? On one hand, I could see envision that if things are going well (business is thriving, people are moving in, etc.), most people would say why both messing with the formula. On the other hand, if the shiny facade of the community is showing some cracks, changes might be desirable.

This highlights one issue I have with suburban types like edge cities: the suburbs themselves don’t necessarily stay within one category. Does Garreau’s criteria allow for a walkable edge city or would a transformed Tysons Corner have to be slotted into a different category?