Marked crosswalks are supposed to keep pedestrians safe when they step off the curb, but as a tragic recent examples from Ohio and North Carolina show, crosswalk paint and other visibility markings often aren’t enough to overcome street designs—and attitudes—that prioritize vehicles above all else.
Building streets that are safe and equitable for all is no easy task, but it’s certainly one worth pursuing, and crosswalks are a great place to start. Here are some progressive ideas that go beyond the standard paint-and-signs approach to ensure that everyone can get to their destination safely.
Many factors affect pedestrian and cyclist injury risk in a vehicle collision, but far and away the most important is vehicle travel speed. Numerous have shown that faster speeds increase the risk and severity of pedestrian injury. Even a 5 mph difference has been shown to result in a significantly higher risk of crash involving injury.
So how do you get people to slow down? One approach that’s proving highly effective also happens to be appealingly straightforward: reduce speed limits. Cities from Philadelphia to Portland have experimented with speed limit reductions in recent years and seen immediate and dramatic results. Boston, for example, saw a 33% drop in traffic fatalities in the first year after it dropped its default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph.
But simply slashing speed limits isn’t the complete answer. According to an analysis by Streetsblog, the reason London has been more successful than New York in bringing speeds down and safety up isn’t because they dropped their speed limits, but because they supported them with traffic-calming design elements like raised crosswalks, curb extensions, pedestrian refuge islands, and more. are also effective at reducing speeds, without the cost or disruption of engineering work.
Once speed limits have been reduced to levels that are safe and reasonable for multimodal use, the next step is improving visibility—both of the crosswalk and pedestrians in or near it. According to the Federal Highway Administration, crosswalk visibility enhancements can reduce crashes by 23-48%.
There are a number of ways to provide better visibility at and around crosswalks for drivers, the most obvious (and important) being to ensure adequate nighttime lighting. While areas with high levels of pedestrian activity typically already have streetlights, they may not be enough to fully illuminate pedestrians and avoid creating a silhouette. This can be accomplished with high-intensity lights that are designed specifically for this purpose.
Other ways to increase visibility include daylighting (the practice of creating no-parking zones in front of crosswalks to ensure proper sight lines) and conspicuity elements like flashing beacons that signal to drivers that a pedestrian is present and about to enter a roadway. Research has shown pedestrian-activated like Carmanah’s can result in driver yield rates as high as 96% and can reduce crashes by 47%.
While it makes logical sense that a wide, obstacle-free street would be safer than a narrow one scattered with obstructions, the reality is wide streets only encourage faster driving behavior and hamper walkability and safety. Narrow streets, by contrast, keep drivers alert, forcing them to go slow to avoid accidentally clipping a parked car, tree, or planter box.
We’ve already mentioned a few approaches to street narrowing: curb extensions or neckdowns, which extend the curb into the crosswalk and narrow the street space pedestrians have to cross, and pedestrian refuge islands, which function similarly by giving pedestrians a protected place to stop and wait for drivers to yield (while also narrowing the road and slowing drivers down). Other approaches include adding bike lanes, eliminating bus turn-outs, and encouraging parklets—anything that reduces the amount of space allotted to vehicles and reallocates it to multimodal transportation.
As pedestrian injuries and fatalities soar to ever-higher heights, now is the time to rethink and improve crosswalks. The ideas outlined in this article can help you do just that, ensuring the most vulnerable users receive just as much consideration as the most protected.