Street Smarts

A soft, glowing white light is known to be associated with near death experiences. What is less known, is that a flashing orange light is also associated with near death experiences – well, at least in New York City.

That’s because 72% of the 15,000 pedestrians that are injured by drivers of motor vehicles every year are hit while they are in a crosswalk.

Our crosswalks are so unsafe that a strong argument can be made that as designed, built, and maintained, by our Department of Transportation, they do not provide for safe use of our streets by all residents. All we have to do to confirm this is look at the deaths of Victor Flores, age 11,and Juan Estrada, age 10. They were run over and killed earlier this year on their way home from school, when they were in the crosswalk, with the light. If our crosswalks were safe, Victor and Juan would be alive and not dead. It’s that simple.

Why are our crosswalks so unsafe? The reasons are numerous but a good place to start is with our current commissioner of transportation, who like many commissioners before her, has put the movement of cars above the safety of pedestrians in New York City as official policy.

You don’t have to be a trained traffic engineer to know that the safety of human beings should have a higher priority than the movement of cars in a city. Nor do you have to have an engineering degree to understand that crosswalks are completely manmade and can be designed to be safe. The reason they are so unsafe is the inevitable result of sloppy thinking passing as traffic engineering in New York City.

There are many things that can be done to make our crosswalks safer. A good place to start is with our out-of-date signal system. It was Cleveland, not New York that unveiled the first modern traffic light. The year was 1914. Most people today don’t realize it, but traffic signals were installed to speed traffic up, not to slow it down. This is why there were tiny statuettes of Mercury, the god of speed, on New York City’s first traffic lights.

Although the control and timing of signals were centralized and computerized in the 1960s, our signals haven’t changed much since the 1920s.There are very few items we depend on every day as old as traffic signals. I believe it’s time that we take a look at our signal system and how we can modernize it to enhance public safety.

One simple idea to make our crosswalks safer is based on the observation that despite the fact that more than 8 million people call New York City home, there is no pedestrian phase in our signal system.

What this means is that when a light turns green and a pedestrian is given the signal to cross a street, a driver is also given a signal to make a turn. Cars turning into people lead to deaths and injuries. If cars couldn’t turn into people, our crosswalks would be safer. It’s that simple.

The obvious idea is to add a separate phase of our signal system for pedestrians. This is actually an idea first tried out in the 1960s during Mayor Lindsay’s administration by a traffic commissioner whose last name was Barnes, which explains why a pedestrian phase is also known as a Barnes Dance.

The way this works is that the lights are four way red for cars and three-way green for pedestrians. This also allows pedestrians to cross the streets safely diagonally. By giving the pedestrians their own light cycle, you effectively separate cars from pedestrians, thus making crossing streets safer and more comfortable for pedestrians.

While cities around the world have adapted this idea, New York hasn’t. Our transportation policies are still based on the idea that that the movement of private automobiles should have a priority over other modes of transportation. When cars were invented, this might have made sense. It no longer does. It’s more important to make our streets safe for the people that live work and play here than push more cars through our intersections.

Another simple idea is based on the observation of a mistake in the logic of our signal system. When you cross a street in New York – if there is a pedestrian signal – the light is a solid white (walk) and then turns to flashing orange (don’t walk).Everyone in New York knows that if you are in a street when the light changes from solid white to a flashing orange that you are allowed to continue crossing the street.

However, because the signal remains green for drivers who are turning, from the driver’s perspective it appears that the pedestrian is in the crosswalk against the signal. This flaw encourages aggressive and antagonistic behavior toward pedestrians.

This became clear to me when a driver recently yelled at me to “get the @#* out of the street.” When I yelled back that “I had the @#* light” he pointed to the flashing light as proof that I was wrong and thus believed he had the right to run me over. When I jumped out of the way of his close-approaching bumper, I noticed the Jersey license plates. I wasn’t surprised. Only someone not from New York would act that way. But there aren’t instruction manuals given to drivers from other places when they come into New York.

The obvious solution is to change the flash from the orange signal to the white signal. The cadence of the flashing pulse can increase toward the end of cycle so that walkers can use it as an intuitive timing guide.

Another idea to make crosswalks safer is to recognize that vehicle speed is directly related to the severity of an injury. The speed limit on New York City streets is 30 miles an hour, unless otherwise noted. While one can make an argument that the speed on, say, Sixth Avenue should be 30 miles an hour, one cannot make the same argument that a turn from Sixth should be executed to any side street off of Sixth Avenue at 30 miles an hour. The speed in crosswalks needs to be lower than the speed on our arterials. There is never a reason to drive at more than 5 or 10 miles an hour through a crosswalk.

Reduced crosswalk speed should be a law. Drivers should be taught and reminded of the need to slow down when in a crosswalk.

There are other ideas to make crosswalks safer but these three are a good start. To people outside of the city Department of Transportation, these ideas probably will seem relatively intelligent and based on common sense.

At a minimum, why not implement them on a small scale, evaluate them, and fine-tune them? At the end of the day, the residents of New York City deserve to have safer crosswalks. It’s that simple.



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  • Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
    Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
  • No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
    No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
  • Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.
    Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.