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Published on June 3rd, 2014 | by Andrew Austin


Crosswalks: More than just paint on the asphalt

This guest post is part of an ongoing series of Tacoma musings I have after being away on the East Coast for two years. See my first post on transit here.

Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time traveling across the country. In particular I made numerous trips to Atlanta.

A sprawling mega-region of exurbia, Atlanta is not known for its embrace of walkability. In fact, in 2013, a mother in an outlying county was convicted of vehicular homicide when, as she and her daughter were crossing the street, her daughter was tragically killed by a car driver (yes that’s right, the mother holding her daughter’s hand was charged with vehicular homicide).

Yet walking around the city of Atlanta I noticed something: there are crosswalks at nearly every intersection in the city. They aren’t pretty, lined with brick, or filled in with creative paint designs. They are two white lines with a stop bar, and they are everywhere.

Thanks the to the valiant guerillas who painted crosswalks all over downtown and the city’s prompt removal of them, the issue of crosswalks has finally been raised in Tacoma’s political consciousness. The city is changing their tune and has started to add crosswalks (or at least stop bars) into new projects like Stadium Way and has committed to increase funds for crosswalks in 2014.

A few months ago the city announced the pedestrian crossings improvement project. This project is a welcome step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t pretend it is anything more than that. It signals a tardy acknowledgement of Tacoma’s often inhospitable pedestrian environment.

Let’s put this into financial perspective. The entire city budget for the 2013-2014 biennium (excluding TPU) is $1.7 billion.  In that same timeframe, the city’s transportation, capital, and engineering expenditure is $165 million. The pedestrian crossing improvement project is a one-time capital injection of $2.5 million.

All told, the much-lauded pedestrian crossing project amounts to 1.5% of the city’s biennial transportation budget and a mere .01% of the entire city’s budget. Any investment in pedestrian infrastructure is welcome relief, but this is just a first step in the long walk to put people first in Tacoma.

On May 20th, the National Complete Streets Coalition released their report Dangerous by Design. The report maps pedestrian fatalities statewide between 2003 and 2012.

When it comes to pedestrian fatalities, our state and the Tacoma-Seattle-Bellevue region fare well when compared nationally. That said, the loss of one, ten, or 300 human lives due to automobiles is tragic excess.

Here is a close-up identifying those killed by cars in Tacoma between 2003 and 2012. It should be noted that this map only captures pedestrian fatalities and not injuries or unreported crashes. It is no means a perfect measure of safety, but still a very useful one.

Tacoma Demographic Distribution by Race

Tacoma Demographic Distribution by Race

Tacoma Pedestrian Fatalities '03-12

Tacoma Pedestrian Fatalities ’03-12

These statistics should lead us to a few challenging observations:

1. Pedestrian safety is absolutely a social justice and equality issue. Pedestrians killed in Tacoma are heavily concentrated in the south end of town, especially in the Eastside along Portland and Pacific Avenue.

While it is encouraging to see that the economically stable North End is relatively safe, the neighborhoods in our city with greater resource disadvantages and more diverse populations are clearly experiencing more deaths due to fast-moving vehicular traffic. Perhaps this is partially due to historic street design in the North End, where narrow grid streets are inherently traffic calming, while the wider curvilinear postwar avenues of more recently constructed neighborhoods allow higher volumes and speeds. It could also be a result of better pedestrian infrastructure in more affluent areas of the city, or both. That debate aside, this data clearly illustrates that urban street design and city policy surrounding human safety is fundamentally a matter of rights and justice.

2.  High-speed, high-capacity roads such as Pacific Avenue between South Tacoma and downtown, which are essentially miniature freeways, are fucking scary places for those who travel them on foot or bicycle, as I have.

Research proves that pedestrians hit by cars going under 20 mph have a 95% chance of survival. After 25 mph the survival rates get exponentially worse. If struck at 40 mph, chances are you’re dead meat (85% to exact).

3.  Given its heavy traffic and lack of pedestrian amenities, it is shocking that nobody has died on Yakima Avenue along the Hilltop neighborhood. I hate to say it, but without design changes it is only a matter of time.

4. Consider the proximity of our public schools to dangerous traffic. School-age pedestrians are among the most vulnerable users of city streets. Tacoma should follow the lead of many other jurisdictions in our region and install speed cameras around schools. This encourages people to slow down, which saves lives. As a further benefit, traffic ticket revenues from the cameras can be put invested in pedestrian improvements adjacent to schools. In Seattle, speed cameras have raised nearly $15 million dollars for safe routes to schools.

The citizens of Tacomas should not have to wait years for our city to be a safe place to live. Tacoma’s political and administrative leadership needs to do more, faster.

Four years ago when the Tacoma City Council approved the Mobility Master Plan, the city adopted a policy that prioritizes pedestrians as the most important street users. That means considering the safety and mobility of human beings as the top priority during initial design and every time a road is paved or an intersection revised.

It is time for the city to put their money where their mouth is and make crosswalks a top public works priority. At the very least, let’s take the simple step of painting them at every major intersection. It is the cheapest, easiest, and quickest way to beautify Tacoma, make our city more equitable, and save human lives. If sprawling Atlanta can do it, then by god, we can.


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About the Author

Andrew Austin @transitdude is a writer and advocate who happily lives in Downtown Tacoma. Like a good Tacoman, he loves beer and usually can be found riding the bus or his bike around town.

7 Responses to Crosswalks: More than just paint on the asphalt

  1. Emily says:


  2. Morgan says:

    No. For several reasons.

    If you’re going to argue that this is a social justice issue, you need to do more than point to a loose correlation between racial diversity of a surrounding area and the occurrence of accidents there. That’s just lazy.
    There may in fact be an issue here, but you need to do actual research to show it. Does southeast Tacoma have fewer crosswalks than other neighborhoods? Do other racially diverse neighborhoods have similar accident rates? Hilltop, Lincoln, and SW Tacoma have virtually no accidents, how do you explain the discrepancy? You’d also need to show that race is a stronger predictor of these accidents than other factors.
    Instead, like you mention, traffic speed is the biggest factor in fatality and Pacific and Portland are two of the fastest surface streets in the city.

    Beyond that, it seems you didn’t look too closely at the map you posted. I went to the website and zoomed in on each incident on Portland and Pacific and here is what I found. There were 11 incidents on or within half a block of those streets. Of those 11, only 2 took place where no crosswalk was available. 2 happened in a crosswalk, 2 happened in parking lots, and 5 happened within half a block of a crosswalk.

    In other words, crosswalks were available for the majority of cases but people chose not to use one or were hit despite using it. How exactly will adding more crosswalks help if people are already unwilling to walk half a block to use one?

    I have a better solution, one that doesn’t require any money at all: look both ways before crossing the street.

  3. Katy Evans says:

    I’m extrapolating here (I’m sure there’s better data for our area) but in a 2010 study done in New York City, “Jaywalkers were involved in fewer collisions than their law-abiding counterparts who waited for the “walk” sign, though they were likelier to be killed or seriously hurt by the collision.”

    The map Andrew used outlines deaths but not also accidents involving pedestrians. I think the information may look a little different if we took other factors (beyond death) into consideration.

    My assumption (admittedly not backed up by data) is that we would see something similar in any city. Pedestrians cross at crosswalks expecting them to be safe so they may not be as aware as a jaywalker, who knows they’re breaking the rules so may be a little more vigilant.

  4. Andrew says:

    Interesting comments.

    Morgan, here are a few of my answers to your questions and push back for you to take or leave.

    I don’t claim to dig in deep into the data here, I think someone with more time than me could do that with the demographic data and likely find many of the same conclusions I’ve made here.

    Also, I never claimed race or racial diversity of is the highest predictor of fatal traffic accidents. I think the data nationally shows that infrastructure design and safety as well as vehicle speed are the largest predictors, that said, I do think our infrastructure is less oriented towards human beings in the poorer, more racially diverse parts of town. I’ve walked and biked all over Tacoma, which is how I initially came to that conclusions, it doesn’t take in depth research to see that South Pacific Avenue and 56th is a much worse place to walk and bike than pretty much anywhere in the North end. These maps back up my experienced based observation.

    While we can’t force people to use safe infrastructure, we can do public education encouraging them to do so, and if there is no safe infrastructure for them to use, then that is not even an option. For example, 27th and Pacific and where Portland Avenue crosses I-5 are horrible places to be a human being.

    Lastly, I agree with Katy that the incidents that cover more than just fatalities would paint a more holistic picture, I’d love to see it and I think there would be more on non-arterial roads (because speed is the biggest factor when it comes to fatalities). Unfortunately the data covering even just reported incidents is sparse at best.

  5. Angie says:

    Interesting comments from Morgan and good rebuttal by Andrew. It appears that Andrew’s column is an op-ed piece, not an in-depth report. There could be many reasons that Tacoma’s North End has fewer pedestrian fatalities. One reason could be that more people living in the North End have access to automobiles and do not, in fact, walk. Or, it could be that traffic speeds in the North End are lower, better monitored, and better controlled. But we won’t know until someone actually does the hard work and looks into those things. Isn’t that why the City of Tacoma is actually getting input from all sectors of the City and studying this?

    I am actually a fan of speed cameras and red-light cameras. I think they should be spread randomly throughout the city and left unmarked so that peoples’ actual driving habits are recorded. I also think that bicycles should follow rules of the road just like vehicles.

    We are getting there. We are inching in that direction. And I thank the Crosswalk Guerrillas who painted those random crosswalks and actually got the City’s attention. The people have spoken, and it looks like the City is actually listening.

  6. anonymous says:

    I think this is a wonderful article, however, I just want to mention that the Transportation Capital Engineering Fund of $165M (not sure where that # came from) is made up of mostly federal grants. These grants are tied to specific projects (such as Stadium Way) as they get awarded with specific restrictions on how to spend those dollars. The City’s portion is very small (around $4M every two years) for the entire fund. This is mainly used as grant match which leaves no funding left for things like striping, pedestrian safety, or crosswalks. Your argument sounds easy in that of $165M, the City is only choosing to spend $2.5M on crosswalks. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

    Please keep up your efforts as citizens to bring much needed attention to City Council that funding our streets needs to be a priority.

  7. aramwest says:

    Tacoma does need to repaint the crosswalks. It is cheap and easy. Even some sort of inter crosswalk marking is great. STOP there. Keep It Simple! Consistancy promotes predictability which has a byproduct of safety. Really.

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