Published on July 11th, 2013 | by Dan Rahe11
Proceed With Caution: Guerrilla Crosswalks in Perspective
There has been a lot of excitement in Tacoma lately about a secret group of pedestrian activists who sneak into the streets at night to paint crosswalks in areas where traffic is hazardous to walkers or cyclists. Tacoma News Tribune reporter Kathleen Cooper has interviewed the rogue painters under condition of anonymity, allowing them to clearly convey their message, objectives, and impatience with the lack of satisfactory action by the city to make Tacoma more pedestrian friendly.
In turn, city staff has responded with a detailed request that the illegal artwork be stopped, explaining the negative consequences of this creative protest. Officials have already begun meeting with community groups and have requested further hearings and studies on the matter of pedestrian safety in Tacoma. They have also been removing the so-called “guerrilla crosswalks” with grinding machines, at the cost of $1000 each (at least), and threatening legal action against those who might paint them in the future.
For most people, the issue is simple: Pedestrians = Awesome, and very Portland-ish (the epitome of awesome). Not Helping Pedestrians = Not Very Awesome, Dude. People get hit by cars a lot in Tacoma. Let’s get more crosswalks. Stop being dicks, City of Tacoma! End of discussion.
That simple perspective strikes me as troublingly ideological and lacking in nuance. This issue is very multi-faceted, though many of the influencing factors get drowned out by the fact that human safety is involved. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to consider all perspectives if we are ever going to arrive at an implementable solution to Tacoma’s pedestrian traffic safety problems.
The city is required to remove crosswalks that have not undergone the standard design approval process, since there are specific national laws that apply to their installation which invite legal action if neglected. There are design standards* that must be met and engineering studies that must be completed for each and every painted crossing. The standards are concerned with the speed of vehicular traffic, stopping distances, visibility (affected by grades, curves, turns, and intersections), proximity to intersections, etcetera. A crosswalk may seem to just be reflective paint on the asphalt, but it is an engineered roadway feature, just like a curb or street drain. There is not a city on earth that would allow rogue engineering of public infrastructure, for obvious reasons.
Try to argue with that. I dare you.
From a practical standpoint, the rogue crosswalks also pose the hazard of the perceived sense of safety that a crosswalk provides. A rogue crosswalk may actually increase the chance of being hit by a car because the pedestrian is less cautious. The driver doesn’t expect the new crosswalk, or may not even see it until it’s too late, despite the best intentions of our merry band of folk heroes.
Even so, there is undoubtedly a serious lack of designated street crossings in Tacoma, especially around schools. Most new crosswalks are only added in areas where recent road work has been done. Everywhere else in town, non-motorized citizens are left to dodge across the street wherever they can expediently do so. This creates unpredictable, and therefore, unsafe, road conditions. Lack of convenient crossings could potentially cause pedestrians to more frequently cross at places where the city has already determined a crosswalk would be inappropriate due to speed or visibility concerns. Ideally, drivers can learn to expect pedestrian traffic at established crosswalks. Clearly, Tacoma is not the ideal.
Inadequate funding has been cited as the primary reason for this unfortunate state of affairs. The rogue painters have declared that this excuse is invalid, since they spent very little to paint several nice crosswalks and bike lanes. This is a stupid argument.
Suppose the city decided to flout the law, foregoing study and approval processes for each crosswalk. Suppose our public works employees decided to just go on a painting spree. The costs would still exceed anything the protesters could imagine, and eventually, someone would get hurt and sue the city.
To make matters somewhat worse, most of the funding Tacoma receives for street improvements seems to be locked grants for targeted projects – not monies that can go into general improvement funds. That’s why we’re sure to see nice crosswalks on Pacific Avenue after the rain gardens go in, but probably not in the more heavily residential areas, for instance. It’s not a matter of City Hall priorities: They were able to get the funding for those specific projects, and decided to construct those specific projects. Those funds cannot be reallocated.
Despite their somewhat artfully juvenile tactics, the guerrilla crosswalk painters are not the problem. Based upon their judicious concerns of liability and restrictions of funding, City staff is not at fault either. There is no lack of initiative in City Hall to make Tacoma a friendly place for non-motorized traffic. City officials are genuine, key partners in this progressive goal, and calling that into question is extremely dramatic and unhelpful for all concerned.
Vehicle operators are the problem. If drivers consistently and vigilantly honored the right of pedestrians to cross the street, even painted crossings would not be necessary. When crossing legally, pedestrians always have the right of way in public roads. After 60 years of suburbanization, road-widening, freeway expansion, and entrenchment of “Car Culture,” Americans don’t expect to see walkers or cyclists. The pedestrian is an anomaly, and we apparently can’t see them unless they are accompanied by gigantic slabs of reflective paint. The pedestrian is an obstruction to our desperate need to go places faster with fewer stops. It’s a mindset that needs to change. After all, all the crosswalks in the world couldn’t stop a shitty driver from hitting a pedestrian.
That’s not to say City Hall gets a free pass here. Enforcement priority needs to be put on pedestrian safety. Appropriate staff should show engagement and follow-through in pedestrian-friendly initiatives. And when the tax dollars start coming in again, let’s get out the fucking paintbrushes, guys.
I understand the tempered perspective I’ve presented here may irritate, or seem a bit grumpy and unprogressive. I mean, what kind of hipster could ever resist cheeky, civic-minded street art? My analysis, though, is not dispassionate. I run on the streets of Central and North Tacoma every day, and I have been hit by a car quite forcefully while doing so. I can tell you how it feels to have your gums scraped on asphalt. I was even in a crosswalk at the time.
I truly want to see an improved pedestrian environment here, but I do not think that can be accomplished by pointing fingers at city staff (at least not for the reasons cited), and I do not think the arguments laid out by the guerrilla crosswalk painters get us any closer to that goal. Their stunts may have raised public awareness, which is certainly needed, but they also had the perhaps unintended consequence of moving the blame to City Hall – fostering unrealistic hostilities – when it belongs on the shoulders of arrogant and thoughtless drivers.
*• AASHTO A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (Green Book)https://bookstore.transportation.org/item_details.aspx?ID=110
• ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) http://www.access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm
• Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/ser-pubs.htm
• Applicable State-specific documentation, such as State statutes and laws governing pedestrian and motorist responsibilities
• FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access, Part I, A Review of Existing Guidelines http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/sidewalks/
• FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access Part II, Best Practices Guidehttp://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/sidewalk2/
FHWA Accessible Sidewalks and Street Crossings – An Informational Guide (FHWA- SA-03-019) http://www.bikewalk.org/pdfs/sopada_fhwa.pdf
• AASHTO Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Pedestrian Facilitieshttps://bookstore.transportation.org/item_details.aspx?id=119
• AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilitieshttps://bookstore.transportation.org/Item_details.aspx?id=104. These documents and tools provide valuable information about potential countermeasures that can mitigate pedestrian safety concerns for an audited roadway or facility.
• MnDOT Bikeway Facility Design Manualhttp://www.dot.state.mn.us/bike/bikewaysdesignmanual.html
• A Guide for Reducing Collisions Involving Pedestrians (NCHRP Report 500)http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_500v10.pdf
• Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations (HRT-04-100) http://www.tfhrc.gov/safety/pubs/04100/index.htm
• How to Develop a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (FHWA-SA-05-12)http://www.walkinginfo.org/pp/howtoguide2006.pdf
• Improving Pedestrian Safety at Unsignalized Crossings (NCHRP Report 562)http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_562.pdf
Photos Courtesy of Alicia Wilkinson