Thursday, April 26, 2007

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

A friend of mine recently called my attention to an unfortunate accident in Washington DC, in which an MTA bus struck, and killed, two pedestrians. The victims, it appears, were crossing the road at a crosswalk, with the proper right of way. Nevertheless, the bus sped through a turn and plowed through them. Ghastly, huh?

A quick Google search of car-on-pedestrian accidents is telling: people get hit by cars a fair bit when crossing intersections. Urban planners are certainly aware of the problem, and try to address it with a variety of tactics: awareness education (for drivers and pedestrians), better signage, clearer lines-of-sight for drivers, lower speed limits, better traffic light timing, and so on.

I was very impressed with one great example of pedestrian-friendly intersection design. At the intersection of King St and Main St in Northampton, MA, there is a quite a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It's a college town, and there are tons and tons of college kids crossing the street at all hours of the day. It's also a regional commuter route, connecting a number of small cities and towns in western Massachusetts, so there are a lot of cars on the road much of the time.

In a traditional intersection, the pedestrian crosswalk rights-of-way run parallel to the vehicular rights-of-way. When cars can pass through an intersection one way, so to can pedestrian cross in that direction.

At King & Main, however, the system is different. The traffic light operates in a 3-stage pattern: first it allows cars to travel along King; then it allows cars to travel along Main; then it stops all car traffic and permits pedestrians to cross both King and Main simultaneously.

One might think that such a system would be less efficient than a traditional two-stage system. A two-stage system, however, often does not adequately provide for the safety of pedestrians. It is far too easy for a right-turning car to hit a pedestrian, even when that pedestrian indeed has the right of way. By stopping all vehicular traffic, the King & Main system puts pedestrians' safety first.


Blogger Arthur Willoughby said...

A tragedy to be certain, Steve... I have to wonder, however, if the pedestrians looked before crossing or if they simply had the mentality that "I'm in the crosswalk, I have the right of way."

Not that this makes it any less of a tragedy, but I can tell you from personal experience (even as a rare driver who actually allows pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, much to the chagrin of other drivers) that many is the time I've spaced off only to have someone dart out of nowhere in front of my vehicle.

Anyway, I'm digging your blog.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Bonnie Erickson said...

Since my daughter was hit by a vehicle turning right on red when she was in the crosswalk(just bruises and a healthy fear of cars resulted), I'd certainly be in favor of a 3 stage system. Drivers tend to not be aware of the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks that are APPROACHING the intersection. They focus more often on what is standing right in front of them.

11:59 PM  

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