Creating crosswalks that protect pedestrians

By Maria Saporta

Crosswalks. Some would rather watch paint dry than talk about crosswalks.

But well-designed crosswalks can make all the difference in the world when it comes to developing a city that welcomes pedestrians.

Atlanta’s crosswalks — or lack there of — is one of my pet peeves. There’s probably no better barometer about how pedestrian-friendly a city is than the way it designs and maintains its crosswalks.

Friends of mine roll their eyes when I start talking about the beauty of painted piano keys that safely outline the space reserved for those walking from one side of the street to the other.

Those wide white-painted stripes command respect for pedestrians and clearly communicate to cars their boundaries.

In Paris along Boulevard St. Michel, pedestrians cross the street towards the River Seine. (Photos by Maria Saporta)

To reinforce the message, some cities change the pavement type right before a crosswalk by putting several feet of rough stones, causing drivers to put on their brakes without even realizing it.

In the United States, all too often, our streets are designed for cars with smooth pavement so drivers can have as comfortable (and speedy) a ride as possible.

(I’ll never forget visiting with a transportation planner in Belgium 30 years ago who showed me a street designed with several obstacles — sharp turns, zig-zags and changes in pavement — forcing cars to slow down for the safety of pedestrians).

A crosswalk in Paris with cobblestones before the painted bars — alerting drivers that they should come to a stop.

It’s counter-intuitive to our culture to design our streets for pedestrians, cyclists and transit — especially if those modes hinder the ease of travel for cars.

And yet, we wonder why our cities don’t have that human touch — why people seem to be second-class citizens to our automobiles.

The safety of pedestrians and cyclists is apparent even on the smallest of streets in Paris.

As a way to illustrate my point, I took pictures of crosswalks on my recent trip to Paris. I know, some people take pictures of beautiful monuments and landscapes, and here I am taking pictures of crosswalks.

But if you bear with me, you too might see the beauty in wonderful crosswalk design.

In Paris, pedestrians cross a street near Notre Dame on Sunday morning.

Some could argue the chicken-and-egg argument. Does Paris have great crosswalks because it has so many pedestrians? Or are there more pedestrians because there are well-marked crosswalks?

Of course, a city’s street-level experience is far more multi-dimensional than how a crosswalk is painted. But I would argue that there are few initiatives as easy and as cheap that a city can take to become more pedestrian-friendly. In other words, if we want to become more people-oriented, crosswalk design is a good place to begin.

Pedestrians in Paris walk across a major street to get to the Luxembourg Gardens.

In the last few years, a less-than-satisfactory agreement was made with the Georgia Department of Transportation to adopt a ladder design for crosswalks on state roads. That design has been adopted on many other streets as well.

The argument for this “solution” was that cars would have plenty of space to ride over the crosswalk without rolling over the paint lines, which would reduce maintenance costs.

Atlanta\’s version of a crosswalk — this one along Peachtree Street downtown.

But as you can tell from the photos, this solution isn’t working. Even when fully painted, the crosswalks don’t give pedestrians a sense of protection. And often drivers ignore that the lines (or pedestrians) are even there, especially when making that all-too-dangerous right-turn-on-red.

Along Peachtree Center Boulevard in downtown Atlanta, crosswalks show signs of wear and tear.

The problem could become even worse than that.

After several years with some improvements in pedestrian safety, we might be slipping backwards.

In the most recent newsletter of PEDS, the pedestrian advocacy organization, a reference was made about the possibility of removing crosswalks altogether at intersections of thoroughfares not controlled by traffic signals.

If that policy change gets implemented, streets like Ponce de Leon could end up not having any crosswalks for blocks — a move that would increase jaywalking and the likelihood of accidents between pedestrians and cars. Certainly, that’s not a positive direction for us. PEDS is working with the Atlanta Regional Commission to make sure pedestrian safety is taken into account.

Crosswalk across 10th Street going to Piedmont Park. Little attention is made to repainting crosswalks once the paint wears out or when a road is repaved.

Given the power of the automobile in our society, we must be ever-vigilant that pedestrians are not run over by transportation engineers wanting to design streets primarily for cars.

We must keep working towards the day when our streets are designed for feet first before moving up the food-chain to bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses.

To get there, many factors are important: the type of traffic signals that are installed; wide sidewalk; medians where pedestrians can pause while crossing a multi-lane street; handicapped access with safe curb-cuts; bicycle lanes wider than a couple of feet; comfortable bus stops with seating; the list goes on.

In the meantime, I’ll keep talking about crosswalks — well-painted crosswalks with long, wide bars that can serve as stepping stones across our busy roads.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

12 replies
  1. TAC says:

    Good piece, Maria. You’re right; crosswalks and their proper use are an issue. But the issues go far beyond crosswalks.

    The intersections of Peachtree & International (world map and crosswalk lines laid in bricks) and the Auburn Ave. underpass are classy uses that should be replicated. Yes, the drivers need to obey the rules of the road and be mindful that others are sharing it. This includes obeying “No Turns” signage at 5 Points Downtown and elsewhere — No Turns means no turns. But cyclists are to blame too. I’d say most barely even slow down at red lights and 8 or 9 of 10 run red lights, but they’re the first to cry about sharing the road! Of course pedestrians have their faults too. Many barely use the existing, painted crosswalks, often to their own detriment (see deaths on Courtland between hotels and of the GSU law school student are examples). Many are “too lazy to be safe.” It’s everyone’s job to watch out for everyone — starting with themselves.

    You can tell a lot about a person by the way they commute. Do they stay to the right and move left to pass only? Obey street signs, traffic laws and rules of the road? Use direction signals when turning or changing lanes? Park in properly designated areas only? Properly merge and cross at intersections? This goes for walking, riding and driving. You can witness these acts every day on highways, work and school commuters on foot on streets and escalators, trains, in airports, grocery stores and more. It comes down to being rude or polite, being attentive or selfish.

    I hope anyone who reads this takes the time to take inventory of their own habits, to observe those of others and to see — and I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration — that a lot of this country’s problems are evident in the (not-so-)microcosm of commuting and traffic habits.Report

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  2. Yr1215 says:

    Great article. Amen, we need safer sidewalks.

    The sad irony is that you are statistically more likely to be run over in a crosswalk than when jay walking. Jay walkers are very careful and cognizant of their surroundings, while people in crosswalks (reasonably) assume they are safe, and are promptly run over by inattentive drivers.

    Perhaps we need railroad crossing style bars to come down. I’m only half kidding.Report

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  3. Sally Flocks says:

    Thanks, Maria, for shining the spotlight on the need for well-maintained, high visibility crosswalks. Unfortunately, the policy calling for the removal of crosswalks at unsignalized locations you refer to is not just a possibility. It’s been happening on state highways for several years. When Georgia Department of Transportation resurfaces streets with four or more lanes, construction crews restripe crosswalks only at locations that are controlled by traffic signals or stop signs. As a result, Roswell Road now has no crosswalks for nearly a mile. Crosswalks have vanished on Moreland, Glenwood and other roads as well.

    On multi-lane roads with a high volume of traffic, research shows that on its own, a marked crosswalk does not increase safety. As you point out, supplementing crosswalks with median refuge islands, lighting, and other devices is essential. PEDS is encouraging GDOT to update its resurfacing policy to ensure that pedestrian safety improvements are installed when roads are resurfaced. You’re correct that restriping crosswalks is inexpensive. But on most roads, the cheapest solution is not enough. Pedestrians need protection, not just a “sense of protection.”

    You’re right about the importance of remaining vigilant to ensure that transportation professionals don’t ignore pedestrian needs as they attempt to design roads that work well for motorists. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s proposed Strategic Regional Thoroughfare Plan seeks to maintain “travel efficiency” and “maximize the effectiveness of the system as a whole rather than its individual segments.” A companion GDOT program seeks state control over signal timing on these roads. Put simply, planners and engineers want a small number of selected roads, including Moreland, Peachtree, Piedmont, Ponce de Leon and Roswell–managed in ways that favor long-distance travel over the needs of local users. Efficiency for cars usually comes at the expense of pedestrians, resulting in increased vehicle speed, long wait times at intersections, and infrequent crossings. Inconveniencing pedestrians may be good for suburban commuters. For people in cities, it stinks.Report

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  4. Michael Orta says:

    The first commenter, TAC, is totally wrong to suggest the intersections of Peachtree & International and the Auburn Ave underpass are classy uses of brick pavers that should be replicated. To the contrary, those “classy” hexagonal pavers are a huge waste of money, a disservice to pedestrians and a serious nuisance to people in wheelchairs. The whole purpose of marking crosswalks is to make them visible to drivers. But brick paver crosswalks are nearly invisible to drivers. The City of Decatur recently replaced 9 of its ladder-striped crosswalks with decorative brick-style (stamped asphalt) ones. They look nice from the pedestrian perspective, but they’re LESS visible to the drivers (and totally invisible in dark or rainy conditions). Luckily, PEDS was able to convince Decatur to make the middle of their new crosswalks smooth so wheelchair users and visually impaired people can get across more easily. The last place you want your wheelchair to feel friction and bumps is in the middle of the street. High-heel wearers and baby stroller pushers will also appreciate the smooth passage. Point is: bricks, pavers and stamped concrete don’t belong in crosswalks. They decrease visibility to drivers, make it tough on disabled pedestrians and consume limited funding. Keep crosswalks striped, smooth and highly visible to drivers. Don’t put form over function.Report

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  5. Gordon says:

    Thanks for your attention to this. More walking is a partial solution to every problem we have. Respect for pedestrians by making a safe place to walk is key to making every other form of transportation work. If we design for people first, other forms of transportation will make sense and work better. If pedestrians are an afterthought, it isn’t a world you want to live in.Report

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  6. Quentin says:

    Thanks for this Maria. But beyond engineering, more attention needs to be focused on enforcement. For example, here’s a link to a short video about enforcement actions (aka ‘stings’) in Portland: http://www.streetfilms.org/portland-or-crosswalk-enforcement-actions/

    Note that these enforcements lead to tickets being given to both car and bike drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. Also, shortly before this video was made, the mayor at the time, Tom Potter, took part in at least one of the enforcements while inviting local media to watch. That led to significant media coverage, which greatly amplified its effect.

    Mayor Reed, which day are you available?Report

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  7. Jeanne Bonner says:

    Great topic, Maria and not a bit boring, in my opinion! Pedestrians make cities lively. I’ve written a bit about this as well. In fact, I tried to get a crosswalk on Boulevard improved, but not with much success. You can see here: http://atlantaunsheltered.com/2010/01/29/boulevard-crossing-the-finale-for-now/

    Please note the photo in the post — Walk/Don’t Walk sign is telling me to walk, but car in the middle of crosswalk makes that ill-advised.Report

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  8. Frank says:

    Crosswalks are a concern of mine as well. It isn’t just cities that are a concern. I live in an area that is considered a suburb. In order to cross our busy main road, we have to wait for the Walk sign to flash, but by the time we step into the road, it is already flashing caution. I see a little old lady crossing there all the time and have crossed with her several times. I think the dash across the road as well as all the walking she does keeps her spry. Although we only have a nodding acquaintance, I always look out for her at that intersection and any other folks who might be walking across there.Report

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  9. Intownwriter says:

    Excellent piece, Maria. And, Sally, thanks for including Moreland in your list.

    I live in Ormewood Park, and every time I drive Moreland, I wonder why there aren’t more pedestrian fatalities. South of I-20, especially south of Glenwood, there are huge stretches without crosswalks and, as Sally points out, they are found only at intersections where there are traffic signals.Our South Moreland Living Communities Initiative (LCI) recommends all of the additional conditions to ensure a safe crosswalk. But the “travel efficiency” — thanks for that term, Sally — of Moreland appears to be more important to the DOT than the city’s citizens. And not for the first time, nor the last.Report

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  10. Mason Hicks says:

    I have had the pleasure of working with Sally on several initiatives. She has repeatedly brought up a related issue that I’m surprised that she didn’t mention in her response post here. The stretches of highways that she mentioned are heavily used bus transit corridors as well. There may be up to a mile between signals, but the bus stops are much more frequent. Sally can readily give you the statistics of how many pedestrian fatalities occur at or near bus stops which have no corresponding crosswalk.
    Thank you Maria for this article.Report

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  11. Sally Flocks says:

    Nearly half of all pedestrian crashes in the 18-county metro Atlanta region occur within 300 feet of bus stops. Some twenty-five percent occur within 100 feet of bus stops. Many bus stops are over 1,000 feet from a signalized intersection.

    An on-board study of transit users shows that 75 percent of all transit users in metro Atlanta walk to transit. People 65 or older account for just 2.1 percent of fixed route transit users. At MARTA, annual paratransit costs are already seeing double digit increases. If state and local agencies continue to ignore the need for safe pedestrian access to transit, paratransit costs are likely to explode during the next twenty years.Report

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  12. hollyhej says:

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for writing. Now I will look up PEDS and see how I can help influence policy in Atlanta.We just moved here from Europe, and we’re trying to live with one car. The lack of crosswalk to the closest bus stop is a huge problem – it would be a half-mile walk to use the closest intersection crosswalk, when we’re just trying to get across the street!

    Report

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