September 26, 2002

10 steps to safer city streets

  • California group shows what can be done
    Walk San Jose

    Restoring “stolen corners” causes motorists to slow down while turning.

    Cities throughout the country are struggling to improve quality of life and reduce traffic congestion by making their downtowns and residential neighborhoods more walkable.

    In many cities, particularly newer cities like San Jose, Calif., residents feel like they have no choice but to drive. Distances are far. Sidewalks are narrow and shadeless. The environs are boring, threatening or dispiriting. Traffic noise is overwhelming. And you risk your life to cross the street.

    In many cases, the problem can be fixed by simply injecting some “FGF” or “Feel Good Factor.” To be inviting and safe to walkers, every street and intersection must have a high FGF.

    FGF requires short crossing distances (or the illusion thereof by the addition of landscaped medians), shade trees separating pedestrians from traffic, human-friendly traffic speeds (25 mph or less), small intersections, bike lanes where possible, and much more. Here’s just an introduction to 10 ways you can make your community safer and friendlier for those who forego four wheels.

    1. “Zebra stripe” key crosswalks

    The easiest and least expensive way to improve conditions for pedestrians is to improve the visibility and prominence of crosswalks on high-volume streets. Included are:

    • Standard “two-stripe” crosswalks are often unsafe because motorists typically cannot see them until they are within about 100 feet.


    • Motorists can see zebra-striped crosswalks from much further away.

    • Certain styles of zebra striping last much longer than conventional two-stripes and are therefore cost effective.

    • Streets “talk,” and zebra striping is one way for streets to tell motorists that pedestrians are an expected, integral part of that street. These crosswalks say: “People cross here, and we mean it.”

    • Ideally, crosswalks on busy streets would all be preceded by “Ped Xing” pavement markings.

    2. Install bicycle lanes on more streets

    Bicycle lanes are an effective and inexpensive way to turn an automobile-dominated street into a more multimodal public space, more in line with today’s transportation needs. Ideally, bicycle lanes would be placed on every arterial and collector street.

    • Bicycle lanes improve safety for bicyclists.

    • Bicycle lanes encourage bicycle use.

    • Bicycle lanes help to separate vehicle traffic from pedestrians.

    • Bicycle lanes can result in narrowing vehicle traveling lanes, an adjustment which tends to slow vehicle traffic by up to 5 miles per hour.

    • Healthy neighborhoods provide high levels of support for bicycle use.

    3. Place pedestrian islands/refuges on busy streets

    This can be an inexpensive and effective way to improve safety without having to install a traffic signal. It can be particularly effective when combined with “bulb-outs.”

    • Provides pedestrians greatly added safety as they cross a busy street.

    • Slows down cars at the intersection.

    • Slows down left-turn movements.

    • If landscaped, can provide aesthetic improvement.

    • Should add vertical signage for increased visibility of crosswalk and island.

    • Particularly suitable where speed limit is 30 mph and lower.

    • Add “Ped Xing” sign on island to call attention to the island.

    4. Restore “stolen corners”

    City of Seattle contacts include:
    Greg Nickels
    600 Fourth Ave.
    12th Floor, Seattle, WA 98104, (206) 684-4000

    City Council
    1100 Municipal Building
    600 Fourth Ave.
    Seattle, WA 98104

    Jim Compton

    Richard Conlin

    Jan Drago

    Nick Licata

    Richard McIver

    Judy Nicastro

    Margaret Pageler

    Peter Steinbrueck

    Heidi Wills

    Seattle Transportation
    600 Fourth Ave.
    Fourth Floor
    Seattle, WA 98104
    or: 684-7577
    (for residential street traffic concerns)

    Tight, old-fashioned “square” corners should be restored at intersections where broad, rounded “speedway” corners are. The modern, broad corners induce motorists to speed, create unduly large intersections that are frighteningly dangerous to cross on foot, and, and effectively steal key territory from pedestrians and give it to automobiles.

    • A tighter corner (also called smaller “curb radius”) causes motorists to take their right turns much more slowly.

    • Tighter corners enable pedestrians to cross the street twice as fast. Which means pedestrians are exposed to traffic for only half as long.

    • The “Walk” cycle can be shorter, thereby reducing delays for motorists.

    • It is easier to place a “push button” within easy reach of pedestrians and cyclists on a squared corner.

    5. Place “bulb-outs” at key intersections

    These type of curb extensions are popular in retail districts. They:

    • Create extra space for benches, landscaping, tables, chairs, etc.

    • Enable pedestrians to cross the street in a much shorter time.

    • Make it safer for drivers to see pedestrians waiting to cross the street.

    • Slow right-turn movements.

    • Midblock bulb-outs, combined with pedestrian islands, can create a very safe pedestrian/bicycle crossing.

    6. Add more crosswalks

    San Jose recently completed a shameful campaign to remove crosswalks in the name of “improving” pedestrian safety because, allegedly, crosswalks provide pedestrians with “a false sense of security.”

    Not the case. What crosswalks do is communicate to motorists that they should yield to pedestrians. Without crosswalks, motorists are simply not inclined to stop for a pedestrian. What is needed are more and safer crosswalks, not fewer crosswalks. If the “false sense of security” argument were true, then we should throw out seat belts, traffic signals, child seats, air bags, and other mechanisms designed to protect motorists and their passengers, too.

    • Crosswalks should be made safer, and almost never removed.

    • Unlike motorists, pedestrians are extremely sensitive to distance. Pedestrians should have numerous options for crossing a street. It is not reasonable to require pedestrians to walk five or 10 minutes out of their way just to cross a street.

    • Aside from providing pedestrians with the options they need, a consistent pattern of crosswalks also puts drivers on notice to expect pedestrians at intersections.

    • Legally speaking, pedestrians have the right of way at every intersection, whether marked or not. However, motorists simply do not yield to pedestrians unless they see a crosswalk.

    • For added safety, crosswalks can be raised (like a speed table), textured, or constructed in any variety of colors.

    7. Convert four-lane “collector” streets to three-lane “multimodal” streets

    This is really a great, inexpensive way to make a collector or arterial street calmer, safer and multimodal. It can restore safety and dignity to residential streets that have evolved into four-lane horrors. If done correctly, no traffic volume will be lost.

    • These “three-laners,” which feature ample turning lanes, can handle as much, if not more, vehicle capacity as four-laners, if intersections are treated correctly. Remember, on most streets, intersections determine road capacity, not the number of traveling lanes.

    • This is ideal in residential collectors, because it does not cause any traffic to be diverted to local streets, but it slows the traffic down to speed-limit levels.

    • It is much, much safer to cross this type of street than a standard four-lane street with no median.

    • This treatment creates the opportunity to add bicycle lanes without removing any parking spaces.

    • If you add a landscaped median, it can dramatically beautify the street.

    • With this design, it is easy to add pedestrian islands and bulb-outs to protect walkers and cyclists.

    8. Install traffic circles

    Large roundabouts and small neighborhood traffic circles are increasingly popular traffic control devices. They are an inexpensive and effective alternative to traffic signals or stop signs.

    • These devices, if installed correctly, can slow traffic on neighborhood streets.

    • They can greatly add to the aesthetics of a neighborhood.

    9. Install speed humps

    Speed humps can be effective at diverting cut-through traffic from neighborhood streets, and slowing traffic down to about 15-20 mph. They are much less jarring than their smaller counterpart, “speed bumps.”

    10. Contact the city about hazardous conditions

    Once the city is on notice of a hazardous pedestrian or bicycle condition, it will be more likely to take action to correct it.

    Jill Escher is president of Walk San Jose, a group seeking to make modest changes in that city’s street standards to improve road safety for all users. The group says vehicles are the number one killer of children in San Jose.

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