I see a lot of jaywalking near my office in Golden Valley. A MetroTransit bus drops riders off mid-block, and many of the passengers who work in the office building across the street cross mid-block instead of crossing at either of the adjacent signalized intersections (both of which have functioning button-actuated pedestrian signals). It is perceived as enough of a problem that signs have even been installed by the land owners near the bus stop to discourage the practice, however, pedestrians continue to disregard the signs and cross mid-block.
This is not a unique scenario. As a traffic engineer, I am often involved in projects where the client wants to discourage mid-block crossings, but there is rarely an easy solution. I’d rather not try to persuade pedestrians to cross a street where they aren’t naturally inclined to cross already. I like to believe that my job as an engineer is not to force pedestrians to use a specific crossing location, but to make the natural crossing locations the safest (and vice versa). Any time a pedestrian chooses to cross mid-block, they are implicitly stating that the costs of using the nearest crosswalk are greater than the benefits provided by that crosswalk. They are saying, in effect, that despite my best efforts as an engineer to make crosswalks safe pedestrian facilities, the supposed benefits of crossing there aren’t worth the time and effort it takes to use it. Notice also that the sign placed at this location doesn’t claim that using the crosswalk provides benefits – it only says that it’s the law.
In theory, the benefits of using a crosswalk are many. Pedestrians using crosswalks have the benefit of allowing the traffic signal to stop cross-traffic, providing an acceptable gap in traffic to cross the street. Crosswalks allow pedestrians to cross at a time and location where vehicles will be expecting them. The light ensures that even a relatively slow pedestrian will have enough time to cross the street without awkwardly running or “darting.”
In theory, there are also known costs to using a crosswalk. Using a crosswalk often requires pedestrians to travel additional distance beyond the shortest available path, which requires additional time and energy. Pedestrians will also likely incur additional delay waiting at the traffic signal. Pedestrians must also be aware of vehicles making turning movements in the intersection – a condition that does not usually exist at mid-block locations.
In practice, I hope that the benefits outweigh the costs, but unfortunately, many of the anticipated benefits of crossing at a traffic signal often aren’t fully realized. Vehicles may not properly yield right-of-way to pedestrians, and vehicles may not stop behind the stop lines, blocking the crosswalks. Pedestrians may have learned from previous experiences that not all pedestrian signals function properly. In addition, roadways often widen to allow for turning lanes at intersections, and corners are often designed with a relatively large turning radius. The combination of these two factors results in a significantly larger roadway cross-section at the crosswalk than at mid-block. In some locations, the sidewalks leading to and from crosswalks are not attractive pedestrian spaces, either. All this is not to say that pedestrians don’t necessarily see any value in crossing at intersections, just that they aren’t always willing to travel out of their way to use them. Obviously, the relative weights of the costs and benefits of crossing at a signal vary depending many localized factors.
So what does this mean for engineers and planners? It may mean that we’re building crosswalks in the wrong locations, or that we’re not building enough of them. It also indicates that we could do a lot more to make our intersections more pedestrian friendly. But I also believe that frequent mid-block crossing is ultimately the result of poor urban design – that suburban land use and transportation patterns with large set-back distances, frequent parking lots, and large blocks encourage pedestrians to seek short cuts. I think the best strategy for curbing mid-block crossing is to design cities so that the natural crossing locations inherently occur at intersections. This calls for greater interaction between engineers, planners, and architects, and a greater understanding that every element of the urban landscape plays a role in the pedestrian route decision-making process.