Friday, May 7, 2010

Crosswalks and the Burden of Anxiety

Over on the TAB blog, TAB editorial cartoonist Mark Marderosian takes umbrage with pedestrians who exercise their right to use the crosswalk:

People suddenly turning 90 degrees and walking out onto the street, no matter how close a car is, not caring that a pileup or screeching of brakes is imminent. It happens too many times that people are bound and determined to prove they have the right of way, even if it literally kills them.

The crosswalk is not in a plexiglass bubble.

Mark has, implicitly, raised the key policy question: who should have the burden of anxiety in a crosswalk? Should every motorist be responsible for making sure that there is no conflict between car and pedestrian in a crosswalk, approaching each crosswalk at a speed and with necessary attention to stop for any pedestrian? Or, should the pedestrian approach the crosswalk wary of cars that aren't prepared to stop?

There's a certain logical appeal to Mark's outrage. Drivers go through many more crosswalks when there aren't pedestrians present than they go through crosswalks when there are. There will be a whole lot of wasted caution if every driver going through every crosswalk needs to be alert for the possibility of a pedestrian and be able to stop safely. Pedestrians, on the other hand only need to be worried about a potential conflict when they are actually approaching a crosswalk. There is no wasted caution for pedestrians. There is a pedestrian in the crosswalk every time a pedestrian enters a crosswalk.

It's much more efficient to have pedestrians shoulder the burden of anxiety.

The problem with the efficiency argument is that it masks serious, negative policy implications.

When you put the burden of anxiety on the pedestrian, you discourage people from becoming pedestrians. You forfeit roads to cars. Roads become barriers between neighbors.

Cars may be a necessary evil, but we urgently need to reduce car use. Global climate change. The catastrophic ecological damage caused by our dependence on oil (see the Gulf of Mexico). Traffic that's ruining our city.

Our policies need to be in harmony with our social goals. If we want to promote walking (and biking), we need to create an environment where pedestrians don't fear for their lives in crosswalks.

Inefficient as it may seem, we really do need drivers to treat crosswalks as plexiglass bubbles. The law unequivocally gives pedestrians the right-of-way. The risk of serious injury or death arises because of the size and potential speed of cars. There's everything right with expecting that motorists live up to the letter of the law, even if it doesn't seem so efficient.


dr2chase said...

Feh. If there's a pedestrian near a crosswalk, a driver should be prepared to stop. If there's a pedestrian running down the street, towards a crosswalk, a driver should be prepared to stop. If there is a van parked in such a way that it obscures the end of the crosswalk, a driver should be prepared for a pedestrian to emerge from behind the van, at the most inconvenient possible moment.

WTF ever happened to personal responsibility? A driver of a car is protected from the elements, protected from most road hazards, has the ability to make up a few "lost" seconds with no personal effort, and (on the other hand) puts everyone around him at increased risk.

It's also not reasonable to make narrowly drawn "efficiency" arguments that favor cars. Is it efficient to send money overseas for oil, then spend money in wars to control the bad behavior that results? Is it efficient to pump CO2 into the atmosphere, then spend money trying to find ways to mitigate? Is it efficient to kill 10s of thousands of people every years (thousands of them, pedestrians)? Is it efficient to slowly get ever fatter and more unfit, so that we must then spend time in the gym, and/or take various drugs, and/or end up with cardiovascular disease (anyhow)? Is it efficient to devote so much of our land to parking?

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget about the bicyclist going the wrong direction that clips you just as you step off the sidewalk looking to the left to see if cars are coming. He/she should get a ticket too.