Walk Don’t Walk

To prevent killing pedestrians, does it sometimes make more sense to break the law than obey it?

Walk Don’t Walk
Photo Illustration by Randall Nelson
Will the driver in the red car stop, or won’t he? Everything hangs in the balance.

If the safety value of crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections is negligible at best, and fatal at worst, the question must be begged: Why install them at all? If leaving those intersections un-striped is arguably safer, and obviously cheaper, doesn’t it make more sense to leave them alone? Furthermore, if the part of the pedestrian-crosswalk law about every intersection being a crosswalk causes so much confusion and uncertainty, why not change the law?

This summer, the stretch of Snelling Avenue in St. Paul from I-94 to West 7th Street was regraded and repaved. It’s a textbook example of a busy four-lane road where people regularly drive 10 to 15 miles per hour over the posted 30 mph speed limit. It’s a road where, it would seem, encouraging people to cross anywhere but stoplights would be inadvisable.

In addition to making the road smoother, part of the Snelling project involved reassessing the crosswalk situation, particularly at unmarked intersections. As a result, several crosswalks were added at intersections, particularly bus stops, where previously there had been nothing but four lanes of black asphalt. Twenty-three non-stoplight crossings now pepper that three-mile stretch alone. Paul St. Martin, St. Paul’s head traffic engineer, is the man who ultimately signed off on those additional crosswalks. Why did he do it?

It’s complicated.

“We keep in mind those studies about higher crash rates at intersections like that,” says St. Martin. “But there are a lot of other factors to consider.” Before putting a crosswalk in, he explains, “we look at volume of traffic, speed, number of pedestrians, how close the crossing is to a traffic signal, how well pedestrians can see oncoming cars.”

Public perception and pressure are another important factor. “At public forums, it’s clear that people think crosswalks are safer, and they want us to put them in because they want people to know that pedestrians are crossing the road. The public also wants crosswalks to reinforce the idea that pedestrians have the right of way and that the law says vehicles should stop.”

Each location has its own circumstances, says St. Martin, and all factors are weighed. “We use our experience and judgment,” he says. “If we think it’s unsafe to put a crosswalk in, we won’t.”

He’s also quick to add that he and his crew don’t just paint the road; they add additional signage, use thick, block-style “zebra” crosswalks that are easier for drivers to see, and paint them with high-visibility paint in squares that are grooved to improve reflection at night.

Still, when asked if he himself would step into one of his own crosswalks in front of a stopped car, he quickly replied, “No. I wait until the road is clear, and then I cross.” In general, he says, “pedestrians need to take responsibility for their own safety.”