Downtown View:Jaywalking is Safest

August 29, 2016
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By Karen Cord Taylor

Karen is on a break. We’ve not heard much about this bill since last winter. But jaywalking is still a Bostonian’s best bet.

It gladdened my heart last week to read that state Senator Harriette Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester and the Senate Majority Leader, proposed raising the fine for jaywalking from $1 to $25 for a first offense up to $75 for third offenses and more. She thinks this will save lives.

I was delighted for two reasons. First, it’s fun to watch when people try to solve a problem with an ineffective solution.

Also, the senator’s proposal gives me the chance to celebrate jaywalking as the Boston pedestrians’ only way to get across a street.

Let’s look at facts. Massachusetts saw 11 pedestrian deaths between January 4 and January 26, according to WalkBoston. Eight were caused by drivers, not pedestrians. Four of the victims were in a crosswalk, but the drivers hit them anyway. One driver was drunk. Three drivers hit and ran. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of WalkBoston because I care about this stuff.)

Eight fatalities occurred after dark. Older pedestrians were more at risk: seven were over 60.

The irony is that Sen. Chandler would be increasing the fine on the best way to stay safe. Studies in San Francisco, New York City and Florida have determined that jaywalking is safer than crossing in a crosswalk.

In May, 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks vindicated Boston pedestrians when he wrote that people take more risks when they believe systems or devices are in place to protect them. “[Pedestrians] have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways,” he wrote.

Despite the recent tragedies, Boston’s jaywalkers still make this city the second safest for pedestrians in America. Transportation for America, an organization devoted to expanding transportation options, quantified the most dangerous places for pedestrians. In 50 metro areas of more than 1 million, Minneapolis-St. Paul was safest, but Boston was second.

This is despite the fact that more Boston-area residents (4.6 percent) walk to work than in any American city except New York (6 percent). New York was also safer for pedestrians, with a ranking just under Boston’s.

Putting safety aside, jaywalking is the reasonable option when pedestrians face the challenges the city’s transportation officials put in their way.

The city has installed push buttons at every crosswalk so cars are not inconvenienced if no one is waiting to cross. We doubt that the buttons work since we know how badly the city maintains anything. So we are forced to take matters into our own hands.

Most cities use buttons at crosswalks where few pedestrians turn up. Here, at all times of day, there are as many pedestrians as cars at most intersections. We always need a walk cycle. Take out the buttons, and spend the savings on pre-kindergarten.

Another problem is that even if we get a walk cycle, it is not concurrent with traffic going in the same direction, as it is in every other American city. Maybe those officials don’t want us to slow down the drivers who are turning.

Law-abiding tourists are stuck and confused. You watch them stand on a corner, waiting and waiting for the little white man, wondering why Bostonians are paying no attention.

The next problem is the time walkers are given to cross a street. We might get 18 seconds at a Cambridge Street intersection, while Washington D.C. pedestrians get 47 seconds on a street of a comparable size. (It is nerdy to measure such things, but I do it.)

It is ironic in “America’s Walking City” that city officials are so behind the times in making it more convenient and safer for walkers.     Cambridge and Chicago have instituted a “leading pedestrian interval” at some intersections. Pedestrians get a few seconds head start in crossing the street before the light turns green for cars heading in the same direction. Turning cars are more likely to see pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk.

Finally, drivers should be fined for blasting through un-signaled crosswalks when a person has already started to cross. California drivers on even the busiest roads stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. In Boston, where drivers seem oblivious, a sign helps.

Mayor Walsh has a plan for making our streets safer with his Vision Zero Task Force. It has identified some of the most dangerous locations and made plans to make them safer. His plea for drivers to slow down won’t make a difference. But his plan for speed bumps and raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods is an excellent start, since high speed is the greatest factor in pedestrian deaths.

Making laws and the right of way tougher on cars is the way to go, not blaming the victims.

Meanwhile, I called Ms. Chandler’s office to see how things are going. Haven’t heard back yet.

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