To cross, or not to cross, that is the question

The Ann Arbor crosswalk ordinance happens to be THE controversial topic of the day.  Back in 2010, the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalitiona (WBWC) worked with Ann Arbor City Council to pass a stronger crosswalk ordinance than was written into the Michigan Uniform Traffic code (MUTC).1  The WBWC filmed a video of how difficult it was to cross streets here in Ann Arbor even though Ann Arbor was known as a pedestrian friendly city, to show that something needed to be done to help pedestrians cross the street safely.  The City Council was convinced that there was a problem and so the saga of the crosswalk ordinance language changes began. Here is the video from WBWC:

 

 

After much deliberation, the language changes that were suggested and ultimately approved were subtle, but distinct.  Currently, there is a concerted effort to repeal the Ann Arbor crosswalk ordinance.  Is that a good idea?  Should it be done?  Let’s take a step back and walk through all the language changes to see what actually was done and then try and figure out a solution to the actual problem the city and the resident’s face.

The background regarding language changes

First lets review some of the pedestrian rights and responsibilities from the Michigan Uniform Traffic code (MUTC) that are relevant to our discussion.  Keep in mind that the MUTC has many sections pertaining to pedestrians, but I am only going to summarize a few points. Below are three very important rules from the code that are relevant to our crosswalk discussion.  The selection in orange is the primary language that was  subsequently changed by the City of Ann Arbor pedestrian ordinance.

PART 7. PEDESTRIANS’ RIGHTS AND DUTIES
R 28.1701 Rule 701. Pedestrians; traffic control signals; privileges and restricts; violation as civil infraction.
(1) Pedestrians are subject to traffic control signals at intersections as provided in section 613 of the act and part 4 of this code. At all other places, pedestrians shall be accorded the privileges, and shall be subject to the restrictions, stated in this part.
(2) A person who violates this rule is responsible for a civil infraction.
R 28.1702 Rule 702. Pedestrians; right of way in crosswalk; violation as civil infraction.
(1) When traffic control signals are not in place or are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right of way, slowing down or stopping if need be to so yield, to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is on the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or when the pedestrian is approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger, but a pedestrian shall not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into a path of a vehicle that is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield.
(2) A person who violates this rule is responsible for a civil infraction.
R 28.1703 Rule 703. Passing vehicle stopped at intersection to permit pedestrian to cross prohibited; violation as civil infraction.
(1) When any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.
(2) A person who violates this rule is responsible for a civil infraction

What City Council passed in July 2010 was a change to Section 10:148 of Chapter 126, Traffic, of Title X of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor.  Our traffic code lists similar rules for pedestrians that is in the MUTC, but does not mention everything that is discussed in it; the remainder of the code in the MUTC and the Michigan Vehicle Code (MVC) are adopted by reference.  All drivers are still responsible for following the rules in the MUTC/MVC that the Ann Arbor code is silent on.

The reflected changes from the July 20 council resolution are delineated from the original text with color (additions are in red, deletions in green)

Section 10:148 of Chapter 126, Traffic, of Title X of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor
(a) When traffic control signals are not in place or are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop and yield the right of way, slowing down or stopping if need be to so yield, to a every pedestrian approaching or crossing the roadway within a crosswalk.
(b) A pedestrian shall not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into a path of a vehicle that is so close that it is unsafe for the driver to yield.
(c) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

After much uproar about this ordinance change, the Council amended the language of the ordinance in December 2011 to be this (additions are in red, deletions in green):

Section 10:148 of Chapter 126, Traffic, of Title X of the Code of the City of Ann Arbor 10:148. – Pedestrians crossing streets.
(a) When traffic-control signals are not in place or are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop and yield the right of way before entering a crosswalk and yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian approaching or within a crosswalk stopped at the curb, curb line or ramp leading to a crosswalk and to every pedestrian within a crosswalk, when the pedestrian is on the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or when the pedestrian is approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.
(b) A pedestrian shall not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into a path of a vehicle that is so close that it is unsafe for the driver to yield.
(c) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

To spell this out in a simple manner, Ann Arbor City Council changed our local traffic ordinance in July 2010 to say that cars now needed to stop for pedestrians approaching a crosswalk (not just in a crosswalk as stipulated in the MUTC).  Then in January 2011, they amended it again to say that cars must stop for pedestrians at the curb or within the crosswalk instead of using the term ‘approaching’.

The controversy

One would think that these minor changes would not lead to such controversy.  The word ‘approach’ has apparently been used in other communities, but this word has confused drivers, including me, on what ‘approach’ meant.  How far did a pedestrian need to be from a crosswalk before we considered the pedestrian approaching?  Ten steps, twenty steps? Did they need to turn towards the ramp?  What if they were standing at the bus stop that is close to a crosswalk?  It was arbitrary and not clear to many of us.  Council did respond to this and made a necessary change that cleared up the language and you would assume the confusion and the controversy also. However, the controversy just got worse.

Now remember, neither one of the Ann Arbor ordinances changed the original MUTC very much.  Instead of being in a crosswalk, the pedestrian now needs to be on the ramp or curb for traffic to stop.  This change is really not that major.  And it is not major enough in my opinion for there to be such an uproar.  It seems simple to me…if you see someone standing at the curb waiting to cross, the driver should stop.  However, there are other circumstances that do make this simple conclusion a little unclear which we will get to later.

So now we have the community up in arms over this.  They blame the language changes for creating an increase in accidents at crosswalks.  The pro-crosswalks crowd blames the drivers for not paying attention.  The truth is that many of the accidents at crosswalks happen because the driver is not following the MUTC; it has nothing to do with the changes that the Ann Arbor City Council passed.  The tragic incident that killed Sharita Williams who was killed while crossing Plymouth road while in a crosswalk was not her fault.  She was following Michigan Traffic code (MUTC), which is State law and not part of the change to our ordinance, and was almost to the other side of the street when she was hit and killed.  Other pedestrians have also been hit while IN the crosswalk.  Again, the changes that were made to the language in the Ann Arbor traffic ordinance had nothing to do with these accidents.

So why then if the language changes are so minor are we having an increase in crosswalk accidents and so much strife in the community?

The truth is that change is hard.  Drivers in Michigan are not accustomed to stopping at crosswalks.   The law has not been strictly enforced in any community that I know of in Michigan on any type of regular basis.  The public’s reaction to this is because they view this as an “Ann Arbor’ only issue where they are having to do something dramatically different than before, eventhough this was just a minor change to a previous law (albeit an infrequently enforced law).  The uproar is not over the Ann Arbor ordinance changes, but over having to stop at any time for a pedestrian at a crosswalk as stipulated in the MUTC.

The WBWC made a mistake when pushing for the recent change to be implemented.  It created the wrong solution for their current problem. It should have started with an education and enforcement program of the MUTC pedestrian traffic codes first, before trying to expand the ordinance to include approaching or standing on the curb.

The WBWC knew that pedestrians had a hard time crossing the street and wanted to make it easier. They believe that cars do not stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk or waiting to enter the crosswalk (the problem represented in the video above).  Their ‘solution’ was to make the pedestrian ordinance include more variables (eg. include approaching) so that pedestrians would be able to use a crosswalk in a more safe and convenient manner.  However, drivers were not following the basic crosswalk ordinance to begin with and were never stopping for any pedestrians whatsoever.  Their solution actually did not solve their problem at hand.  Their solution of expanding the ordinance to include approaching pedestrians does nothing to solve the problem of cars not stopping.  It is not a matter of if the pedestrian is approaching or in the crosswalk, it is simply a matter of the drivers not stopping whatsoever at a crosswalk.

The Possible Repeal

Now there are movements afoot in Ann Arbor to try and repeal the local crosswalk ordinance.  Even if that succeeds, if solves nothing, because implementation of the ‘approaching’ or ‘standing on the curb’ ordinance change has really done nothing to cause the accidents.  The MUTC crosswalk laws which drivers are now trying to follow are the reason.  The local ordinance is just the scapegoat that the drivers are using to try and deny responsibility for ignoring a law that they should have been following all along.

The issue is no longer just a ‘political’ issue where a pro-activist group and an anti-activist group pulls the council in all directions to try and get changes implemented for certain issues in the city.  The crosswalk issue is different.  The anti-crosswalk group is now encompassing average non-political residents who hate these crosswalks.  They believe that crosswalks are causing the accidents, that they are dangerous, and that they should be eliminated. Not since the Dam in/Dam out controversy has there been an issue that caused the non-political community to become so vocal.

The Dam in/ Dam out controversy was in relation to the whether the Argo Dam would be repaired or removed due to a request/demand by the State of Michigan.  The HRWC wanted to have the dam removed so that the Huron river would flow freely.  The community came out in force and so ‘no, we want to keep the dam for recreational purposes’. The town was split between the pro-environmentalist vs the pro-recreation crowd.   Ultimately the Dam was repaired.  (In full disclosure this was an issue that I really did not care about. I was neutral on it.  You could say that I didn’t give a damn.  🙂 However, I am quite happy with the result now that we have Argo Cascades.

The pressure from the community may just cause council to repeal the crosswalk ordinance on Monday, November 18. This is a real possibility since the make-up of council has changed since the last election.   We shall see if this new council is supportive of non-motorized transportation by how they discuss this issue. WBWC is obviously against the repeal and has started a petition against the repeal of the crosswalk ordinance.  You can view their change.org petition here. If the repeal happens, it will be shortsighted because it will be for all the wrong reasons.  Nonetheless, even if the repeal does happen, if we have to take one step back in order to take many steps forward, it has still been  beneficial to crosswalk safety in general.  The WBWC took many steps forward when pushing the expansion of the Ann Arbor traffic ordinance.  They got the issue publicized and more people than before are now stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks.  The challenge will be to keep the momentum growing.

Problems and Issues with the Crosswalk SystemsPedestrian Crossing Sign

The public does not just have an issue with the stopping at the crosswalks. The public has also criticized many of the new pedestrian crossing systems that have been installed over the past few years.  Keep in mind that Ann Arbor did not create these, they are used in many other places.  Each system whether it is a Hawk system, a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon(RFBB), pedestrian islands, or just signage all have different costs associated with them.  Each community picks what works for them.

3-RRFB-2The Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RFBB) that is a flashing LED light has been criticized a lot recently because it is the system installed in Plymouth Rd where the traffic is congested at times and moves quite fast.  Drivers don’t like it, aren’t used to it, and apparently have never seen it before.  But does that mean they should never be used?

(Personally, I have complaints about some of the crossing systems also.  I think some of the small pedestrian island signs are too small for large, wide roads like Eisenhower and Stadium, but work well on smaller streets.  I do notice the flashing RFBBs on Plymouth Rd, but they do startle me when they go off and I am driving within feet of them.  Just driving down Plymouth Rd near all the crosswalks makes my anxiety level increase.)

What irks me a little about the RFBBs is that Boulder ( the city we always seem to reference when we are emulating a real progressive city as a fast follower) already knew that there was some unrealized problems with these systems.  In 2010 before we passed our ordinance, Boulder reported an increase in accidents at these crosswalks using these RFBB systems.2  There was an increase in rear-end collisions as well as an increase in pedestrian /car accidents with no explanation why.  What irks me is why were there no steps taken to try and mitigate these now known effects of the system?  I am not saying that we should not have installed them, just that we should have been more proactive in problem solving upon implementation of the RFBB system.  When doing research for this column, I  found many articles describing the problems associated with Boulder crosswalks and their RFBB systems.  In fact their problems are almost identical to Ann Arbor’s crosswalk problems.  The discussion that the City of Boulder has had sounds very similar to the discussion that the city of Ann Arbor is now having yet it occurred before our implementation.  We should have foreseen potential problems and at least tried to implement a better solution.

Statistics

Traffic accidents at crosswalks have gone up in Ann Arbor as well as in Boulder after there were ordinance changes and RFBB systems installed. In 2012, Boulder concluded a transportation study that looked at crosswalk safety.  They found that if they took out one problematic crosswalk from the statistics that their flashing crosswalks became statically safer.  One bad apple made the whole batch look rotten.  Here is an excerpt from a Boulder news article3:

“Crosswalks of all types accounted for 44 percent of accidents involving pedestrians and 56 percent of accidents involving bikes. But of those, only 6 percent took place in a flashing crosswalk.

“We found that people are just as likely to be hit at crosswalks at intersections” as they are at flashing crosswalks, said Bill Cowern, a Boulder traffic engineer.

A 2010 Boulder study found that more than one-third of the crosswalks with flashing lights have led to higher rates of accidents. Cowern said that’s likely because there’s a learning curve for drivers and pedestrians and because more people started using the crosswalks.

He said the city removed the most dangerous flashing crosswalk — on Baseline Road just east of Broadway, now scheduled to receive an underpass — which has helped improve the overall safety record of the flashing walkways.

“Flashing crosswalks are now statistically more safe,” Cowern said.3

At an august city council meeting and reported in the Ann Arbor News4, Sabra Briere gave some statistics about accidents at crosswalks in the city of Ann Arbor.  What she concludes is that you are more likely to get hit in a crosswalk downtown at a stoplight rather than at a crosswalk with a RFBB.

Although the number of accidents has increased in the past couple of years, that increase is reflected in a set of startling facts: most accidents occur in the autumn when visibility decreases and new people move into our community.

But don’t assume that this increase is due to unfamiliar traffic laws, however — it’s been the pattern since 2004. And most accidents between pedestrians and cars are downtown, and at a stop light or stop sign. Most of the time, the driver simply didn’t see the pedestrian who was legally in the crosswalk and following the law.  –Sabra Briere

These are the same conclusions that Boulder found.  However, Boulder is a step ahead of us and is actually looking at installing a different crosswalk system for their one problematic crosswalk.  Maybe we should do something different for our problematic crosswalk on Plymouth Rd? It would be nice to evaluate lessons learned from other communities instead of just assuming that things will get better over time.

So why have accidents increased all over the city and not just at crosswalks with RFBBs?

Now it begs the question of why accidents have increased at all crosswalks throughout the city after the implementation of stricter crosswalk laws and new crosswalk systems.  This has occurred not only in Ann Arbor but also in Boulder where we had similar law changes, similar pedestrian crossing systems and similar repercussions.

I believe it has to do with the pedestrian.  Pedestrians are empowered and emboldened when crossing the street now.  Before they were more cautious and might have paused more before actually stepping out into the street.  They feel protected now…after all they have the right of way.  Although this is true, I think it has caused problems where the pedestrian is now stepping off a curb without thinking.  Cars and pedestrians need to work together to fix this system if Ann Arbor wants to be a town dedicated to improving non-motorized transportation.

Solutions

So what can the City and WBWC do to solve the problem of drivers not stopping at crosswalks for pedestrains?  There are two things they should do regardless of whether the Ann Arbor crosswalk ordinance is repealed.

1)   Enforcement- The MUTC should be enforced strictly on a regular basis.  Citations should be given to drivers who blatantly ignore the pedestrians, especially those who will often go around cars already stopped for a pedestrian.  I am also for citations given to pedestrians who blatantly jaywalk, suddenly come out between two cars into traffic and walk out in front of a car that has to slam and squeal their breaks.  Enforcement needs to be fair and encompass all drivers and pedestrians.

If the council decides to repeal the ordinance, my hope is that a council member who understands the issue will present some sort of instruction to the police or pass a resolution insisting on strict enforcement of the pedestrian section of the MUTC.  If the repeal is not conditioned on immediate and aggressive enforcement of the MUTC, repealing without immediate enforcement would be 10x worse than the situation today.

2)   Education-  The City, WBWC or another non-profit should start an educational campaign to try and teach the residents (both drivers and pedestrians) about crosswalk safety.  (If there is one going on now, I certainly don’t know about it and can’t find it to reference.) This is something the WBWC would be good at.  Right now they have a pretty good website with all sorts of info, but if you don’t know to go there, you don’t see it.  Right now they are preaching to the choir and should expand out to be a real marketing force if crosswalk safety is high on their agenda.  Currently the WBWC is fighting the repeal of the ordinance.   I hope they come up with a plan to show how the education problem will be handled.

All Star Driver Education

Click photo for a youtube video for more on Capt Drver’s Ed.

Captain Driver’s Ed to the rescue?

At the Novemebr 7th council meeting, Tom Wall came dressed up as his alter ego- Captain Drivers Ed and offered a great proposal to council. He suggested that the city potentially hire his company All Star Driver Education to educate the public about crosswalks.  He said his company is well-known and nobody can market and promote it like they do in a fun way.  Watch these two videos to hear his proposal:

 

He even serenaded council…take a listen.

Some of you might think this is just plain silly, but I actually think it is a fabulous idea. In today’s world a viral videos can get the message out in a cute, funny way where a serious short educational documentary type film cannot.

There is a great Ted Talk given by Kevin Allocca about why videos go viral.  He explains how unexpectedness and humor play a part in why people watch videos over and over.  When you watch a video repeatedly, you get the message stuck in your head. In his talk Kevin refers to Casey Neisbet’s video about blocked bike lanes in NYC.

Watch Casey Nesbitts video here ( it’s rather funny):

 

 

“By being totally surprising and humorous Casey Nesbit got his idea and point seen 5 million times”.

–       Kevin Allocca

If we want people to pay attention and to take notice, using humor is a way to get people to wake up.  Captain Drivers Ed could be our local character that educates the public on how the motorized transportation crowd can get along with the non-motorized transportation crowd.

When I first saw Captain Drivers Ed speaking at council, I chuckled and thought back to one of my favorite super hero, do-gooder character from my child hood- Captain Caveman.  Captain Drivers Ed could be the super hero that saves non-motorized transportation initiatives using fun and humor. Captain Drivers Ed will swoop in and save the city by educating the public on crosswalk safety.  Anyway, just for fun, in case you don’t remember Captain Caveman, here is a video.

 

 

smokey_the_bearCartoons and other characters have been used throughout time to get people to notice an issue.  Once the characters catch on, the message catches on.  For example remember Smokey the Bear saying “  Only you can prevent forest fires.”.  That message has been engrained in generation after generation for the past 70 years.

Another example is the Schoolhouse Rock videos.  These cartoons were run on Saturday mornings.  The catchy tunes were memorized by children and helped theschoolhouserockm learn grammar, history, science, and math.  These cartoons are treasured by generation after generation. Who can forget “Conjunction, Junction, what’s your function? or ‘I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on capital hill”.  CNN just did a report on how these cartoons are still teaching generations.

Take a look at one of the most famous Schoolhouse Rock videos, “I’m just a bill”
(Click on ‘playlist’ in the upper left corner to see a list of other Schoolhouse videos that you play)

 

 

A unique character that is local that can get people to pay attention and learn about non-transportation AND transportation issues could just be the thing we need to get past this issue.  I am all for it.  If the city and/or WBWC won’t finance Tom Wall to create an education program, I hope that Mr. Wall does it on his own and then markets his videos to the State of Michigan or other local municipalities.

Conclusion

So to sum up, I think regardless of whether the city council repeals the crosswalk ordinance, we as a community need to embrace crosswalks and our non-motorized transportation initiatives..  These initiatives make Ann Arbor a better place to live.  If we don’t get it right the first time we should learn from the past, learn from other communities, and try again.  The WBWC needs to do a cost benefit ratio and decide whether to dig in their heels and fight to keep the current crosswalk ordinance or take one step back to re-evaluate, in order to go many steps forward.

Buy-in from the public is very important.  If the residents of the city are adamantly against the crosswalk ordinance, something needs to be done to bring them back into the fold.  Pushing this program with a disregard for the misunderstanding of the public is irresponsible.  The WBWC needs to stop pushing their expansion plan (adding other variables) and get back to the basics, getting cars to acknowledge a crosswalk and for them to stop for a pedestrian.  I think they have overlooked that basic step and took it for granted.  Once that is accomplished then expansion of the law to include ‘approaching’ or ‘standing on the curb’ can be considered.

omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis

-MOTL

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1 Ryan J. Stanton, “Ann Arbor’s new pedestrian safety ordinance seeks to prevent ‘playing Frogger’ to cross city streets”  Ann Arbor News, July 20, 2010.

2 Heath Urie,  “Report finds some Boulder flashing crosswalks leading to problems.”  ColoradoDaily.com, April 10, 2010

3 Heath Urie,  “Boulder study sheds light on bicycle, pedestrian accidents” The Daily Camera,  June 4, 2012

4 Ryan J. Stanton, “Most dangerous intersections for pedestrians in Ann Arbor are downtown, council member says”  Ann Arbor News, Aug 20, 2013.

 

crosswalk1   crosswalk2

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