Tom Vanderbilt in NYT: Jaywalking Tickets Don’t Make Streets Safer

Enforcement of jaywalking doesn’t improve pedestrian safety. So what will? Tom Vanderbilt, best-selling author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, gave a succinct answer in a New York Times op-ed this weekend. Our cities will be safer to walk in when we have “better walking infrastructure, slower car speeds and more pedestrians.”

What keeps people safe when walking? Other people walking. What makes people want to walk? Safe conditions. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/purincess/3695844638/##Purin Phanichphant/flickr##
What keeps people safe when walking? Other people walking. What makes people want to walk? Safe conditions. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/purincess/3695844638/##Purin Phanichphant/flickr##

It’s that simple. Police departments in cities around the country — including, disappointingly, Bill de Blasio’s New York — crack down on pedestrians who break the letter of the law even though, Vanderbilt says, “more pedestrians generally are killed in urban areas by cars violating their right of way than are rogue pedestrians violating vehicles’ right of way.”

“Then there are those people struck on sidewalks, even inside restaurants,” Vanderbilt writes. “What do we call that? Jay-living?”

Vanderbilt applauds pedestrian-oriented street fixtures like countdown clocks and even the simple walk signal, then he dismisses the beg button as unnecessary in New York, where there are always enough pedestrians to warrant a walk phase.

I do think beg buttons have their place — specifically, where inductive loops under the roadbed change the traffic signal but don’t pick up the scent of a simple human. These are especially useful where small streets intersect with big ones that have long signal phases. (And they can be especially entertaining when you can play pong with someone across the street while you wait.)

But his larger point is indisputable: Blaming pedestrians for the destruction wrought by motorists is disastrously misguided. Drivers need to be held responsible for any crash they could have reasonably prevented, no matter what the pedestrian was doing. The fact that the most vulnerable and least destructive people on the streets are getting hefty fines from police is ludicrous. If we want to make our streets safer for people walking, we will design our streets to welcome and protect them.

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