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: ## Phanichphant/flickr##
What keeps people safe when walking? Other people walking. What makes people want to walk? Safe conditions. Photo: ## 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.

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

  1. Mr. Vanderbilt’s book is excellent written, and is a must read for anyone interested in improving street safety.

  2. I definitely agree that beg buttons can be useful at intersections like you describe. the problem isn’t the buttons, it’s that many ped signals default to “don’t walk”, even for the direction with the green light, and require a full cycle to get a walk signal with the next green. a pedestrian should always be able to legally cross in the direction that has the green light. the default for a ped signal at these smaller intersections should be for the ped signal to be blank, and the beg buttons should serve the function of activating the ped signal along with a modified signal phase.

  3. The “Don’t WALK” on green unless you hit the button is a real problem in suburban areas. It pretty much assures you’ll have to wait a long cycle unless someone else hits the button for you.

    We also have ones where you only get the WALK for say 25 seconds even though the light stays green for a minute. Arrive late and no crossing for you even though there’s plenty of time to cross safely.

  4. Certain municipalities have programmed their beg buttons to (under a certain set of parameters) immediately activate the walk signal, as opposed to forcing pedestrians to wait for an entire cycle to get their OK to cross. And mid-block beg buttons should immediately engage the yellow/red cycle for vehicular traffic. Forcing a pedestrian to wait over a minute or two is just inviting jaywalking and thus, a wasted light cycle.

  5. Spot on, Tanya. Can say the same for bicycling in the urban environment: better infrastructure designed to be inclusive of cycling, slower vehicle traffic, and more riders.

    Also, “beg buttons” make sense on major roads where pedestrian traffic is infrequent. My beef with them is when traffic managers make them completely subservient to vehicle LOS. Then again these might be great locations to set up espresso stands.

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