Research Explains Why Pedestrians ‘Break the Rules’

Photo: Michael Smith
Photo: Michael Smith

A man in wheelchair rolls up to the crosswalk at State Street in Rockford, Ill.

He sees there is no ADA ramp, stops, and then turns around. He rolls down a driveway and then into the street. Briefly mixing with traffic, he rolls around the curb and back onto the crosswalk.

This tiny failure was one of hundreds of captured by University of Illinois master’s student Michael Smith showing how pedestrians interact with drivers and the infrastructure along a dangerous stretch of State Street. The clips were recorded by time-lapse camera at three locations as part of his master’s thesis [PDF].

When pedestrians are hurt or injured, there’s a reflexive impulse in America to blame them, for jaywalking, or for being distracted.

But Smith’s videos found pedestrians’ behavior is influenced a lot by the environment: They’re more likely engage in risky behavior — like walking or rolling in the street or crossing mid-block — when the pedestrian infrastructure is incomplete or lacking.

At that particular intersection on State Street, the same thing happened over and over again. The non-ADA complaint crosswalk was near a housing complex for people 55 and older, Smith says.

“None of the people was using the designated crossing ramp,” Smith told Streetsblog. “They went on the roadway.”

State Street is the most dangerous road in Rockford. About 22 percent of all pedestrian collisions between 2007 and 2016 occurred on this street.

The three locations filmed by Smith on State Streets were fairly typical of many locations around the nation: there weren’t complete sidewalks or even “Walk” signals and many of the stop lights were too far from the next signal.

A bus stop on State Street in Rockford. Photo: Michael Smith
A bus stop on State Street in Rockford. Photo: Michael Smith

“”It’s not so much a failure on behalf of either mode but a land use failure,” he said. “Bus stops are usually just a sign on a lamp post. There’s no benches or shelters.”

People were adapting their behavior to the conditions, often in ways that put them at risk. He noticed, for example, people waiting for buses would often wait at the nearest retail location.

“And then the moment a bus would come, you’d see a mid block crossing, running across the street,” he said.

Smith didn’t see any pedestrians injured during his one month of filming, but he did make some recommendations to improve safety, including reducing the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, adding zebra-striped, high-visibility crosswalks, adding pedestrian leading intervals at traffic signals, and doing ADA upgrades.

  • thielges

    Last week I saw elderly people “break the rules” on two different occasions because they could not walk fast enough to beat the red light even though they started crossing as soon as the “WALK” light turned on. Both times I reached for my phone to be ready to call 911 in case the traffic bearing down on them wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately drivers had their eyes on the road and there was no tragedy.

    This seems like a fairly easy problem to solve. Just enable pedestrian signalling to support an extra long cycle for people who might not walk as briskly as the average person. Maybe add an extra “long crossing” button or allow buttons to recognize a pattern of multi-presses (shave and a haircut … two bits”? ) to activate a longer pedestrian phase.

  • Jason

    Or just install proper pedestrian infrastructure for everyone instead of all of that convoluted bullshit.

  • Taufik Abidin

    You could also narrow the road

  • Seamus Sullivan

    95% of those pedestrian crossing buttons don’t even work, they’re only there to give the impression of control, much like the elevator door buttons

  • Joe

    I’m extremely convinced most civil engineers only ever experience their creations in a car, and never experience them on foot or on bike.

  • thielges

    What do you have in mind to handle this situation of an unusually slow pedestrian?

  • thielges

    Narrowing would be nice but in one case the road (6th St at Normandie in Los Angeles) there isn’t any wiggle room. If anything 6th should be converted from 4 lanes to 2car + 1center + 2bike lanes which would support bicyclists but would not narrow the width.

  • thielges

    Sorry to hear that pedestrian buttons in your area don’t work. It doesn’t need to be that way. In the San Francisco area nearly 100% of pedestrian buttons work. I can’t even remember the last time I found one that failed to summon the WALK signal. Even pavement loop detectors reliably detect bikes at about a 95% rate.

    It can be done, point your local roads agencies towards cities that can make it work.

  • carl jacobs

    People were adapting their behavior to the conditions, often in ways that put them at risk. He noticed, for example, people waiting for buses would often wait at the nearest retail location.

    “And then the moment a bus would come, you’d see a mid block crossing, running across the street”

    I see. So if pedestrians do stupid dangerous stuff, it’s not their fault. It’s the environment’s fault. Can you say “rationalization”?

    East State St east of Alpine Rd in Rockford is a six-lane road (plus turn lanes) that forms the major artery for a huge regional shopping area. It draws people from long distances from all over the area and those people come in cars. There is no credible mass transit option. Rockford could never sustain this business area on its own – especially given Rockford’s depressed economic condition. There also aren’t many residences in the area. It’s not a place to which you can walk.

    What this means is that you don’t want pedestrians on E. State St. The marginal gain is so small it isn’t worth the risk. I have driven that part of E. State St many times and I would never think to even try to traverse the area on foot. What you want is to move traffic into and out of the area as easily and efficiently as possible. You don’t screw up traffic flow to accommodate a non-existent amount of foot traffic.

  • Cynara2

    In Japan elderly and disabled people carry a card. The crosswalk buttons scan the card. The crossing light stays on longer for the elderly, blind and disabled.

  • snobum

    In SF itself, most of those buttons don’t change the light. I’ve noticed many locations have signs that say “accessible message only” which is helpful in knowing I don’t have to press the button.

    https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/San-Francisco-crosswalk-buttons-change-signals-11724613.php

  • hankwilliams

    I object to this “car is king” attitude. It’s the root of the problem.

  • tomwest

    Finding the reasons for people’s behaviour isn’t the same as declaring whose “fault” it is.

  • thielges

    Which came first: The pedestrian-hostile roadway? Or the lack of pedestrians?

  • thielges

    Nice solution so long as slower pedestrians are OK with using the card. Another possibility is to use video monitoring to recognize slow moving pedestrians and dynamically elongate the WALK phase. That sort of video AI technology seemed science fiction a decade ago but now it is becoming mainstream.

  • carl jacobs

    Finding the reasons for people’s behaviour isn’t the same as declaring whose “fault” it is

    So this is how the article framed itself.

    When pedestrians are hurt or injured, there’s a reflexive impulse in America to blame them, for jaywalking, or for being distracted.

    “Blame” is of course about finding fault.

    But …

    An important word. It indicates that the article is intended to refute that notion of blame. Why shouldn’t pedestrians be blamed for their own risky behabiors? Because …

    … Smith’s videos found pedestrians’ behavior is influenced a lot by the environment

    Oh. I see. It’s the environment that is inducing them to run out into the middle of the street. They can hardly help themselves.

    This entire post is a rationalization designed to refute the notion of blame.

  • carl jacobs

    Your question is not properly formed. Forty years ago, there was nothing in that area. A regional center grew up directly off I-90 in order to attract shoppers from the Rockford area, southern Wisconsin, and affluent commuters to the east of Rockford who had left Chicago in search of affordable housing. The area developed around cars because that was how people would get to the location. No one was going to start a bus service from (say) Southern Wisconsin to this shopping area. It couldn’t make money. The business model of the area would only work on the assumption that customers would use private cars to reach the area. The area was optimized around cars because the assumption of cars was fundamental to its business plan. Foot traffic would never be significant to its business.

    Now you may say “I hate that”. But that’s not relevant. The area works and makes a lot of money. Rockford is not driven by the congestion paradigms that drive high-density areas like NYC or Chicago. It’s not hard to get around by car in the Rockford area. There are no long delays due to congestion. The most annoying thing about State St is the excessively long signal lights.

  • I strongly dislike that you are ignoring the senior living facility in the vicinity, which seems to be the source of a non-zero number of particularly vulnerable pedestrians.

  • tomwest

    “influenced” is not the same as “inducing”.

  • Amerisod

    It’s the whole “Nobody walks because we have created a dangerous, hostile walking environment, so why should we provide a safe, pleasant walking environment?” argument.

  • Cynara2

    Well, actually many members of that population already do carry a bus discount card. Maybe it could serve a dual purpose.

  • KJ

    The pedestrians’ behavior is only risky because of speeding cars and multiple-lane streets… so why don’t we focus on slowing those cars and narrowing the streets. That should be the goal.

  • Jeremy

    You say “the area works and makes a lot of money”, but in a different comment you refer to “Rockford’s depressed economic condition”. Is this shopping district you speak of helping the economy of Rockford?

    In 1970, Rockford’s population was 147,370. In 2010, the population was 152,871. Maybe more pedestrian friendly infrastructure will make the city more desirable to live in.

  • George Joseph Lane

    “The area developed around cars because that was how people would get to the location. No one was going to start a bus service from (say) Southern Wisconsin to this shopping area. It couldn’t make money. ”

    The roads lost huge amounts of money, yet they were provided. The environment is a subjective choice that policymakers have made over decades that results in high transport costs, poor health, serious collisions, and high pollution.

  • George Joseph Lane

    The UK uses infra-red or radar cameras to detect whether pedestrians are still crossing. This allows vehicles to move off faster if pedestrians cross quickly and allows slower pedestrians to cross without fear of mutilation.

  • Frank Kotter

    I grew up in a town about 50 miles away from this location in exactly a neighborhood you describe. When I was 11, I got stopped by the police for riding my bike on the street, on the sidewalk on that same street, walking in the street after a snow storm and for walking across the street outside of a cross-walk. That same year, a friend was hit by a car and suffered a life-altering head injury

    The old neighborhood is now dilapidated with half full strip malls.

    It is absolutely relevant that ‘I hate it’ because, you know, people have to live there, and it sucks.

  • Frank Kotter

    I have never seen nor heard about this in the time I have spent in Japan including my semester abroad in college in Kyoto.

    This was much more common, however.

    https://japantoday.com/category/national/more-than-90-of-vehicles-dont-stop-at-crosswalks-without-lights-despite-presence-of-pedestrians

  • thielges

    Nice! Sounds like a win-win solution so long as there are very few false-positives (i.e. pedestrian sensed when nobody is in the crosswalk) and zero false-negatives (pedestrian present but not sensed).

  • bettybarcode

    Whole lotta commenters here forgetting one basic fact: walking is a right, driving is a privilege. Not the other way around.

  • George Joseph Lane

    The UK also changes traffic signals from red to red and yellow which mean ‘proceed only if clear’ and explicitly require motorists to remain stationary if pedestrians are still crossing (legally or not).

  • Janet Nelson

    Thank you for that. Those who revere car culture should be given the opportunity to be a pedestrian for a week. Eyes may be opened.

  • Janet Nelson

    So true!

  • ddartley

    The very idea of “crossing mid-block” IS a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. The “pedestrian infrastructure” used to be the street itself. It was made “incomplete or lacking” in the 20th Century thanks to an underlying assumption (still held even by progressive transportation thinkers, as evidenced here) that vehicular traffic is more important than the free movement of people not in vehicles. Sheesh, some dumb opponents of bike lanes call them “a reward for bad behavior.” Well what do we call pretty much the entire system of urban streets? “Too many of you brought your too-big-to-fit-in-this-space contraptions into this space, so we’ll carve out MORE space and time for you, in the form of traffic controls that favor you, at the expense of everyone else.”

  • ddartley

    I think even the researcher whose work is featured in this article, and even Streetsblog itself, forgets that fact.

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