Shirahama Beach is a small but popular seaside destination with white sand and good surfing a little more than three hours southwest of Tokyo, on the southern tip of Japan’s Izu peninsula. National Route 135 hugs the eastern coast of the peninsula, separating the beach from the shops, restaurants, convenience stores and small hotels in the city of Shimoda to the west.
The “Urban Edge Explains …” series explores issues and concepts that are important to urban planning and policy experts. Today, we look at driving laws related to rights of way and the changes in drivers’ behavior that are needed to protect all road users.
In March of 2019, we punctuated a trip to Tokyo with a short stay near the beach, and we quickly learned that drivers on Route 135 stop when pedestrians step into the marked crosswalks placed periodically along the two-lane highway. (They’ll also stop if there isn’t a marked crosswalk.) But they won’t stop until you step foot into the roadway, which is a leap of faith for someone coming from Houston.
Even after a few days, I found it hard to trust that drivers would stop when I stepped into the road. But without fail they did.
No doubt my trust issues come from years of living in a city/county/state where, not only are we conditioned to believe that cars come first, but many drivers display outright resentment for pedestrians, cyclists and anyone or anything that might inconvenience or slow them down on their way from A to B.
Consider this not-at-all comprehensive collection of statements comparing crossing the street in Houston to an arcade classic:
“It’s almost like a game of Frogger.”
— From a 2019 Houston Chronicle story in which Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo describes trying to cross North Shepherd in the Greater Heights without getting hit by drivers not used stopping for pedestrians.
“The Downtown District’s Lonnie Hoogeboom says crossing Allen Parkway has sometimes been compared to the old video game Frogger, with pedestrians dodging obstacles to get to the other side of the street.”
— From a 2016 Houston Public Media story about the Allen Parkway improvement project, which was supposed to dramatically slow traffic on the parkway and make it safer for pedestrians.
“Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued an executive order late last year calling for the city to remake itself with ‘complete streets,’ ones that are usable by pedestrians and bicyclists. Presumably, this means that the pedestrian experience in Houston — which longtime residents liken to the video game Frogger — will change for the better.
— From a 2014 article in Architect Magazine about former Mayor Annise Parker’s city plan.
“When I cross Antoine with my dogs to visit my friends in Oak Forest, it already (feels) like a game of Frogger with the little time that the crosswalk gives us. If it were 6 lanes, I think we would be hit.”
— From a Forrest Pines resident’s remarks opposing the reclassification of W. 43rd and other streets in the area as suburban boulevards. The remarks were among other public comments logged by the City of Houston Planning and Development Department.
Then, there’s this Swamplot comment of the day from 2017 (R.I.P. Swamplot):
“I recently moved back to Houston after living in Colorado for a few years. I still find myself in the habit of coming to a complete stop any time that I see a pedestrian attempting to cross a street. In [Colorado], it is state law to stop at any legal pedestrian crossing should someone be there. … Also, most people there abide by the rule of allowing people to cross at major intersections (traffic lights) before passing through in their vehicles; this is something that my fellow Houstonians always honk at me for doing here.”
Too many are uninformed and apathetic
In 2018, 19 cyclists and 133 pedestrians were struck and killed by drivers in the nine-county Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 2014 and 2018, 23% of fatal motor vehicle crashes in the Houston region involved a pedestrian. The average in Harris County each year from 2014–2018 was 27%. During those five years, on average, 31% of the fatal crashes in just the city of Houston involved a pedestrian. Those rates are all higher than the national average for that period in which 17.4% of fatal motor vehicle crashes involved a pedestrian.
Under Texas law, drivers are supposed to yield the right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk — marked or unmarked — when the pedestrian is in the driver’s half of the roadway or approaching it from the opposite side.
What is an unmarked crosswalk? Every intersection, including those with no signals or surface markings, is considered a crosswalk. In Texas, “pedestrians are required by law to yield to cars when crossing anywhere other than marked or unmarked crosswalks.”
So, why do so many drivers in Houston, and across the state, ignore the law and refuse to yield the right of way to pedestrians not only in unmarked crosswalks but even when the crosswalk is marked?
Some that come to mind include the intersection at Sidney and McKinney, near Lantrip Elementary School in Eastwood, the crosswalk on Rice Boulevard at Kent Street, the crosswalk on White Oak Boulevard at the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crossing, and every street crossing on the Columbia Tap Rail-Trail in EaDo and Third Ward, but the list could go on and on.
The problem is many people don’t know the rules surrounding right of ways.
“Most people know you can turn from a one-way to another one-way. But they don’t know the rules of what to do to when there is a pedestrian,” LINK Houston Executive Director Oni Blair told the Chronicle in a story about the dangers faced by pedestrians in the Gulfton area of Houston.
David Levinson, a professor of Transport at the University of Sydney, has suggested adopting the UK Manual for Streets’ user hierarchy, which puts the needs and safety of pedestrians — the most vulnerable road users — first. He writes:
“Walking has multiple benefits. More people on foot lowers infrastructure costs, improves health and reduces the number in cars, in turn reducing crashes, pollution and congestion. However, the road rules are not designed with this logic.
The putative aim of road rules is safety, but in practice the rules trade off between safety and convenience. The more rules are biased toward the convenience of drivers, the more drivers there will be.
Yet public policy aims to promote walking. To do so, pedestrians should be given freer rein to walk: alert, but not afraid.”
In 2018, a LINK Houston analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data identified the 10 most dangerous intersections in Houston, which the organization recommended as priorities for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements by the city.
The City of Houston has a range of projects in the works that address public safety on the city’s streets, including the Safer Streets initiative, the city’s Bike Plan, a Complete Streets initiative, a “Safe Passing” ordinance to protect vulnerable road users, the Complete Communities program and a Walkable Places initiative to promote walkability.
LINK Houston’s Blair and Ines Sigel wrote in an Urban post on the need to fix dangerous pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in the city:
“To achieve culture and policy changes, the city, the county and the state must address corridors and neighborhoods across the region. And they must work together with community leaders and advocates to increase education and awareness of the legal rights of all road users — those who are walking, biking, wheeling or driving. They must also equally and regularly enforce those laws to demonstrate the seriousness of offenses. Additionally, our elected officials should prioritize funding for design and engineering improvements that will save people’s lives.”
The problem with laws that protect pedestrians is the difficulty in enforcing them. Short of having law enforcement posted at or near a crosswalk to catch violators isn’t exactly practical. It’s the same issue seen with enforcing the state’s 3-foot law for drivers overtaking bicyclists. It’s easy — and to an extent, understandable — to blame police for not enforcing laws like these but there are limits to resources and personnel, in addition to ever-shifting priorities. On the other hand, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, when it comes to public health and safety, many people won’t choose to take precautions — such as wearing a mask — to protect others unless they are somehow compelled by state or local leaders.
Increase awareness and improve traffic-control design
Last November, a Rice undergraduate student created a change.org petition calling for a crosswalk to be installed on Rice Boulevard near Entrance 23 to the university. More than 2,100 supporters have signed the petition. According to the Rice Thresher, the student started the petition after “she began frequently crossing Rice Boulevard” in the fall of last year.
Greg Marshall, Rice’s director of University Affairs, told the Rice Thresher in December that the school’s top priority is installing a signalized crosswalk at the intersection of Rice Boulevard and Kent Street, on the northern border of campus. Several years ago, the university paid for a high-intensity activated crosswalk (HAWK) on Sunset Boulevard, just east of where it cuts north and Rice Boulevard begins. The HAWK crossing was proposed by the city, which ultimately is responsible for any changes to a city street.
“HAWKs are hand-activated crossing signals which will stop traffic when cyclists or pedestrians wish to cross a street but allow street traffic to proceed, unimpeded, at all other times,” Marshall said. “One of these HAWK crossings, the one near gate 23, is still installed and working today; although, as you can see from the frequency with which students choose instead to jaywalk across Rice Boulevard, it appears that many are choosing convenience over safety.”
One of the issues contributing to problems on Rice Boulevard is the odd width of the road. It’s not wide enough for four lanes but just wide enough to allow many vehicles to cut around drivers waiting to make left-hand turns south into campus or north into the Southampton neighborhood. More troubling is when a driver stops at the marked-but-uncontrolled crosswalk to allow someone to cross, and the driver behind them — possibly unaware of the pedestrian — passes on the right to go past. There’s also the awkward situation when a driver heading one direction yields to someone at the crosswalk but the driver traveling in the opposite direction doesn’t stop.
The Kinder Institute’s 2017 report “Dangerous Crossings: The Relationship Between Intersections and Crashes in Houston” was produced to help the city’s policymakers and engineers identify intersections where collisions were likely to happen and why, as well as where they might occur in the future. This understanding could inform decisions about design to promote greater safety for all users.
Using a technique called colocation, which identifies spatial patterns such as the physical distance between two objects or events, the researchers analyzed the impacts of the built environment on collisions between bicycles or pedestrians and automobiles in Houston. The key finding was “that bicycle- and pedestrian-automobile crashes are collectively colocated with signalized intersections, suggesting that these intersections require attention to make our streets safer for all. While traffic light intersections are the most controlled in terms of signage, it is clear that they are not the most safe.”
In their report, the Kinder Institute researchers recommended that physical improvements such as “pedestrian visibility via crosswalks, traffic lights or protected medians” could make a big difference by alerting drivers to proceed with caution around pedestrians, cyclists and other road users or in complicated intersections. Changes that slow the speed of traffic in or near intersections also likely would improve safety. In noncontrolled intersections, the recommendations included the addition of pedestrian crossing signs and crosswalks in unmarked areas and narrowing roadways at crosswalks.
The only real and lasting solution is a change in the attitudes of drivers and our driving culture. But how do we do that? In large part, it’s a matter of raising awareness. It also will require us all to be more patient, more mindful of others and more concerned about public safety, in general. That may sound simple, but it’s not.