Pedestrian upgrades: best intentions aren’t always enough to make the grade.

As pedestrianism intensifies and its strongest advocates promulgate the newest and best practices, we predictably witness compelling or examples well beyond the big-city antecedents. Not surprisingly, we witness the same incremental improvements in accessibility for persons with disabilities, often in tandem with pedestrian upgrades. This should come as no surprise: after all, sidewalks should serve as the domain for anyone who uses the same transportation mode both indoors and out, which includes sneakers, crutches, wheelchairs, walkers, and a few contraptions whose names escape me. Among my favorite of these improvements—more for its chutzpah than its effectiveness—was a sidewalk up a steep slope in Jackson, Mississippi, which zigged and zagged its way across that grassy hill so that the slope never exceeded a severity that would render it unusable for hand-operated wheelchairs, per the stipulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Boy, did that sidewalk zigzag—Jackson’s Crookedest Sidewalk.

In cities that have long claimed a legacy of walkability, the pedestrian upgrades generally demonstrate a slightly better stewardship and long-term vision. Places like Baltimore, for example, originated and flourished at a time that long preceded the automobile. They boast a built form that accommodated the pedestrian a priori. But sometimes, even cities like Baltimore offer public works improvements that leave us scratching our heads, like this one near Morgan State University campus.IMG_7767It’s a crosswalk protected by painted stripes and white, protruding reflective sticks (they’re too flimsy to call bollards, though I guess that’s what they’re meant to be). Normally this type of installation would help narrow the crossing distance at an intersection, giving pedestrians an added refuge and forcing cars to slow down when turning a corner. To some extent, this Baltimore incarnation resembles a project I chronicled in Hoboken here on this blog (and at Huffington Post) a couple years ago. We’d call it a “bulb-out” because of the way it induces the road to taper at an intersection, favoring walkers over vehicles.

 

IMG_7768But this example in Baltimore doesn’t exactly traverse a conventional intersection. On one side of the street, it aligns with a corner.IMG_7769But on the other side, it lands smack in the middle of a block.

pedestrian upgrades

To top it all off, the corner just to the left of the above photo isn’t even a residential street; it’s an alley without a sidewalk, visible in the linked Street View image.

Essentially, this crosswalk attempts to connect a local street with an alley, neither of which intersect the busier collector at perfect alignment, resulting in a design that “jogs”. The misalignment creates two T-shapes in close proximity instead of a more harmonious “plus” shape, which would allow cars passing through the intersection to simply drive across rather than veer slightly to the right or left. Here’s what it looks like from a Google-furnished aerial:crosswalk aerial viewMost contemporary transportation manuals strongly discourage this road design; many municipalities would not approve a new subdivision that deploys it. By today’s standards, intersections must either be a perfect four-way or two consecutive three-ways must have a minimum separation distance. But it was common practice a century ago, and few public works departments have the capacity to retrofit the intersections to a better design.

So why build a crosswalk in a spot that’s already awkward for motorists, thereby escalating the chance of a hazard for pedestrians? Then, to top it off, why install bollards to upgrade it? I suppose there’s the slight possibility that the presence of caution stripes helps mitigate an accident where it might previously have occurred all too often, but it also encourages pedestrians to cross at a location that, by design, is less than ideal. And the striping at the corner actually made the turn radius more generous, favoring drivers to make high-speed turns that particularly endanger pedestrians. It would have been just as easy to construct this upgraded crosswalk at a conventional four-way intersection a block or two away. Instead, the public works team chose to upgrade an already poorly conceived design. The only other positive outcome that these upgrades might have achieved is that they will at least keep vehicles from parking on the street in a way the blocks the crosswalk itself. But a more logical location near a full-fledged intersection would have deterred motorists from parking there anyway; now, at this location, it just nullifies an otherwise good parking space.

But that’s not the least of it. Despite all the extra bollards and striping, the crosswalk retains one other monumental deficiency.

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IMG_7772

At both ends, it lacks a curb cut, making it completely unusable for wheelchairs and therefore non-compliant with the ADA. Fortunately, despite this minor blot, Baltimore remains an overwhelmingly walkable city. No place gets the upgrades right all the time, and as long no pedestrians suffer injury (few people I suspect even use this crosswalk), the intermittent goof in a rich and variegated urban texture can be—what would Baltimoreans call it?—a source of charm.

16 thoughts on “Pedestrian upgrades: best intentions aren’t always enough to make the grade.

  1. Alex Pline

    While I don’t know the context of this cross walk, I pretty much guarantee you there were past incidents of pedestrians being hit here and this represents a quick and cheap response to public outcry. Definitely not ideal for the reasons you point out, but better than the Baltimore DOT doing nothing because it’s “not in the manual”. “So why build a crosswalk in a spot that’s already awkward for motorists, thereby escalating the chance of a hazard for pedestrians?”: I also assert that this is the equivalent of “paving a cowpath” and is the natural shortest route that people in the area are taking. In my opinion locating pedestrian infrastructure should be 100% for the convenience of them, and it is often a tragic mistake when the engineers attempt to force pedestrians out of their way (even if it is a short diversion) because it’s more convenient for them (cost/AASHTO requirements etc) or drivers (outcries about traffic flow). This is one reason I absolute abhor the idea of pedestrian bridges that are so often proposed by drivers for crossing gnarly stroads rather than anything else that might inconvenience them. People will not use them, that’s just human nature to take the most expedient path even if it poses a higher risk and as a result, huge amounts of money are wasted on these white elephants. In fact Baltimore removed one of these in 2013 across E Pratt St/S Gay St because no one used the 70s era Brutalist monstrosity (https://goo.gl/maps/SoR8zMZ19Wv). For all of Baltimore’s problems, they have at least gotten the message about walking and biking (current backpedaling over Canton bike lanes aside).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Alex, and yes, that looks like a pretty horrendous ped bridge. One of the few urban ped bridges that works (as opposed to those in suburban areas over interstates, where they generally make sense) is Locust Walk in Philly, which connects the campus across busy 38th Street. But it’s an entirely different context, requires no stairs to cross, and it pedestrianizes Locust Walk and connects two otherwise segregated parts of campus. Much better design than the one in Baltimore, which came down.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        “Entirely different context” indeed (says one who walked across it several times a day for a couple of years, back when Brutalism reigned supreme on the Superblock) 😉

        Reply
        1. American Dirt

          Seems that there are relatively few universities that went completely untouched by Brutalism. Universities–not colleges. Now that I live in Washington DC, I regret that I never got to see the apparently magnificent Church of Christ, Scientist before it came down.

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            Sorry to hijack the post on a tangent 🙂

            I like the subtle updating of the bridge’s walk surface. But I am not a fan of the Class of 1920 dining commons (at the west foot of the bridge). I don’t think that is the original facade…I remember something darker and set back a bit more.

            OTOH, I like the use of natural aluminum and green Euro facade replacement on the high rises (originally bronze aluminum with matching filler panels). And I wish they had moved “We Lost” to the greenspace there. It would have complemented everything else and made the block a sort of “the good and the bad” 70s urban renewal/design time capsule.

    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      As for the HIllen Road design in the Balitmore photos, I agree that it probably was a quick fix. But it was a quick fix twice over…an earlier Street View shows that the crosswalk was there in 2011 but the bollards and striped corner had not yet been installed. In my opinion, the Public Works department should have just given up on this intersection altogether and tried more thoughtful, higher-grade ped improvements at Hillen and E. 30th, where there’s already a stop light. Or, if that’s seen as too big of a gap between crosswalks, at least E. 32nd has some continuity as it crosses Hillen, though on the west side it’s a local residential street and the east side it’s an alley. Still better than the current configuration. But the intrinsic road design is the biggest problem…my guess is the east and west sides of Hillen were developed at slightly different time periods, and the two separate developers didn’t bother to connect the streets logically as the passed the busier collector Hillen. Or maybe it was intentional, so that non-contiguous residential streets created a calming effect. Either way, the result in 2017 is a more dangerous environment for motorists AND pedestrians.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        the intrinsic road design is ALWAYS the real problem. The fact that we just put band aids on the problem such as you’ve pointed out reveals the true priorities. In cases like these, speed and throughput of automobiles is top, regardless of what words come out of a DOT.

        Reply
        1. Alex Pline

          But specifically in this case, I suspect even if they did improvements in other places near by, people would still use this crosswalk for convenience. The is virtually nothing you can do other than put fences with barbed wire up to prevent people from crossing where they want to cross. I see this in Annapolis all the time across our stroads – and seriously people have suggested high fences except at cross walks…

          Reply
  2. Kin Yellott

    that traffic area is a nightmare. Closer to the old memorial stadium. That is Hillen, jusr south of 33rd st. Roads complicated by Lake Montebello and Clifton Park, with a big elementary school. Lot’s of parents walking kids to school. Harford Rd just up the hill

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You figured out exactly where it is. I agree: I bet the City designed these crosswalks because of safety issues for children. But the designs are so poorly thought out that it’s hard to imagine it offers much help!

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        this is far from ideal, but something IS better than nothing, especially if you accept my assertion that this is the lowest friction path that will be used regardless of the crosswalk treatment. More obstacles do raise awareness of the crosswalk even only a little. What I’m saying is if we let perfect is the enemy of good, nothing will happen.

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        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Probably right, Chris (Safe Routes to School). There’s a middle/elementary school about two blocks to the east of this intersection. I still think they could have found a better intersection a half-block to the south that would have made for a less awkward crossing point. That said, the crosswalk has been there at least several years (per Google Street View); it’s the additional buffer striping and bollard-posts that are fairly new.

          Reply
  3. Wanderer

    Those mini-bollards are known as stanchions. I don’t know that area in Baltimore, but cities do need safe pedestrian crossings fairly close together.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Wanderer. Having typed in “street stanchions” in Google Images, it’s amazing the array of devices that appear, a few of which match the items here in Baltimore. I guess “stanchion” is a more versatile word than I thought.

      Indeed, the pedestrian crossings could and probably should be close together, especially in areas where the cars can easily go fast. This location, though, creates enough confusion for all parties that it may not have resulted in an aggregate improvement, and a better alternative exists just a half-block away. As one of the other commenters noted, this site was probably the most expedient, and it fit a Safe Routes to School obligation, since there’s a school just two blocks away.

      Reply

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