It's no secret that the City by the Bay is a mecca for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, and the Castro District is home to one of the largest and most notable LGBT communities in the country. In 2012, as part of San Francisco's work on the Castro Street Streetscape Improvement Project, the city asked for suggestions and comments for improving the crosswalks.
There were numerous ideas, including crosswalk designs that promoted the city's transit system and the overhead electrical wires. But it's no surprise that the design selected was the six-colored rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT pride around the world.
Four crosswalks in a busy section of the Castro, as the District is commonly called, will be painted with the rainbow in time for the gay pride celebration in late June. The funds are being provided by both the city, and area merchants who have donated $37,400.
I haven't read any evidence that rainbows will improve pedestrian safety, but it makes sense that a colorful crosswalk is more likely to alert drivers to a crossing than the typical white stripes or lines.
As part of the Streetscape project, San Francisco will widen streets, improve lighting, plant new trees, and add curb ramps. Some of those improvements could improve safety. But where are any technological enhancements? This could have been an opportunity to test potentially useful new tools and techniques to improve safety.
For example, in March I wrote about a test in London where a combination of traffic light cameras and sensors will increase the time pedestrians are allotted to cross streets when many people are waiting to do so.
One fascinating crosswalk system using enhanced technology was presented in a university student's mid-term paper. Sara Hendren at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, proposed "responsive crosswalks" that feature sensors and actuators embedded in the pavement. Hendren writes:
One set of pedestrian-detecting sensors is either connected to traffic lights for automated signals, or detects pedestrian presence for non-automated signals. Vibrating notes are actuated in the painted crosswalks themselves when it's safe to cross. Pedestrians can simply "test the waters" with feet, canes, or other equipment.
Vehicles would also register the vibration, getting a warning when they're dangerously close. Pedestrian-detection sensors also register when pedestrians have already crossed and cancel unnecessary requests, improving traffic flow for both vehicles and pedestrians.
Responsive crosswalks may be just a grad school concept, but traffic-safety technology exists. In Jacksonville, Fla., the Florida Department of Transportation has tested sensors at a crosswalk after a mother, Esther Ohayon, was killed and her daughter injured by a car.
The two were walking to a synagogue for services for Yom Kippur -- one of the holiest holidays in Judaism. Ohayon, didn't press the traffic light "walk" button because observant Jews are forbidden from "working," including turning on electrical devices, during holy days and the Sabbath. The new sensors, which cost $2,000 each, will detect the motion of pedestrians at the traffic light and automatically change the light to green.
The sensors are too late for Esther Ohayon. She'll be one more statistic for the 2013 road death figures, which the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently compiling. In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians were killed and 76,000 were injured by vehicles.
Those statistics highlight why San Francisco and other cities should place greater emphasis on testing and implementing the more promising new pedestrian safety products. Not all technologies will be successful, but some help. Rainbows are pretty, but they won't decrease deaths.
It's not likely to be adopted by scared rabblit politicians, but the increasing desire of millennials and seniors to live in cities might spark a few cities to take a less car-centric approach. Of course, a few cities, like Copenhagen, are already doing this.
But in car-centric America, it will take a revolution -- or deadly air pollution or deadly global warming -- to get most cities to truly care. By that time, though, we will be on our way to extinction.
Still, cities should at least conduct more testing of pedestrian safety technologies, as I note.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... @Davedgreat, this comment seems out of left field:
"We spend more money on Social Welfare programs than on improving traffic, electrical grid, water projects, sewage etc. etc."
There are lots of things we spend more on: military invasions in foreign countries, prisons and jails, sports stadiums and other entertainment complexes, to name a few. Why single out Social Welfare programs?
Further, while we clearly must repair our long-neglected and crumbling infrastructure, how does that impact pedestrian safety? Certainly better control of traffic is related, but the rest not so much.
I believe that we need a paradigm shift. We need to move away from the obsession with private motorized vehicles that has produced cloggoed and dangerous city environments. We need to move toward a multi-tiered approach to public trnasportation, combined with safe walkways and bicycle paths. That's how we can find success in our future.
I don't think I saw the green Santa Monica bike lanes. Good idea. Many cities are trying different techniques, such as painting lanes, constructing barriers, installing bike-centric signal crossings, etc. to protect cyclists and drivers.
Frankly, I'd be hesitant to ride a bike in a city where lanes aren't protected in some way from vehicular traffic. I grew up in New York and rode my bike in the street. But that was usually in residential areas and was many decades ago.
That's why I welcome testing new technologiesm such as that student's concept of vibrating sensors in crosswalks, which perhaps could be tested to help demark bike lanes.
You raise a good point about the "alertness" factor of viewing a rainbow crosswalk (and similar crosswalks). Once San Francisco drivers see the rainbow crosswalks, will they eventually tune them out? That's why I believe cities should test new safeguards, and the San Francisco project would have been a good incentive to do so.
I haven't read anything about the affect of different crosswalk designs on pedestrian/driver safety, but I assume there must be studies because of the different configurations used around the world. I also assume that the more colorful and/or complicated the design, the most expensive it would be for cities to implement.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... Hi kq4ym (Don),
I agree that pedestrians and drivers need to be mindful of each other, but people are, well, people, and injuries and deaths occur. No one can be alert all the time. And there also are natural disasters and occurrences that greatly exacerbate the possibility of fatalities.
That's why it's important for cities not to rely on people's natural awareness, but to test technology to try to improve pedestrian safety. After all, we consider traffic lights, traffic signs, crossing guards, road barriers, etc. as natural and necessary safeguards.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... Hi Davedgreat2000,
Yes, city improvements usually are about money, although many of the human failings like egotism, pride and anger also can play a role.
You're certainly correct that Americans typically are clueless about this country's failing infrastructure and, even if they know something about it, are loath to want to spend money. Only when there is a catastrophe, such as a bridge falling into a river or roof tiles smashing down from a tunnel's ceiling, will they take notice and proclaim, "Why didn't the city fix this?!"
One reason the city didn't "fix this" is because it's usually easier for politicians to get funds for a new sports stadium than for fixing the infrastructure needed to get to the stadium.
Lingering safety The City of Santa Monica has painted some of its bike lanes BRIGHT green (not too different from the Future Cities green on this page, in fact), and I'll say it's quite the wakeup call as a driver -- I certainly know when my gas guzzler has veered into the pedal-powered realm.
My bigger question is how the long this visual impact lasts with drivers. Is there a big change in behavior and more safety? Does it last more than 18 months?
I'll be curious to see whether the Castro crosswalks have any lasting impact on pedestrian safety.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... The idea of sensors and other responsive pedestrian crosswalk signaling will surely be tested as more cities come aboard and see how death and accidents can be lowered. But ultimately it's up to the pedestrian and drivers to be more mindful of each other in congested city traffic situations.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... Its all about Money. The city wont spend the extra money to make the crosswalks safe, but they will pay to have the streets painted in Rainbow color.
The truth is, the American People are asleep at the wheel when it comes to Infrastructure and safety improvements. We spend more money on Social Welfare programs than on improving traffic, electrical grid, water projects, sewage etc. etc. When the people want to spend the money on new traffic signals that detect people or cars or birds and make the lights change automatically instead of having to push a little button (because its considered work), then those badly needed improvements will happen.
Oh and when the Politicians get their heads out of the Corporate "BLEEPS", and find some moral fiber, courage etc. to get the jobs done that actually need to be done then and only then will things get fixed or invested in.
I guess the rainbow crosswalks are a sort of tourism "attraction," in a very modest sense, as well as a way to highlight the neighborhood's character. And, there will be other improvements, such as planting trees, improving lighting, etc.
The community is helping to pay for the crosswalks, as I noted.
Re: Look at the numbers -- please.... @Alan: I read it as a sort of municipal populism which no one will vote against and likely helps someone's re-election campaign chances but in reality wastes public money and highlights an ineffectual response to the real issues of safety.
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