Including pedestrians in road design


MnDOT’s trying to make Minnesota’s roads safer for pedestrians, according to a recent Star Tribune article, which ultimately boiled down to one thing: changing motorists and pedestrians’ behaviors.

MN2020 recently pointed out pedestrian deaths are on the rise despite lower traffic casualties overall. Drunken pedestrians accounted for one-third of deaths, but more than half of the casualties were due to driver inattention, high speeds, or simple failure to yield.

Every driver knows that pedestrians have the right-of-way when walking in a crosswalk with a traffic-control signal that stops traffic and signals for the pedestrian to cross, but perceptions can differ in other scenarios. According to Minnesota statute 169.21, “Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk.” The same statute also applies to those on foot: “No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield.” As common sense would therefore dictate, it is up to both parties to ensure safety and efficiency — drivers should keep their speeds reasonable, and pedestrians should use caution.

Focusing on right-of-way alone will not completely solve our problems, however. That is where improved infrastructure comes into play. The best way to reduce pedestrian accidents and fatalities is to build or improve streets with pedestrians (as well as cyclists, motorists, and public transit) in mind. Enter the concept of “Complete Streets.” According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “Complete Streets policies direct transportation planners and engineers to consistently design with all users in mind.” The coalition states that there is “no one design prescription for complete streets,” because it is a concept comprised of transportation-inclusive elements. Sidewalks, pedestrian crossing signals, and median islands are all elements included in this idea.

One new and effective element is the implementation of up-and-coming technology for pedestrian crosswalks. A key example is the HAWK (High-intensity Activated crossWalK)  system, which has been built across Arizona and is currently being tested in St. Cloud, as the aforementioned MN2020 article discussed. As new intersections are built and old intersections are repaired and retro-fitted, we should keep more than automobiles in mind.

In the end, pedestrian safety is up to a combination of awareness, improved infrastructure, and cautious transportation.  Of course, we could always borrow from our northern neighbors and just use holograms of children running into the road.