The Right of Way

The back-to-back traffic accidents, on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, involving pedestrians and motor vehicles on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst reminded me once again how vulnerable walkers and bicycle riders are in our automobile-obsessed culture, even in a place specifically designed to be separate and protected from that culture.  When people imagine a college campus, after all, they imagine students walking on the quad, sitting on the grass surrounded by their classmates and professor, playing frisbee on the lawn – not being mowed over by two tons of steel traveling at 30-40 miles per hour.  What kind of “living-learning community” is that?

The accident on Feb. 3 occurred on Commonwealth Avenue between the Recreation Center and the Mullins Center.  Three female UMass undergraduates were struck by a car in a crosswalk there, one of the students ending up at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.  The very next evening, in the very same crosswalk, a male undergraduate student was struck by a car; he was transported to Bay State Hospital, also with non-life-threatening injuries.  Such incidents are horrible anywhere – but in the middle of a residential college campus, they seem to me especially jarring.  College students doing normal college-student things, like walking to and from the Rec Center, shouldn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car!

How did the University respond to the incident?  Well, here’s the email that John Horvath, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety at UMass Amherst, sent out on Feb. 5.  I quote it in full because I think it’s a revealing look at how University officials think about the “intersection” of pedestrians and automobiles here.

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Dear Campus Community,

On the evenings of February 3rd and 4th, our community suffered separate motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians at crosswalks. I want you to know that the pedestrians, all UMass Amherst students, are recovering from non life-threatening injuries, and that both accidents are still under investigation.

I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize your responsibility to stay alert whether you are driving, walking or biking.  Your ability to react quickly and adapt to a given situation will increase your ability to stay safe.  [. . .]

[Click here to read the full message.]

Well, OK.  I appreciate the speed with which police responded to this situation and their effort to communicate widely about it.  I am sure Chief Horvath and his staff care deeply about the safety of students, faculty, staff, and visitors here.  The email reminds both drivers and pedestrians to be safe and offers concrete advice to that effect.  That’s all good.

And yet: the Chief devotes the largest portion of this message, three full paragraphs of 244 words, to the responsibilities that pedestrians on this campus have for ensuring their own safety.  Most of this is good advice and important to reiterate.  But some of it seems more of a reach to me.  Wear reflective clothing at night?  Does Chief Horvath have any college-age children?  Is this really the best advice campus leaders have for protecting students from being hit by motor vehicles on their own campus – that they should wear reflective clothing at night?

Less prominent, because closer to the end, are the three paragraphs of 112 words addressed to drivers, who thus get only half the lecture that pedestrians get here.  (The paragraphs immediately before and after these six paragraphs are directed at pedestrians and drivers both.)  It would appear, in other words, that, from the point of view of UMass police, pedestrians on this campus have a bigger responsibility to prevent traffic-related injuries and deaths than drivers do.

A few days later, the University Police issued a safety bulletin on its website, acknowledging that “Massachusetts General Law states that a civil citation may be issued to a motor vehicle operator who fails to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk unless a traffic light indicates the motor vehicle should proceed, or the pedestrian is not within five feet of the motor vehicle’s side of the road.”

In other words, pedestrians in crosswalks have the right of way.  That’s the law!  But then immediately after reminding us of that, the police provide a series of bullet points all addressed to pedestrians:

  1. Always walk on the sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk and you must walk in the road, always walk FACING traffic, so you can see any car that might be out of control or might have a driver who does not see you.
  2. Dress to be seen. Brightly colored clothing makes it easier for drivers to see you during the daytime.  At night, wear special reflective material on your shoes, cap, or jacket to reflect the headlights of cars coming towards you.
  3. Tips for crossing the street:  Cross only at corners or marked crosswalks.  Stop at the curb, or the edge of the road.  Stop and look left, then right, then left again, before you step into the street.  If you see a car, wait until it goes by or stops. Then look left, right and left again until no cars are coming.

Again with the reflective clothing!  Is there nothing that drivers on this campus should do to keep from running over pedestrians in crosswalks?  Is there nothing that the University itself might do to make the environment safer for students walking to and from their classes?

Admittedly, there’s another page on the UMass Amherst Police website (link provided below) that does a better job of making crosswalk safety on campus a shared responsibility between drivers and pedestrians.  But is safety in this case really a shared responsibility when 1) the law is clearly on the side of pedestrians and 2) one of the parties involved weighs two tons and travels at 30+ miles per hour?

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Thankfully, the police didn’t go to the extreme of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian – the student newspaper here! – which opined on Feb. 19 that a major cause for traffic accidents in the area is “reckless” pedestrians, responsible for their own misfortunes because of their arrogant attitude towards cars.

I’m tempted to think that the only viable solution to pedestrian-vehicle conflicts at UMass is to call in our own version of Peatónito, the masked hero of pedestrians in Mexico City, who regularly swoops down into crosswalks in that city to defend its walkers from cars.  (In actually, Peatónito is the alter ego of Jorge Cáñez, a 26-year-old political scientist.)

A better long-term approach for UMass might be to completely re-think and re-design the physical space of our campus.  In fact, the number one goal of the 2012 Campus Master Plan is to make the campus more “pedestrian-friendly” by removing “pedestrian barriers operated by vehicular circulation,” expanding the “vehicular free pedestrian zone,” planting trees, and removing surface parking lots from within the campus core (18).  Later on, in the section of the plan dealing with circulation and parking, the University claims that its main principle for future planning will be to “Think pedestrian first” (78).  (In a previous blog post I talked about the role of bicycles in the Master Plan.)

The fact is that the current UMass Amherst campus is essentially an academic core ringed by two- and four-lane thoroughfares designed for the speed and convenience of motor vehicles and literally separating students’ residential and dining facilities from their classrooms, libraries, and meeting spaces.  The two maps below show, first, the way residential areas (in yellow) are located on the perimeter of campus, surrounding the academic areas (in blue); and, second, how pedestrian routes connecting those two areas cross fast-moving vehicular arteries ringing the campus core (in fact, the map of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts doesn’t even include Commonwealth Avenue, the scene of the most recent accidents!).

Massachusetts Avenue is a good example of the flaws in the current layout of campus.  It’s an artery that I know well because, although I try to use public transit for commuting to work (see my blog post here), I often drive on Massachusetts Avenue to and from my designated parking lot near the University’s Visitor Center.  Four lanes wide between Commonwealth Avenue and North Pleasant Street, Massachusetts Avenue is an atrociously-designed road given its location and purpose – dangerous beyond measure for pedestrians, especially students living in the huge Southwest Residential complex.

The University acknowledges the problems with this road.  According to the 2012 Master Plan, Massachusetts Avenue is “oversized for the volume it carries . . . separates the core campus from housing and parking . . . constitutes a significant barrier for pedestrians trying to cross . . . [and has] heavily used unprotected pedestrian crossings” (82).  Built in 1962, the road “functions as a four-lane highway on the South side of campus” (149).  How could the University have a “four-lane highway” separating its largest residential complex from the rest of campus?  And how could anyone be surprised when cars drive too fast on that road, literally threatening the lives of UMass students?

Fortunately, the Plan calls for eliminating two of Mass. Ave.’s four lanes, thus putting it on a “road diet,” and transforming the thoroughfare into a genuine “complete street” – one designed as much for pedestrians, bicycle riders, and public transit, as for cars.  This is all for the good – but the plan was announced in 2012.  It’s now 2014.  Anyone driving on Massachusetts Avenue today – or any student from Southwest walking to class in the morning, or home from the library at night, knows that this street is simply not safe.  More pedestrians are bound to be hurt here.

There are of course other solutions to the problem: lower speed limits, tougher enforcement of those limits, expanded use of crossing guards, installation of traffic lights, construction of a pedestrian bridge, etc.  The best solution is probably the most dramatic – to get rid of Mass. Ave. altogether, integrating student residential areas with the campus core and thus creating a single, genuinely pedestrian-friendly campus.  Perhaps the next best solution is the one adopted by the Master Plan: reduce the size of Massachusetts Avenue, slow down traffic there, plant trees along the sides, and elevate the presence of pedestrians, bicycle riders, and public transit in a space now designed entirely for the convenience of cars.

2013-10-15_10-40-30We can probably all agree that a residential college – of all places – should be pedestrian-friendly from one side of campus to the other, but in fact all the places of our human landscape should be more pedestrian friendly – given the lethal power of automobiles and the manifest virtues of walking – for our environment, for our physical and mental health, for our communities as a whole.  And yet, despite a decline in automobile use and increase in automobile safety in this country, pedestrians are more vulnerable than ever in our urban, suburban, and rural places.

Even the most famous urban walking environment in the United States, New York City, has been struggling lately with a spike in pedestrian fatalities.  Recent statistics show that the city is currently experiencing around three pedestrian deaths a week!  Twenty-two pedestrians have been killed in the city just since Jan. 1 of this year.  The problem isn’t the classic city streets of neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Little Italy, with their narrow dimensions, numerous right angles, and sidewalk bustle; these are relatively safe roads for walkers.  No, the main problem is overly-wide roads, especially in the outer boroughs, that don’t fit their urban context.  According to a recent essay by Leigh Gallagher in the New York Times, “Last year, Queens was the deadliest borough for pedestrians, with many of the deaths happening on wide, fast-moving arteries like Northern Boulevard, the Cross Island Parkway, and Queens Boulevard.”

In language that sounds a lot like that used by UMass Amherst planners to describe Massachusetts Avenue, Gallagher continues:

Queens Boulevard, for example, isn’t a city street; it is a highway masquerading as one.  We should either call it a highway, and build medians, barriers or even pedestrian bridges, or treat it like a city street and make the lanes narrower, add more stoplights and crosswalks, and install obstacles and other elements of “social friction.”  (Another tool: trees with branches that extend over the street creating a canopy that, like social friction, acts as a naturally occurring slowing device.)

But the problem isn’t confined to the outer boroughs of New York City.  According to the Atlantic, even though traffic fatalities nationally are on the decline, pedestrian deaths are actually rising: an injury every 8 minutes, a fatality every 2 hours in this country.

DSCN7129I’m grateful then to live in Northampton, a famously pedestrian-friendly city.  That’s not to say we don’t have problems here – there have been several pedestrian deaths by car just since I moved here in 2006.  And one is often here, as elsewhere, either in a car complaining about pedestrians or on foot complaining about cars.  But it’s a city that has built a mindset in which pedestrians are elevated, protected, even celebrated.  It is, after all, a compact, dense city; many people here don’t even own cars; and everyone knows that part of the charm and success of the city’s thriving downtown is due precisely to its pedestrian character.

Nowhere is Northampton’s pedestrian-friendly ethos more on display than at the busiest intersection in town, where Main, King, and Pleasant Streets intersect.  The intersection is famous locally for allowing all pedestrians at all four corners to cross at once, even diagonally.  There’s a certain thrill in being able to cross like this with all of one’s fellow pedestrians.  As a walker, you suddenly feel like you’re on stage, like the city is deeply interested in and attentive to you, like it wants you to be front and center.

I didn’t realize until recently that this particular crossing system has a name – in traffic engineering circles, it’s called the “pedestrian scramble,” “diagonal crossing,” or, more often, the “Barnes Dance,” in honor of Henry (“Harry”) Barnes, who popularized the system in the 1950s.  According to Eric Jaffe, “The dance got its name when a city hall reporter wrote that the crossings ‘made the people so happy they’re dancing in the streets.’”  Here’s a photograph of a famous intersection in Tokyo that uses the Barnes Dance.

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Ah, Harry – what a treat you gave us!

I remember being with a colleague one evening – she was going through a rough time, and we had just finished a somber meal at Zen in Northampton, trying to work through some of her problems.  We decided to go for coffee after dinner, and when we came to the intersection of Main, King, and Pleasant Streets, my colleague – who had been so unhappy most of the evening – suddenly clapped her hands together and announced with unconcealed glee – “Oh boy! the diagonal cross!”

How nice to walk with a friend in one’s city – and to do so without the menace of automobiles!


The 2012 Campus Master Plan for UMass Amherst can be found here.

The recent “safety bulletin” about pedestrian accidents posted to the UMass Amherst Campus Police website can be found here.

The Campus Police’s online statement about crosswalk safety can be found here.

The Daily Collegian‘s Feb. 11 article about the Feb. 3-4 pedestrian accidents can be found here.

Ian Haggerty’s Feb. 19 Daily Collegian article about “reckless pedestrians” can be found here.

The article on Mexico City’s masked protector of pedestrians can be found here.

New York Magazine’s recent “Death by Car” article can be found here.

A New York Times debate on “Making New York City Safe for Pedestrians” can be found here.

Leigh Gallagher’s recent op-ed piece on pedestrian safety in New York City can be found here.

An Atlantic Cities article on the recent rise in pedestrian injuries and fatalities can be found here.

Wikipedia’s article on the “pedestrian scramble” can be found here.

Eric Jaffe’s “Brief History of the Barnes Dance” can be found here.

Another blog post about Northampton’s Barnes Dance can be found here.

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