Earlier this year I witnessed a terrifying event while out in my neighborhood. Textbooks would refer to it as a “pedestrian-vehicle conflict”, something that can be observed at any number of intersections several times a day. Seeing it play out in reality, I began to realize that our built environment has done a very poor job of training drivers to watch out for pedestrians. One glance at the number of pedestrian fatalities statistics shows the devastating consequences on our society.
The situation happened along East Washington Street in a pedestrian friendly commercial district. A car stopped at a red light and wanted to turn right. At the same time a young family with a baby in a stroller arrived at the corner and wanted to cross the side street. The family saw the “Walk” signal lit for them and proceeded across the street. The driver, having earlier noticed the family, failed to anticipate that they were going to cross the street and shifted attention to traffic from the left in the main street.
What happened next is the stuff nightmares are made of. When the family was halfway through the lane, the driver saw a break in traffic and began accelerating. There was a loud noise and a scream, but thankfully it wasn’t what I feared. The husband had slammed his fist down on the car hood and yelled “STOP!”, and luckily the driver found the brake quickly enough to prevent disaster. It happened so fast that I could barely process that an entire family had almost been killed or seriously injured, just because they wanted to cross the street during a nice summertime day.
This incident reveals a larger problem with our transportation system. Humans are great at identifying threats to them, but not so good at identifying the threat that they pose to others. In addition to this, drivers often have a hard time recognizing pedestrians and cyclists as rightful users of the street. They don’t realize that pedestrians don’t always stay on the sidewalk or that cyclists don’t behave like cars, especially if the drivers never spend time as pedestrians or cyclists themselves.
While this conflict had a fortunate resolution, many other conflicts don’t turn out so well. Are there steps that Indianapolis and other cities can take to make street crossings more safe for pedestrians? The answer is a positive YES, and that is one of the goals behind the movement referred to as Complete Streets. It is surprising that more citizens haven’t actively supported complete streets here in Indiana (see Indiana Complete Streets Campaign), because it gives us something that has a huge amount of political support – better streets and more opportunity to walk and bike places.