“A Rant on Pedestrian Safety”

by Greg Gerritt

I am a full time pedestrian.  I have not driven in 30 years and gave away my car more than 40 years ago.  I walk about 10 miles a day in the city, some in parks, but much of it on the streets.  While I lived in rural Maine for 25 years and for the last 23 years in Providence, I grew up in New York City, which probably has more of a walking culture than any other place in the USA.  This analysis of pedestrian safety is the result of more than 60 years of walking almost everywhere I go.  It is not the writings of a professional or a planner, it is the very opinionated observations of a walker who looks for patterns and knows how the traffic signals work at every intersection I cross regularly. 

When thinking about safety on the streets of Rhode Island the first thing you have to recognize is that neither most of the drivers, nor most of the pedestrians know the laws or see how sometimes it makes you safer to follow the law, and sometimes following the law is less safe.  And you need some way to tell the difference, which tends to be experience combined with curiosity. 

My analysis of how safe it is to walk places in Providence reflect the amount of traffic in an area, the layout of intersections, and the traffic light patterns.  But let us get one thing out of the way first.  Having to press a button on a pole that is not right at the corner being crossed is ridiculous. There is no need for beg buttons (as in begging for a walk signal) to begin with, and to have to go out of the way to reach a pole to push a button is obscene.  If planners only want walk signals when a walker is present, then it should be automatic from a pressure plate by the intersection, just as cars now have pressure plates under the road.  If drivers do not need to do something extra to get the light, why do walkers?  Every light rotation should include  a walk signal and the walk signals need to be accompanied, especially at busy intersections, with a time when there are no turning cars to watch out for. 

Returning to the idea that every traffic light system needs to provide a safe space for walkers is especially emphasized at corners in which many cars make left turns.  The worst example is at Broad St and Dave Gavitt way.  Walking along Broad St on the north side of the street the safest time to cross is when you DO NOT have the light.  When you have the light to cross Dave Gavitt, there is often a steady stream of left turning cars, not only when they have the left turn signal, but throughout the light.  The issue is that while you can sort of control right turning cars, they see you crossing as they start their turn, cars making left turns across busier roads are not looking for pedestrians , they are looking for cars coming up the street, and when  they get a break in the traffic, they accelerate.  The driver’s eyes do not come around to where the pedestrians are crossing until the car has already started to accelerate through the turn and when the streets are busy, the acceleration is ongoing right through and past the point of safety for pedestrians before they even have you in their line of sight.  Dave Gavitt and Broad may be the most egregious example, but it is only one of a number of similar interscetions around the city. 

Broad St, Washington St, and Broadway all provide an example of another of the hazards in the city.  What they do is alternate dangerous intersections between sides of the street.  The safest route out each of these streets going out of downtown offers many relatively safe intersections, but in order to just use the safe intersections you have to cross back and forth between the 2 sides of the street.  Going back to Broad St.  The intersection with Dave Gavitt way, so dangerous on the north side of the street, is a very safe intersection on the south side of the street, as there are no turning cars and the light clearly gives you a safe time to cross.  But once you cross the highway you want to be on the north side of the intersection as that side has no turning cars, while the side next to Crossroads, has left and right turning cars, none of which are really looking for pedestrians.  Washington St is not quite as bad as it is a bit less trafficked, but the intersection with I-95 gives you the same pattern.  One good intersection and one very dangerous intersection on each side of the street.  Broadway is more of the same, and while they all have left turn signals, they do not stop left turners from turning into you when you have the walk signal. 

I live off of North Main St and for most of the last 23 years I have worked somewhere close to downtown, often passing through downtown on my way to and from work, so I have a special interest and experience with the walk from N Main to downtown. 

While the lights and traffic patterns have improved over the years, N Main has a number of rather dangerous intersections with the recurring pattern of there is no one safe side of the street to walk as bad intersections alternate on the east and west side of the street.

The Smithfield Ave intersection is just plain bad.  Crossing N Main with the light never gives you a time without left turning cars.  Crossing Smithfield Ave never gives you a safe time without cars speeding towards the interstate often taking the right turn on red without stopping.  Third st on the east side also never gives a safe time as cars coming down the hill and going left are looking at the cars coming up Frost into N Main and never giving the pedestrians crossing N main a thought until they are right on top of you.  This one takes a special prize because as an offset intersection, no one really seems to know who should go, so everyone goes too fast.

Rochambeau and N Main is not too bad except for the cars making a right turn to go up the hill from N Main and is really only bothersome for those walking north as the cars are coming up from behind you.  Going South you can see them clearly. 

The intersection at Branch Ave was dramatically improved a while back, but it leaves one very dangerous spot.  On the west side of N Main there is a way light.  A time for left turns, a time for right turns, and a time for left turns for those going north on N Main as well as those turning right  coming off of Branch.  If you follow the lights you are sort of okay except for the cars turning off N Main who run the red light and from the cars coming up Branch Ave who are always trying to make the right turn before the cars coming south on N Main. even after the light has changed.  Often the visibility for the cars/walkers is impaired by the sitting at the light who are going to turn left or go straight across the intersection so that cars coming up to the intersection cannot see a walker until they are already through the crosswalk.  I always walk that intersection with my head on a swivel trying to see if anyone is going to try to come up the right turn lane at a high speed between the stopped traffic.  This is a spot that really ought to have a special pressure plate that would either trigger a barrier coming up from the pavement or turning on some special lights telling the drivers that a pedestrian is crossing in the crosswalk and they need to stop before they enter the crosswalk.  The latter might be cheaper and more acceptable to drivers, but for real safety on this blind intersection a barrier triggered by a pedestrian walking in the intersection (as long as they have the light) would be best. 

Crossing Olney St, especially going north on the east side of the intersection presents a real problem with all the cars who want to turn right and go up the hill. 
They are trying to carry their momentum from going up the hill from Roger Williams National Memorial and very hesitant to stop even thought he pedestrians have the light too. 

Smith and Canal also has problems with cars turning right on red and being unwilling to stop for pedestrians who have the light and impatient with cars that do stop for pedestrians.  I do like the new lights and crosswalks at the southern end of the National Memorial along Canal St, but a block away, crossing N main by the old statehouse presents a crosswalk with cars wanting to move fast and unwilling to stop quite often. 

Last but not least, entering or leaving downtown crossing Memorial Blvd is always a thrill.  Cars turning right onto Memorial are often moving at high speeds and most definitely resent having to stop for a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

One could go on and on about specific intersections in Providence that are dangerous.  Valley street has several, but the ones discussed  here cover most of the key points.  Left turning cars are watching for traffic, and do not look for pedestrians until too late, beg buttons ought to be eliminated, every light cycle should include time for walkers without turning cars at busy intersections, and blind and high speed/high traffic right turn lanes need special protections for pedestrians.  

I have managed to avoid getting hit by cars for almost 67 years.  Some of it is just luck, but some of it is, as Jerry Garcia sang, I learned to duck.  Now we need to design and enforce better pedestrian facilities at our intersections because as I get older, I get slower.