Crosswalks: A Matter of Culture?

Or, what I did on my vacation.

As a neighborhood activist, I have frequently heard the question, “why don’t we stripe more crosswalks?”

The stock-in-trade answer of the traffic engineers in Portland is that drivers are not sufficiently aware of crosswalks and they give pedestrians a false sense of security. This has always struck me as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we act like they don’t mean anything, they won’t!

So while vacationing on Cape Cod last week, I couldn’t help but notice that they appear to take their crosswalks a lot more seriously. They are often distinctively marked (or even use different materials) and are accompanied by very visible signage reminding drivers of the state law requiring cars to yield at crosswalks.

Does it work? I saw lots of instances where cars stopped as soon as someone put a foot in the crosswalk, something I don’t see that often here in Portland.

So I had my family scratching their heads and humoring me while I took the photos below.

Maybe we can discuss this approach at the upcoming Pedestrian Summit II!

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9 responses to “Crosswalks: A Matter of Culture?”

  1. Chris,

    It’s funny you should mention the lack of cars stopping for pedestrians here in PDX. I’m from Michigan, and NO ONE ever stops for pedestrians in the car capitol of the states. Here, I was shocked when drivers not only stopped for me as I ventured across the road, but some actually apologized! Granted, I’d have to agree that we are a long way off from securing pedestrian ‘rights’ as perhaps they should be, but on the spectrum of things, Portland is better than other places.


  2. During a discussion of putting crosswalks at all bus stops a few year ago, objections were raised at TPAC because while it was acknowledged that pedestrians would cross the street to get to the the bus, putting a crosswalk in would make the traffic engineers libel. I think the RTP language was finally agreed on as “major transit stops” in order to meet the objection.

    I think the argument that motorists ignore marked crosswalks isn’t true by nature. There was a time in Los Angeles in the early 70’s when stepping off the curb – even mid-block – brought traffic to a halt. If you didn’t – you got a ticket. (If you were the pedestrian you also got a jay-walking ticket). The key is one of expectations and enforcement. As in all things, some people will do what they are expected to do, others will do what they can get away with. Once enough people get away with it, it becomes what is expected for everyone.

    Frankly the traffic engineers don’t really think pedestrians have the right-of-way and aren’t interested in designing streets that give it to them.

  3. While Portland is certainly higher on the pedestrian-friendly scale than a handful of other places, its certainly far behind Massachusetts, where pedestrians have the right of way unless they are at a SIGNALLED intersection and told to wait. Cars take it seriously in part because the state posts some MAJOR signs identifying $200 fines for NOT stopping.

  4. I grew up in Massachusetts and get back every year or so. It seems to me that signed enforcement of the predestrian crossing law is more more prominent in places that cater to tourists. Is this true?

  5. Celeste –

    Oregon law is that the pedestrian has the right of way in *any* crosswalk, which is basically any intersection, unless it is signed against pedestrian crossing or has a signal. I think the problem is to get motorists to comply.

  6. > Frankly the traffic engineers don’t really
    > think pedestrians have the right-of-way and
    > aren’t interested in designing streets that
    > give it to them.

    Ross is right on the money here, and I’ll add that the police simply will not enforce these laws anyway. Is there anything that can be done to get cops in this town to start issuing citations? They can sit at any of a dozen crosswalks in this City and find violations all day long if they wanted.


  7. I saw a news story a few months ago about a large-scale enforcement action that took place in the Medford area.

    A police officer apparently would stand in the crosswalk at the edge of the intersection with a bright oragange vest labelled “Pedestrian”… anyone who did not stop was issued a citation by an officer stationed a bit further down the road.

    – Bob R.

  8. I find here in San Jose most drivers ignore me when I try to cross a busy street at a crosswalk, even a marked one. They often appear hostile when I start to assert myself by carefully stepping farther out into the traffic. To rephrase someting I was just saying about this issue on my own website, the state should be stricter in issuing licenses if the general public continues to forget about the laws of crosswalks. A pattern of ignorance by drivers is not in itself a good reason for a city to set a policy of leaving crosswalks unmarked.

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