Public Comment

Commentary: Protecting Pedestrians: Can ‘Safety’ Kill?

By Michael Katz
Friday January 25, 2008

After a second tragic pedestrian death on Marin Avenue, I’m glad to hear several Berkeley City Councilmembers calling for better traffic enforcement, signage, and analysis of collision statistics—and for driver restraint. 

Less obvious is what we should consider doing next: Undo recent street modifications, based on unfounded “safety” fads, that may have actually made streets less safe. 

I suspect the last thing we want to do is to “implement area-wide traffic calming,” as Michael Jerrett’s Jan. 15 commentary advocated. 

I’ll eagerly await the collision-data analysis that Councilmember Spring and colleagues seek. But as a lay volunteer participant in past city bicycle and pedestrian safety campaigns, I’ve helped analyze similar statistics before. Here are a few patterns to expect: 

First, and not surprisingly, peds and cyclists get hit primarily at locations where there is a high volume of both nonmotorist and vehicle traffic. Collisions are very rare on residential streets. 

(This implies that Berkeley spends much of traffic-management budget and effort on residential locations that aren’t very hazardous. As we’ll see, those investments must be about something other than safety.) 

Second, it doesn’t help when traffic signals aren't designed to adequately sort out different transportation modes and directions. 

Third, it doesn’t help when an intersection confuses motorists with unfamiliar physical features. 

Some places, like the odd dogleg intersection of University and Milvia, brew up a perfect storm of all three problems. It’s no surprise that University/Milvia regularly ranks as one of the city’s worst collision hotspots. 

Where systematic statistics are lagging, sometimes anecdotes paint an instructive picture. Let’s start with mine. 

Last month, I was almost run over beside a “traffic circle” installed months earlier at Berkeley’s Spruce/Vine intersection. This is near the unobstructed Spruce/Virginia intersection where Professor Jerrett complains of high vehicle speeds. Be careful what you wish for. 

A taxi whizzed by inches from my nose, making no effort to slow down. I doubt the driver ever saw me. This was after dark, when the shrubbery planted atop traffic circles can make pedestrians invisible to motorists approaching from the opposite side. 

So, tentative conclusion No.1: Traffic circles are a visibility hazard to nonmotorists. 

I’ve had several near-collisions at other Berkeley traffic circles, while driving or bicycling. Few motorists bother to signal turns these days, and the circles hide the remaining clues about other vehicles’ directions. 

Everyone entering a traffic circle looks like they’re turning right. If they continue past the first corner, you assume they’re going straight. If the nitwit is secretly planning to turn left—usurping your right of way to enter the intersection—you barely know until it’s too late. 

So, tentative conclusion No. 2: Traffic circles are a confusion and navigation hazard. 

My tentative conclusions are debatable. But no one seriously claims that thrusting a large bollard into a small residential intersection makes that intersection inherently safer. 

Strictly speaking, constricting the intersection makes it physically less safe. The apologist’s claim is that this causes motorists to drive more slowly and prudently. 

But I’ve seen no indication that California’s rebellious drivers react that way. The strongest evidence for traffic circles’ benefits comes from the Northwest and Northern Europe—places where some civility still reigns. 

Anyway, many “traffic-calming” devices aren’t even designed to directly affect safety where they’re installed. They’re designed to make that location onerous enough to divert vehicles (and any accompanying nuisance or collisions) elsewhere. 

“One study found a 72 percent reduction in injury crash rate on traffic-calmed streets in Denmark and a 96 percent increase in the injury crash rate on adjoining streets.” That striking summary is from the most systematic report I’ve seen on this subject, Reid Ewing’s “Traffic Calming: State of the Practice.” This federally funded metastudy is a free download at: 

Diversion brings us back to Marin Avenue The stretch where Sandra Graber was killed on Dec. 31 had been narrowed in 2005 by two lanes. 

Marin Avenue homeowners in Albany and Berkeley had requested this restriping. They asserted that it would reduce vehicle speeds, protect pedestrians, and benefit the environment. 

But an advance environmental study showed that the narrowing would instead worsen air pollution and noise. One later evaluation found that average vehicle speeds actually increased after restriping. 

Skeptics began to wonder: Had the narrowing’s real goals been to divert traffic elsewhere, raise property values, and make it easier to back out of one’s driveway? 

In a bitter irony, the first person killed on this restriped stretch (last June) was respected Albany environmental leader Ruth Meniketti. Like her, Sandra Graber was a pillar of her community. 

Would either woman be alive today if Marin Avenue had never been narrowed? One can only wish. In each collision, a motorist was found at fault in ways unrelated to the street’s layout. 

But opponents had warned early on that the restriping would eliminate pedestrian safety islands. And anyone who’s been on Marin lately at peak hours knows that the single remaining lane leaves traffic backed up with impatient, stressed-out drivers. 

Other “traffic-calming” approaches have their own detriments. Berkeley stopped installing speed humps not just to avoid delaying emergency vehicles. Disability-rights activists pointed out that driving or riding over them caused excruciating pain to some people with spinal injuries. 

So, what are we left with to protect nonmotorists? The basics. Prof. Jerrett himself writes that “even modest measures such as stop signs will reduce accidents by 70 percent.” Stop signs are cheap and well-understood. 

Councilmember Capitelli (in a Jan. 4 Planet commentary) correctly admonished every driver to “SLOW DOWN and PAY ATTENTION and BE RESPONSIBLE.” And, we need to teach our children well: that every vehicle is a threat. 

From city staff, we need to demand diligent traffic enforcement, smart signals, and careful evaluation to ensure that every dollar we invest yields maximum safety benefits, with minimum detriments. 

Simply placing novel obstructions in drivers’ paths doesn’t automatically improve safety. The sad, unintended consequence is that it sometimes does the opposite. 


Michael Katz writes, rides, walks, BARTs, buses, and drives around Berkeley.