Testing New Designs for Pedestrian Safety

Traffic calming can take a number of different forms, from speed tables to roundabouts, but CNN recently ran a story about an unconventional new traffic calming pilot in Vancouver, Canada, that has people literally doing double takes.

Traffic managers there painted a three dimensional image onto the street that appears to drivers to resemble a child playing with a ball. The CNN anchor was highly skeptical of the visual device, arguing it was likely to cause more car crashes than it would help avert. The show’s viewers, who seem to approach the concept from the viewpoint of drivers, tended to agree.

While this experiment uses quite sophisticated visual cues, it’s arguably in the same traffic calming genus as the intersection painting and neighborhood design projects Streetfilms has documented in Portland, Oregon. These mental speed bumps, to borrow David Engwich’s phrase, present an unexpected, living streetscape to drivers that disrupts the expected conditions and compels a reduction in speed. Like woonerfs, or shared streets where traffic control devices are eliminated, the concept at first seems counter-intuitive and dangerous, but the positive effect can be welcome to pedestrians. Traffic data from cities with shared streets show a remarkable decline in collisions, primarily because the streets have been designed for slow speeds and pedestrian primacy.

A crosswalk that better reflects pedestrian crossing patterns
A crosswalk that better reflects pedestrian crossing patterns. Image: Design Boom

Meanwhile, a new “Ergonomic Crosswalk” presented to the Seoul International Design Competition could improve pedestrian safety, or at least codify the trajectory pedestrians take when crossing a street. As anyone who has spent time in compact cities knows, the straight lines of the crosswalk rarely reflect the path that you takes to cross the street. People often step off the sidewalk before walking to the very edge of the crosswalk and step onto the opposite sidewalk along an arc that gets you to your destination quicker.

These new designs begin to reflect a new consideration in street design, where cars are not the primary consideration, but people and public spaces are valued as much as movement of vehicles. It reminds us of Peter Norton’s primer on the history jaywalking, where he noted that even the term “jay walking” reflects the dominance of automobiles in society. Before the rise of cars in transportation and the re-shaping of cities to accommodate their movement, people and horses and bicycles all shared the street, much like a woonerf. Walkers weren’t trespassing in streets belonging to automobile traffic, but the other way around.

As the artist, Jae Min Lim, noted with the design presentation, “When people cross roads, they tend to take the fastest shortcut. They sometimes do it intentionally, but mostly it is an unconscious act. This kind of action violates the traffic regulations and sometimes threatens the safety of the pedestrians…. If regulations cannot force people to follow the law, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to change the law and fulfill the main purpose of keeping the safety and convenience of the pedestrian?”

Before critics cry too loudly, this is essentially how speed limit laws on streets have been set. In California, as with many other states, speed limits on streets are routinely set to the 85th percentile rule, or the speed at which which 85 percent of traffic travels (see TRB link here).

Presumably in cities where a balance of modalities is restored and pedestrians are given due consideration, design cues like paintings in streets and crosswalks that reflect pedestrian desire lines will become standard.

ergo-crosswalk-2h/t  Design Boom

  • GoGregorio

    That Vancouver idea seems awful to me. You might end up with swerving drivers, or drivers who become used to the images, and therefore no longer react to seeing the children in the middle of the street. I don’t think fooling drivers into thinking they’re about to kill a child is a very safe way to regulate anything.

  • Jen

    The only thing I really wish this took into account is how bike lanes would interact with it. I fear that in reality, having the cars so far back from the actual intersection just gives them an opportunity to get off the line much faster and increase the potential to right-hook cyclists. I’m all for increasing pedestrian infrastructure, too, but I’m just not quite sure how this trickles down to other road users.

    Cyclists would probably end up pulling all the way through the crosswalk, creating a fake bike box of sorts well ahead of pedestrian traffic… maybe.

    I’d probably really like it if the pedestrian circle wasn’t quite so huge. That radius seems a little bit high to me.

  • none

    this reeks of a strong belief in self-entitlement . there are no guarantees of safety in course of life. pay attention and walk intelligently.

  • Brian

    I don’t understand the space between the stop lines and the curving crosswalk (among countless other things about the design). Why wouldn’t people short-cut the short-cut? If you’re going to move the stop line back that far, best to use the space productively.

  • Going along with what Brian said – the crosswalk’s cool, but why not just fill in that semi-circle and make it a bigger crosswalk?

  • “none”: You’re right. Pedestrians feel entitled to not die on the streets.

  • Sean

    “The show’s viewers, who seem to approach the concept from the viewpoint of drivers, tended to agree.”

    Yes, obviously it is absolutely OK to train drivers that the child in the road is just a painting and they should plow through it. Do the authors of this blog apply any common sense before posting on a subject or do you just assume that because the opinion came from a driver it must be junk?

    I assume the curved crosswalk is designed that way because if you just filled the entire area with a rectangular walk pedestrians would just take a similar arc which travels outside. The curve, I imagine, is designed to protect the area that pedestrians frequently travel in as well as offering some mental encouragement to stay within the protected area.

  • Brian

    Yes, but while the curving path many people take isn’t totally arbitrary, it’s certainly not dictated by turning radii. When I cheat a little on the crosswalk and make a curving path, it’s to avoid the fast moving cars/cars waiting at the stop line while taking advantage of empty space at the curb (bus stops, daylighting, etc) – or because the crosswalk is really busy and I want to get the jump on everyone as soon as the light changes. Maybe people have other reasons (aesthetics? I don’t know).

    If cars aren’t supposed to be in that convex spandrel or whatever you want to call it, why not just walk straight across, following the same logic that created the curving path in the first place?

    I don’t see any reason why this would lead to increased compliance. As the creator says, “When people cross roads, they tend to take the fastest shortcut.” The curved path is not the fastest shortcut as soon as you institutionalize it this way.

  • JD

    I don’t like the idea of using images of children as “speed bumps”. Either you freak drivers out that all the sudden there is a kid in the road (which could cause them to swerve and do something worse) or people just get used to driving over “kids” and actually have their awareness of pedestrians even more dulled. What’s wrong with just the regular old speed bump? That works perfectly.

  • Sean


    Sorry, that’s the perspective of a car driver and should be disregarded.

  • Sean, what is your deal?

    This was posted to start a discussion. Lay off man.

    And I think using kids as a way to slow traffic is a bad idea for the reasons mentioned above. Can’t have people getting use to “running over” people. Plus one time down the street and the driver will blow right through this.

  • The street geometry is straight and wide. It’s saying, “drive fast.” Make it into a “skinny” street (like Portland has done in many places), and drivers will naturally have to go slower… without the need for any weird street painting optical illusions.

    You could make it skinny using parked cars, soft-hit posts, traffic cones, bike lanes, or other stuff like that. (Or go whole hog and move the curb).

  • I think drivers’ reactions to the painted child need to be studied, but I would hope that it wouldn’t train drivers to simply disregard possible children in the street as “not real”, but that they would retain a sense of uncertainty and slow down to check first, since they never know. The scenario of jaded drivers sounds like a bit of stretch to me, and that the effect changing expectations of what to see on the road would be stronger.

  • Casey

    I think you all are missing the point of the curved cross walks. People very rarely will make a 180 turn at a corner, following the complete curve. What this does is codify the actions of someone turning right or left across the street. They would walk from one of the curved points to the middle of the opposite sidewalk.


Photo: NYC Mayor's Office

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