The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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Why We Need to Slow the Cars

Accident scene at State and Grand.  Hope she's OK.

It happens every day. An innocent person is crossing the street at a corner when suddenly, a car comes barrelling towards her and kills her in an instant. The driver wasn’t drunk or even texting, so we treat these scenarios as “accidents.” We shake our heads and say, “There was no way to prevent this tragedy.”

Well I call bullshit.

Cars are the most dangerous thing most Americans encounter on a daily basis, and our streets and cities are designed to let this happen. The best way to make our cities and towns safer is to get cars driving slower. I have no problem with people driving 70 mph on the highway–that’s a system intended to move vehicles quickly from one point to another, and pedestrians and bikes are not present in that system. What I do have a problem with is cars driving 40 mph through a neighborhood where children are playing, people are biking home from work or walking to the store. Although we’d be safest without them at all, cars can coexist with bike and pedestrians in an urban environment. But only if the cars are slowed considerably. Continue reading


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Pedestrian Right of Way

Nearly every day in this country, pedestrians are killed by cars. I’m not just talking about drunk drivers. I’m talking about your mom or your little brother walking across the street on their way home when suddenly a car barreling down a residential neighborhood at 40 mph because he needs to get to the grocery store right now, strikes and kills them instantly. When we talk about crosswalks and lower speed limits and wider sidewalks, we are talking about life and death. If you want to hear a truly tragic story of a young mother and child recently killed while crossing the street on their way home from the library, listen to this Strong Towns podcast episode.

I want to briefly demonstrate for you the absolute carelessness of the majority of drivers in an every day situation, through a quick video. Now thankfully, I didn’t die doing this.

In this video, you’ll see me walking up to a crosswalk, which is clearly marked with signs on both sides of the street and white painted lines in the road. Then you’ll see how dozens of cars (and a city bus!) completely disregard my presence and my right of way. I’m posting the Wisconsin law regarding pedestrian right of way below (which is very similar to most state laws) so you can understand exactly how these drivers are breaking it. In summary, legally, cars must yield to pedestrians or wheelchair users who are in a crosswalk, and even to pedestrians who are crossing in a place where a crosswalk would theoretically be, if the city had bothered to paint it (i.e. any intersection). You can scroll down past the legalease if you want to just watch the video.

340.01(10)

(10) “Crosswalk” means either of the following, except where signs have been erected by local authorities indicating no crossing:

(a) Marked crosswalk. Any portion of a highway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs, lines or other markings on the surface; or

(b) Unmarked crosswalk. In the absence of signs, lines or markings, that part of a roadway, at an intersection, which is included within the transverse lines which would be formed on such roadway by connecting the corresponding lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of such roadway […]

346.23: Crossing controlled intersection or crosswalk.

(1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, or to a person who is riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who has started to cross the highway on a green or “Walk” signal and in all other cases pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders of electric personal assistive mobility devices shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully proceeding directly ahead on a green signal.  No operator of a vehicle proceeding ahead on a green signal may begin a turn at a controlled intersection or crosswalk when a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device crossing in the crosswalk on a green or “Walk” signal would be endangered or interfered with in any way.

346.24: Crossing at uncontrolled intersection or crosswalk.

(1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

In the video (which I filmed on New Years Day), I walk a few feet into the crosswalk and wait patiently as car after car blows past me. Eventually, I get fed up with waiting and start to walk into the middle of the road, where the first lane of traffic is persuaded to stop. Then finally I keep walking into the second lane where cars just barely hit the brakes before entering the crosswalk and hitting me. I actually put my up, motioning the drivers to stop (although you can’t see that since I am filming from my perspective).

Forgive the expletives (or put the video on mute, the sound is not really necessary), but when I have to risk my life just walking home every day, I get pretty angry about it.

That is the state of pedestrian safety today. And this video is taken at a designated crosswalk! In spaces without signage or painted lines in the road, the cars blow by continuously in an even more dangerous manner. Pedestrian safety is not just the battle cry of angry hippies. It is a necessary component of all city planning and road design. It is the difference between life and death for your child walking home from school, your friend riding her wheelchair, your father taking his dog for a walk, your grandpa on his way to church and you, wherever you choose to go that does not involve a car.

So please, if you’re a driver, always stop for pedestrians. And if you’re a pedestrian, know that you have an absolute right to be where you are. It’s only by continuing to declare our presence and the value of our lives that we can move into a future of greater safety for everyone.


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3 Half-Assed Attempts at Walkability

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I made it to Milwaukee, WI, my new home! (Although that photo is not what it looks like now. Not for a couple months at least.) During my first few days here I saw the apartment we’re moving into soon, cooked and baked more than I have in weeks, and adjusted to a new freelance schedule. So far the biggest shocks to my system after moving from NYC have not been the lack of skyscrapers, the Midwestern accents, or the quiet atmosphere (praise the Lord for this). No, the biggest change has been the drastic shift in my transportation options.

Milwaukee is definitely a car-centric city, but I do not have a car (nor do I have plans to procure one)—just my feet and a bus pass. I was prepared for this, but it’s still a huge change coming from New York, which is the land of quick, cheap and easy public transit.

One thing I noticed upon my preliminary attempts at traveling by foot was the half-assed nature of walkability in this place. The city is chipping away at it’s auto-oriented streets with sidewalks, crosswalks and more, but none of these are quite accomplishing what they’re supposed to because they weren’t invested with the proper amount of forethought and intention in the beginning. This is not unique to Milwaukee by any means. It’s also not a bad thing at face value: better to have some sidewalks than none at all, right? However, as someone who is always looking for ways to improve cities, I have to take them to task when they half-ass their walkable places. Here are three of those half-assed attempts, and ideas for how to make them better:

1.  The sidewalk that suddenly terminates. Here’s what it looks like: You’ve charted your course to the grocery store and you’re making good time on the sidewalk. You can see the store two blocks ahead of you when all of a sudden, you realize that the sidewalk is about to end and only way forward is in the road. We usually encounter these interruptions near busy, multilane streets where the focus is obviously on the driver, so much so that it appears the engineers forgot that there might be pedestrians around.

Solution: It’s probably not doable for most towns to interconnect every one of their sidewalks, but at the very least, Continue reading