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Vehicle Safety In the Walkable Community

Written by David Kopec on Wednesday, 30 July 2003 7:00 pm

Fear is a strong deterrent to pedestrian activity. If one fears injury or death they will most likely avoid the circumstances surrounding that source of fear. One source of fear for many pedestrians derives from automobiles. As large formidable objects that can inflict serious harm, automobiles being driven at excessive speeds have a greater potential of running down a pedestrian. Likewise, some people have been accidentally rundown because of getting in a driver's blind spot or because a driver lost control and his/her vehicle and ended up on the sidewalk, as illustrated by the tragic accident that occurred recently in which an elderly driver lost control of his vehicle and killed 10 pedestrians in a closed-street Los Angeles farmers' market.

Because of media, many no longer need a personal experience to develop a fear of traffic. Media images have shown us the many different ways in which human-vehicle accidents can occur. Hence, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, most humans do have some fear of automobiles and this fear will impact whether a person will choose to walk or not.

First, there is the fear of being hit by vehicles traveling at excessive speeds. To help alleviate this fear, traffic-calming measures can be used to help slow vehicles. Ideally, a vegetated median should be used because it not only narrows the road which will cause traffic to slow, but the median itself will provide an island of refuge for those people who can not make it across the street during the allotted time. Additionally, the vegetation along the median will help to reduce the perception of traffic volume for the pedestrian. This is because humans typically view three-dimensional scenes from front to back. What I mean here is that when a pedestrian stands on a sidewalk preparing to cross the street, their primary view will be the traffic in front of them. Their secondary view will be the vegetation, and the tertiary view will be traffic flowing in the opposite direction. Hence the tertiary view will have less of an impact on the perceiver thereby decreasing the potential threat in the mind of the pedestrian.

Another fear shared by many individuals is crossing the street. The primary fear derives from stepping out into traffic. In the past this fear was dealt with by limiting how close a car could park to an intersection. However, with the advent of SUVs, this fear for many has returned. The first issue reported by many pedestrians is that they cannot see past the vehicle to determine if it is safe for them to use the crosswalk. This issue can be easily dealt with by moving the available street parking even further back from the intersection. Obviously this would mean four fewer parking spaces per intersection area. Another solution would be to extend the sidewalk past the outer side of the parked vehicle. This would in essence create a recessed area for parallel parking. Another fear reported by pedestrians (especially from people who are smaller in stature) with regard to SUVs is that in many cases the driver cannot see the person walking directly in front of the vehicle. Many people believe that because of the vehicle’s height and length of the hood that smaller stature individuals such as the elderly will not be seen when they are directly in front of the vehicle such as when the person is in a crosswalk. Again, a low cost solution would be to create a greater distance between the crosswalk lines and the lines indicating where vehicles should stop.

Incidentally, while I discussed SUVs in this section the concepts pertain to all high-profile vehicles. This means that commercial areas that have a high volume of heavy commercial traffic will also be negatively impacted relative to other commercial areas without the commercial traffic. The solution here would be to limit the hours in which commercial traffic could use the roads, and/or reroute commercial traffic away from the commercial center. I know, this is easier said than done.

There is nothing more vulnerable than a pedestrian in the direct line of an automobile. The fear here is that a driver may become distracted at any given time by a ringing cell phone, a sign advertising a sale in a store window, or an attractive person walking down the street. Any distraction may cause a driver to inadvertently swerve off of the road and onto a sidewalk. While some communities lack elevated sidewalks, the curbing associated with an elevated sidewalk is in essence the first defense from a rogue vehicle. However, depending on the speed and profile of the vehicle, this defense may only serve to slow the vehicle, not stop it from reaching the pedestrian. An elevated sidewalk in conjunction with a row of trees on the other hand will serve as a formidable barrier for the vehicle and stop it before reaching a pedestrian. As such, the optimal design for pedestrian areas is a raised sidewalk with a strip of landscaping between the curbing and the sidewalk. This landscaping should consist of trees with formidable trunks, and should not be so bushy as to obscure the pedestrian’s line of vision.

Additionally, parking lots for many of the early strip malls were placed in front of the building and at the same elevation as the sidewalks. During the era when many of these properties were developed the notion of zero landscaping dominated. This meant that while the sidewalks were raised, many autos could roll from the parking lot to the sidewalk unobstructed. While a vehicle accidentally left in neutral would probably not cause much harm, a person who accidentally placed a vehicle in drive when it should have been put into reverse, or visa versa, could inflict serious harm to a pedestrian. One clear solution would be to place a curb between the parking lot and the sidewalk. The optimal design however would the placement of a two-three foot planter (in-between the parking lot and sidewalk) that can be filled with low profile bushes. The planter then becomes the physical barrier while the bushes become the psychological barrier. Also, one could just as easily use trees in this area, however many merchants fear that trees might obscure their signage, and bushes combined with curbing should stop a vehicle in a parking lot.

As more and more vehicles enter our roadways and the trends for large autos ebb and flow, we encounter more and more difficulties merging vehicle activity with pedestrian activity. Given the magnitude and power of vehicles, it is understandable why pedestrians may hold fears either on a conscious or unconscious level. These fears, if not adequately dealt with will impact the success of pedestrian use. The key with this, as well as other factors, is adaptation.

Zoning and planning departments need to keep abreast of societal trends, such as the recent trend of SUVs, and compensate for those trends. While the zoning and planning departments make the rules, they need input from the community as to what is or is not working. I say this because while one community may have significant problems with speeding, another community’s main problem might be the level of commercial vehicles using the roadways. Therefore, the planning and zoning departments can address the issue at hand without wasting their resources to fix problems that may not be impacting a particular community.

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