How we cross streets: some Chicago examples
Raquel Nelson — a woman in Georgia who was convicted of vehicular homicide for crossing the street with her son, struck by a drunk driver — will be be sentenced tomorrow, probably to a longer prison term than the one given to the driver himself.
Among the prolific discussion online, a number of commentators have wondered why she just didn’t walk to the crosswalk 0.3 miles away, implying that she is somehow lazy or a bad parent for not doing so. While crossing a busy arterial street at night is certainly risky, Raquel Nelson was just doing what pedestrians and people in general find instinctive to do: take the most efficient path to get to their destination.
A couple of examples from here in Chicago:
I’ve taken the Damen Ave. 50 bus northbound to the Damen Blue Line stop many times. The northbound bus stop, where you transfer to the L, is on the east side of the street, whereas the entrance to the station is on the west side of the street.
I’d say that about 90 percent of all riders transferring to the L turn right and cross behind the bus to the train station, a trip I’ve marked with a red arrow on both maps. In contrast, the distance from the bus stop to the crosswalk to the north is a mere 200 feet, a tenth of the distance that Raquel Nelson would have had to walk. Yet given this minimal distance to the crosswalk, most riders still continue to take this most effective way to get to the entrance.
People, pedestrians included, are hard-wired to find the most effective method to travel any particular distance. Sure, we know there’s a crosswalk 200 feet away, but we also know that it’s faster to just cross behind the bus. It does help that Damen is a relatively narrow two-lane street with traffic that seems to be either very light (at 6:25 am, when I am passing through) or chokingly heavy, both of which make it easy to cross. Nevertheless, we recognize the most efficient way to get there and we take it.
In an indirect way, drivers perform the same mental calculation, too. How many times have you circled endlessly to find a “good” parking space that reduces the amount of walking? I’d wager half the time it would have been just faster to park the car in the first easily available spot and then walk to the destination, even if the distance were slightly longer. Even when we drive, we look for the fastest and most efficient path.
In downtown Chicago, the neighborhood with the highest Walk Score in the entire city, at Randolph and Michigan there is no crosswalk between the southwest and southeast corners (shown with a red arrow below), so pedestrians crossing between the Chicago Cultural Center or one of the Millennium Station exits must use three crosswalks in order to get to Millennium Park.
The crosswalk was removed in 2004 (scroll down or search “removed crosswalks”) in order to facilitate foot traffic. It is one of the most frustrating intersections to cross in the entire city; I once was so resistant to taking the three crosswalks, thinking that there must be some way to cross through Millennium Station to the park, that I ended up getting lost underground for quite some time.
I’m not saying that the entire street has to be a crosswalk, as extrapolating this principle to the logical extreme would mean pedestrianizing the entire street; the fastest path between two buildings facing each other is always the direct line across the street, after all. Instead, what I’m trying to point out is that it’s important to consider pedestrian psychology when we design streets and zone land in our cities.
Particularly at high-volume areas — such as the Damen bus-rail transfer and the heavily patronized Loop — we should acknowledge our crossing instincts and design these places accordingly. Walking is, or it should be, a fundamentally legitimate way of getting around a city, and building infrastructure that ignores this is short-sighted and a denial of human instinct.