Safer To Jaywalk

This T-intersection is near my local metro station. I use it all the time.


It has a full set of traffic lights, and a signaled pedestrian crossing with a backwards counter displaying how many seconds left before the green WALK signal switches to STOP. The timer is thirty seconds, which is sufficient for a fully mobile adult, but doesn’t leave much time for dilly-dallying for children or anyone less sprightly, for whichever reason.

The main road is three busy lanes in each direction. The side roads are single lane. Traffic turning right from the single lane has a green light and has to give way to pedestrians. The timers on the north and south lanes’ traffic lights are offset, such that the south lane red light signals a good ten seconds before the north lane. Logically enough, the pedestrian crossing only signals when red lights stop car traffic in both lanes of the main road.

The upshot of all this is that when crossing from north to south, you might want to walk briskly, but there is no particular overlap between cars and people. However, when crossing from south to north, the timing is such that cars and trucks always have to stop a second time for pedestrians. The drivers are, in the most part, polite, but you depend to an uncomfortable extent on their knowing the give way rule. There is no continuous line of sight from pedestrian to car, as the car comes from the back left. There is no continuous line of sight from driver to pedestrian, as it is coming around a corner.

There is a pedestrian bridge, but it is a hundred metres away and adds a few minutes to the journey. Without arguing the psychology of it in detail, people will prefer the fastest way. The bridge is also only accessible by stairs.

The safest way to cross this road from the south is to jaywalk to the traffic island after the southern lane traffic light has turned red, then cross the north lane under the green man signal, before the cars have reached the pedestrian crossing.

This is not a problem that enrages me, but it does scare me, just a little, and it nags at the design-aware part of my brain. Breaking a good, established, law, like the traffic code, bugs me. How do I teach that rule to little people? Surely it’s not right that strangers to the area are put at more risk. Etc. The solution I’d suggest would be to block the right turn for the side street entirely.

There is a U-turn lane near lights a few hundred metres along the main road. The trucks may have to go further up. Another solution would be to extend the timer for the side road red light without changing any other timings, meaning pedestrians have a better chance of crossing before competing directly with traffic.

Now, there are mechanisms for changing this, but they are pretty crude and imprecise. I’m sure there’s a smart civil engineer working for the roads department who could tweak this design to make it better, and maybe point out where my suggestions make well-meaning amateurish errors. I could write a letter to the department, or to an MP, but that is the prioritisation and lobbying end of the problem. There are probably more obviously urgent things to deal with, though this one does have a safety aspect, and a subtle one to explain. It also ends up in a big slush pile of email feedback. Imprecise.

One of the things that makes me sympathetic to the Tim O’Reilly – Daniel Lathrop government as a platform approach is moments like this. If this intersection were a piece of open source software, I could lodge a detailed, public bug report, have it commented on by other users, or even contribute a patch. Some local governments have started to take a genuine crack at this – eg you can raise a pothole bug in Cambridgeshire and at another level of openness and sophistication, the GOV.UK project so embraced an innovative, collaborative spirit, they put all the code on GitHub. This still falls short of what feels right here – a patch for the Civic Infranet of Things.

That is the spirit I think small scale, town hall democracy can have, but for it to scale to a metropolis, some different techs and processes are needed. (Contrary to some critics, this is not inherently an agenda for defunding government or “depoliticising” policy.) Bug reports, their priorities and solutions can be intensely political, and that is a good, human thing. Its localness and specifity keeps a human scale; it changes the texture of civic engagement. Maybe that doesn’t address grand national problems directly. It doesn’t fix collapsed party memberships or dismantle the security-panic-apathy complex. Yet wanting to collaborate in a focused, open way, with the guidance of domain experts: that is a model of responsible, informed self-government.

When I run home I take the bridge.

The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.
— Diodotus, in Thuycidides History of the Peloponnesian War, Crawley trans.

One thought on “Safer To Jaywalk

  1. Pingback: Democracy With Unit Tests | Conflated Automatons

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