To the Driver Who May Have been Offering Me the Right of Way

It was a little after 8 p.m., just after dark. We met at the intersection of King Street and West Avenue. I was wearing a rain coat and boots, though it wasn’t raining (it had been earlier). You were in a smallish red SUV.

I had just reached the corner, was walking down King on my way home from work. I was on the sidewalk, hadn’t yet stepped out into the avenue. It may have looked like I was going to. I was thinking about it. I had just started to take in the situation. 

You noticed me there.

I’m hardly ever noticed there. At least not by drivers. They don’t really have time. 

And the Department of Transportation (DOT) respects that. They regularly evaluate whether or not the streets they’re in charge of are providing a high enough “level of service.” To drivers. They want to make sure drivers don’t have to wait too long at lights and that vehicles keep moving quickly down the roadway.

In order to accommodate that, West Avenue has twice been widened: once in the 1980s and again about 10 years ago. The second time a median was added, with openings for turn lanes at intersections. 

We were at one of those intersections. You were in the lane on West Avenue closest to me (but not uncomfortably close—the lanes, after all, are quite wide, by specification). I was on the sidewalk, not even to the curb cut, the downward slope that empties into the street so that a person in a wheelchair can cross.

The corner there, as on any street designed by the DOT, is a sprawling affair. It has a wide turning radius to accommodate large vehicles at high speeds. The crosswalks are set back from the edges of these corners, which can make it difficult for drivers to see the pedestrians. When drivers must stop before entering a multiple-lane street, they typically pull up into the crosswalk so that they can better see into the roadway. Sometimes they check first to make sure a pedestrian is not entering the crosswalk, but my experience has been that more often they don’t.

So I’m generally expecting not to be seen here. I do, however, still often find it to be a good place to cross. Better, at least, than the next intersection, with a traffic signal, because here there are fewer turning vehicles. The cross traffic is also heavier there and even with a walk light, it’s iffy. In the evening I carry a flashlight, a light saber, to make sure that I am seen. Even so, I have had close calls.

But back to us. You were in the right lane, closest to me, and as I approached the street, you slowed down, I presume to give me the right of way to cross, even though you don’t legally have to unless I’ve actually entered the street.

Which I won’t actually do unless I’ve already determined it’s clear. 

Because chances are not good that, even though it’s required by law, drivers will yield. 

Researchers in St. Paul, Minnesota who are tracking driver behavior and attempting to get them to yield, found that when pedestrians were sent out to cross at the beginning of the study, only about 1/3 of drivers stopped for them. (At the time of the interview with the study’s organizer, no one had actually been hit.)

Those aren’t great odds. 

And at 30-some miles per hour (it’s posted at 25, but drivers routinely go faster), the likelihood of my surviving a crash is about 50/50.

But there you were, and you were stopping, before I even stepped into the street. 

The problem was, you were close enough to me that I couldn’t see around you into the other lanes in the same direction as yours. I couldn’t tell if there was going to be another driver in the next lane or two over who was not going to also yield.

And I also didn’t have a handle yet on whether vehicles coming from the other direction were still stopped at the intersection down the way, or if they were beginning to accelerate.

And I didn’t know how to communicate all of this to you. I don’t know what kind of hand signal expresses “Thanks, but no thanks. Nice of you, but I’ve got several other lanes to verify here.”

So I pivoted. I turned to head down to the next intersection.

I ghosted you. And I feel bad about this. Really, I would have preferred to have been invisible, to have not caused you the trouble.

I’m sorry I didn’t know how to show my appreciation. (Would a smile, a shrug, and a grand open-armed gesture at the vastness of the roadway have done it?)

It wasn’t the right time and place for us. Maybe back in the 70s, with fewer lanes and other “improvements,” we might have been able to work it out. But there was no chance for us the other night. 

It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. It was the DOT.

Signed,

Not the flaky ingrate you may have thought I was

p.s. If you were just slowing down to read a text, never mind.

What will be lost

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Wisconsin DOT will be doing long overdue maintenance work on La Crosse Street in the city of La Crosse. As part of this work, they are planning to add a 12-foot 2-way turn lane to “improve safety.” To accommodate the added roadway, the boulevard width will be reduced and trees will be removed. These are the 87 boulevard trees currently along La Crosse Street between Losey Boulevard and West Avenue. (The first 30 are on the south side, heading west, the next 57 are on the north side, heading east.)

I have asked the consultant handling public involvement for the DOT about the removal of the trees and was told that questions will not be responded to until the public comment period is over, August 14.

Information about the project can be found here.

Not all of the trees are completely healthy and some of them are rather goofy looking after being trimmed to accommodate power lines, but they are not worth sacrificing for driver convenience.

This is an excerpt from my response to the plan update:

With the rationale for the widening being that drivers are rear-ending each other, were other means of slowing down drivers to prevent this considered?

It seems that what is probably happening is that drivers coming from the north-south corridor, accustomed to the more highway-like roadway, are expecting to continue moving with the same, fast ease. And by widening this street, that expectation will be better met. The trade-off will be a more treacherous street for those traveling by bicycle or walking. Removing the trees will also make it less comfortable for those modes of travel. Giving up dozens of trees in exchange for a wider street and a couple of rapid flashing beacons is not a humane trade and will not encourage more people to travel by bicycle, take the bus, or walk.

Also, rear-end crashes with other vehicles are rarely serious or fatal. Crashes with people walking or bicycling, especially when drivers are moving at greater than 25 mph, often are.

Stopping to Look at Bus Stops

For Transit Equity Day, held on February 4th, in recognition of Rosa Parks’ birthday, I thought I’d post photos from a couple bus stops here in La Crosse, which isn’t as bad as a lot of cities in the U.S. for transit (which isn’t saying much).

This isn’t a stop that I use, but I pass it on my way to the laundromat. The pictures of the tree and the bench on the sign recently caught my eye and made me think it would be really nice if the stop actually had a tree and a bench.

WestStopMed  WestStopClose2

With the multiple widenings of the street for vehicle traffic by the state Department of Transportation, though, there isn’t much space left. At least not on the boulevard (or terrace, as the buffer zone is called in some places).

The street used to actually HAVE trees, as these photos from a project of the La Crosse Public Library Archives and History Department show. They’re taken on the same street, from a block and a half north (facing south, as are my photos).

59_1970.jpg  59_2003

The first shot (1970) actually looks like a nice street to walk along. The second one (2003) doesn’t look quite as nice, but doesn’t look as punitive (and dangerous) as this stretch is for pedestrians today.

The next photos are of a bus stop that I do use. It’s the closest one to where my husband and I buy groceries.

WFStopClose.jpg  WFStopFar

Again, it would be considerate to have an actual bench or a tree, or even a shelter, especially when the weather’s bad, but at least the street itself isn’t designed like a highway. It doesn’t feel as unwelcoming. Yet it is kind of ironic how much shelter and shade drivers are offered while doing their banking behind the stop, by comparison.

WFdrivethrough1.jpg

 

 

What Year Is It?

I suppose it’s appropriate to have a little 1970s-style station wagon in WisDOT’s proposed street redesign, since the design itself is out of that era: “Improve safety” by removing trees and adding another lane of asphalt to give the drivers more unobstructed space. (Maybe the car just came with the template?)

Unfortunately, it’ll probably be a big truck or SUV that takes out the first pedestrian or bicyclist at high speed.

DOTproposesm2.jpg

Stepping Out

So you’ve decided you want to get your steps in outdoors, you can no longer afford your car (or you’ve never had one), or your bike’s in the shop. Whatever the reason, you’re ready to step out on foot. Good news! If you’re a human, you were built for this. Chances are you already own some footwear and have spent time in a yard, at a park, or on sidewalks. So this should come naturally. The challenge comes when mixing it up with automobiles. For these occasions, we offer some suggestions.

10 Tips for Crossing the Street

  1. It’s best not to cross the street in the United States, but if you must cross there, cross in a northern state rather than the Sun Belt, where pedestrian deaths as a percentage of walking trips are consistently higher.
  2. Cross the street while White. Crossing while Black increases your chances for being killed by 72%.
  3. Cross while under age 75. Under 50 is preferable. If you must cross the street while older, find an intersection with a longer crossing signal.
  4. Choose “complete streets,” designed to accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users rather than just drivers.
  5. Cross 100 years ago, before automobiles began crowding the streets and the notion of “jaywalking” was invented.
  6. There’s safety in numbers, so cross with a group. Join a Safe Route to Schools walking school bus or a charity run or walk. (This may require some advance scheduling.)
  7. Cross in a higher-income area and choose a neighborhood built prior to the 1950s, where blocks are shorter and streets are narrower (as long as they haven’t been “improved” by a state Department of Transportation).
  8. Cross a street with lower average vehicle speeds. Nine out of 10 pedestrians survive a crash with a vehicle going 20 mph, 5 out of 10 when hit at 30 mph, and only 1 in 10 at 40 mph or higher.
  9. If you must get hit by a vehicle, be hit by a sedan rather than a truck or an SUV, which are 2 to 3 times more likely to kill you.
  10. Cross in a location where drivers aren’t texting.

Fun fact: Between 2008 and 2017, 49,340 people were killed while travelling by foot in the United States.
See “Dangerous by Design” by Smart Growth America for more numbers and insight.

—Bridget C. Brown