Friday, September 13, 2013

Why the Upright Cyclist is grateful for all those crosswalks

The crossing at Mission and Church...a regular part of my life,
and something making Mission Street palatable.

In the last few years, the City of Salem has installed a significant number of upgraded pedestrian crossings to aid in navigating the busy streets around town. These are almost all expressly for pedestrians (a point I’ll return to later), but I find them quite useful for cyclists as well.

Like other cities in the USA, though perhaps more so than many our size, Salem has a number of large, fast streets penetrating its inner core. These streets (which I style “speedways”) have many visual cues encouraging travel at higher than posted speeds: they are often quite straight or have fairly easy curves, they tend to be quite wide, lack parking on one or both sides, and/or have a “finish” that gives a subtle likeness to higher-speed roads. This often puts the visual character of these streets at odds with their posted speed limits.

Until recently, pedestrians have had a difficult and dangerous time journeying through parts of the primary region of town. Crosswalks at major intersections with stoplights tend to be fairly widely spaced outside of the innermost core (another cue to drivers that above-average speed is reasonable), and there are very few options of going under or over these roads. Painted crosswalks with dull yellow signs have long existed in many places. These often mark nearby school access routes. These crossings, however, are pretty much legal fictions in day-to-day terms, as very few drivers pay much attention to them and it takes a fairly gutsy person to edge out and essentially dare the steady steam of traffic to stop.

The new crosswalks are a different critter. 

First of all, they include traffic calming features (curb bump-outs and islands, &c.) cueing a driver that speed could be disadvantageous. This is a wonderful and far more effective tool than the usual resort to enforcement that people clamor for, as it appeals to that very human sense of self-interest. If most drivers sense their car could easily be damaged on a given stretch of road, they are going to slow down. Pretty simple. Narrowing the road near a pedestrian crossing (or a school, or major community gathering spot) communicates to most people—more effectively than any sign ever could—that it time to “choke your motor,” so to speak.

More effective, bright optic yellow signs also mark these crossings. They can be seen on sunny and rainy days, when the old “warning yellow” of days gone by seems to get washed out by all the other colors out there today, or by sunlight in summer/grey rainy skies in winter. This new yellow doesn't get washed out nearly as easily.

When more than two lanes of traffic are being crossed, pedestrian-actuated and solar-powered flashing LED warning lights provide a highly effective indication that the crosswalk is in use. This feature in particular has made an astonishing difference not only in visibility to drivers but in emboldening pedestrians to use these accommodations. Where the LED flashers have been installed, I have seen people of all ages adopt a much more confident attitude in the face of what was once a streaming onslaught of Autoist Entitlement. Indeed, some crossings (such as the one at Mill and Twelfth) are amazingly busy now, effectively slowing down what has often been a "wild west" stretch of road rather nicely.

Court Street and the Capitol Mall; an LED-enhanced pedestrian crossing
getting a lot of use

As someone who drives a good deal, I am well aware of how easily such Autoism seduces the mind. Once you get going at a certain rate of speed, every encumbrance to that inertial state starts to seem like a personal insult. It just comes with the territory in American motoring, and such an attitude is neither helpful or healthy. Ways to break that sense of entitlement are quite beneficial, all around.

To the cyclist, it is pretty clear that these accommodations were not really meant for bikes. The approaches to the crossings are often narrow and involve sharp turns and curbs. The assumption seems to be that only people on foot—or walking their bikes—should be using them. This is, I believe, actually the law, so it is entirely appropriate. I can’t really complain about this. However, the fact is that many cyclists, like motorists, tend to forget the law when it comes to such things and try to keep that inertial state going whenever possible.

Salem has very few places clearly prioritizing cycling over other means of transport (the Chemeketa Street railway grade crossing at Twelfth is probably the best example). Putting in that much infrastructure is fairly expensive, and since much of the way such planning is done seems based more on current usage rather than encouraging usage, I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. This makes these new crossings quite valuable.

I cautiously use these crosswalks as primary conduits through town—cautiously, but use them I do. Because of the traffic-calming features, it is much easier to get the eye of motorists. While some folks doggedly continue the old charade of not seeing those trying to cross the road, many more pay attention because of the curbs jutting out and (especially) the flashing LED warning indicators.

These crossings often feel much safer than intersections with bike lanes and traffic lights, partly because of the ability to confirm visually that people see you, and partly because there is less going on at such locations—many intersections are too busy both in terms of traffic movement and in terms of visual clutter.
Center & OSH crossing...a much better way to cross Center Street on a bike.

One final aspect of these crosswalks I appreciate is that they often connect quieter streets or areas of town across major thoroughfares. I like this because it allows me to move about town on the terms of what I like to call “upright cycling.” Namely: at a leisurely pace, in relative peace, taking in the neighborhood while moving through it, and being away from auto-dominated environments.

So, while Salem isn’t exactly Amsterdam or Portland (or Corvallis, for that matter), these pedestrian crossings—meant for people on foot—have helped make this city a bit more cycle-friendly. I hope you have found it so, as well.

The Chemeketa crossing project when it was under
construction; probably the most complete piece of
cycling infrastructure downtown.


  1. RE: "The assumption seems to be that only people on foot—or walking their bikes—should be using them. This is, I believe, actually the law, so it is entirely appropriate."

    ORS 814.410(2) - "Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, a bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk."

    There are other details on speeds and stuff, but in general, people on bike don't have to dismount in a crosswalk, and the law expects some people on bike to use them!

    Of course, whether the "sidewalkification" of bicycling is good policy is another matter; and if in the absence of adequate facilities in the roadway, crosswalks and sidewalks are useful for people on bike, bikes more fundamentally are vehicles and should belong in the roadway with safe and comfortable facilities, appropriately separated from auto traffic. It will take a while to get there, alas.

    (After almost exactly a year, I still find 12th and Chemeketa rather complicated and cluttered! On the other hand, though, it works well enough as you say.)

    1. Thanks for your clarification, SBoB! I've tried to figure out the meaning of the statutory language in the past, and erred on the side of figuring it meant I needed to become as much like a pedestrian as possible.

      I think it is generally best, when pedestrians are about on these crossings, either to dismount or (if they seem amenable) to steer pretty clear of them. My sense is that folks on foot have the priority.

      The issue of "sidewalkification" is, as you point out, the underlying issue. While I am definitely seeing more folks out there commuting on bikes in Salem, it doesn't seem to reached the level needed (or, perhaps it doesn't include the particular groups or persons needed) to become significant in the eyes of our urban planning team. The whole Mission & Winter fiasco (a.k.a. "the disappearing bike lane") is a good example of this.

      So, for now, these crosswalks are about as much help as we can expect.

      The 12th and Chemeketa crossing is, both functionally and visually, rather a dog's lunch...but this is probably in part due to having so many cooks in the stew around this particular project. Mostly, I am pleased with the fact that Salem has at least ONE pretty usable bikeway through town (though LEDs at the Chemeketa & 17th crossing would be helpful, especially after the John Dashney incident--this would materially help communicate the significance of this route for pedestrians and cyclists...but there is probably some complicated set of regulations inhibiting this).

      Thanks for your comment, and your blog's continued effectiveness and creativity!