It’s time for vulnerable road user integration instead of accommodation

In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a vulnerable road user is defined for the first time in federal legislation as a “non-motorist.” This includes both pedestrians and cyclists for which serious injuries and fatalities are tracked.

For years, transportation professionals have talked about accommodation of vulnerable road users, but the continued rise in vulnerable user deaths in the United States should force us to really take a hard look at our highway system and see that accommodation is not enough. Instead, it’s time to realize that our system has been designed around the motor vehicle since the turn of the 20th century with all other users having minority access and priority, and our country’s embarrassing road user safety record is the result. Therefore, vulnerable road user integration needs to be our new priority.

The perfect example of this lack of integration is the signalized intersection, as traffic signals were first designed in the early 20th century to control motor vehicle traffic. The traffic signal was never designed for pedestrian use, and signalized intersections evolved to accommodate pedestrian travel for safety purposes only. Pedestrian signals were first added in the 1930s as deaths and serious injuries grew at signalized intersections as a means to control crossings. They have since evolved to include accessible buttons with locator tones and audible messaging for those who are blind or visually impaired, and have the ability to also add crossing time for those with mobility issues.

However, even with all of these improvements, the fact remains at a signalized intersection, a pedestrian can not freely cross when they choose, unlike any other crossing that they would use. The vast majority of state laws already give the pedestrians the right-of-way in a marked crosswalk, except at a signalized intersection. They are already integrated to all non-signalized intersections with crosswalks due to that state legislation.

So why then, do we continue to install traffic signals that take away that crossing priority and instead, require pedestrians to wait to cross for a certain pedestrian cycle regardless of weather or environmental conditions? The longer a pedestrian has to wait for the WALK phase, the more likely they are to try to cross during the DON’T WALK phase, which creates immediate safety issues.

We also know traffic signals do not equal safety or equity for any vulnerable road user, so why should they continue to be the default intersection control of choice in America?

The alternative to a signalized intersection is obviously an unsignalized one. Roundabouts are the superior type of unsignalized intersections that exist because they are safe and equitable for all users, as I wrote about in a previous story.

Admittingly, I’m biased toward roundabouts, but in some cases, I’ve actually felt more comfortable crossing a roundabout as a pedestrian than navigating one in a vehicle, and it’s certainly more comfortable than crossing at a signalized intersection.

For pedestrians at a roundabout, the decision making is far less demanding than at a signalized intersection. They only need to look in one direction at a roundabout while crossing, and typically only have to cross one or two lanes at a time. Pedestrians crossing at a roundabout also don’t have to worry about a countdown or potential red-light runners in all directions.

For those pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired, the same accessible push buttons and audible messaging that are used at signalized intersections can also be incorporated at roundabouts using pedestrian hybrid or rectangular rapid flashing beacons, with the advantage of keeping that crossing priority.

Another means of accommodation is a sidewalk, which some have mistakenly associated with an instant safety improvement. However, curb is not a barrier, so sidewalks just give pedestrians an accommodation to travel along the roadway with vehicular traffic. We need to consider though, how comfortable or safe is that travel when current design standards allow vehicles to get as close as 1–2 feet from the sidewalk while traveling on a multilane roadway? A standard 5-foot wide sidewalk from curb to edge of pavement may really only have about a 2–3 foot useable area for those who are able to walk, because the rest would be seen as a buffer by the pedestrian to keep away from moving traffic. Also, given that proximity to moving traffic, the consequences of a pedestrian slipping or falling on an icy sidewalk for example, could be disastrous. For users who need to use a wheelchair, they don’t have the luxury of using only part of the sidewalk for travel, so they are even more vulnerable to adjacent traffic.

I recently went for a walk in my hometown of Augusta, Maine on Bangor Street (pictured above and below), a four-lane roadway that is notorious for pedestrian crashes, and tragically one death in 2010. I certainly did not feel comfortable or safe walking on the sidewalk with moving traffic only a few feet away even though I was accommodated and supposedly safe according to modern design standards.

Integration for this street and others like it in this case means increasing the buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. Roadways may not need multiple lanes in the same direction, and instead, could have center two-way left turn lanes to provide the separation of turning movements desired for vehicular safety, providing more buffer space to pedestrians — a reconfiguration called a “road diet”. While curbed sidewalks may not be required in this case, curb is a psychological deterrent for the driver. Curb visibly narrows roadways which causes a driver to reduce speed, and lowering vehicle speeds is definitely a factor in increasing vulnerable user comfort and safety. Providing on-street parking is also another way to provide a buffer for pedestrians from moving vehicles and to lower speeds in an urban setting.

Bicycle lanes or sharrows are another means of accommodation for vulnerable road users, but painting lines and markings on a road, or painting it green does not ensure safety or comfort for a cyclist, again because of motor vehicle proximity and speeds. Separated facilities provide the most comfort and safety and thus integration of these users into the use of the roadway. If separated facilities aren’t provided, lower speeds in areas with bicycle lanes and sharrows at least provide greater safety and comfort than those in higher speed locations.

Finally, another area where there needs to be integration is road user knowledge. In the United States we have driver education, but not road user education like in other countries such as Norway and the Netherlands. As I wrote in a blog entry for Build the Era, we need road user education to integrate vulnerable road users into a shared knowledge of road user safety.

Why do vulnerable road users need to understand the same things as drivers? The answer is: while non-drivers don’t necessarily need to understand all parts of driver education, everyone needs to understand user vulnerability for safety to truly exist.

Currently, we limit that knowledge to prospective drivers and only provide it once they have reached a legal age to start learning how to drive. Once again, road user knowledge is based around the motor vehicle. This exclusion has undoubtedly contributed to the thousands of vulnerable road user deaths we have seen each year. Data also shows that European countries that have road user education, and that have started it at an early age, all have far lower road user death rates than the United States.

Now I want to be clear, I’m not stating that we need a “war on cars,” or that everybody should walk, bike or take transit. We already have the tools to integrate vulnerable road users, increasing safety and creating user equity without making drastic overhauls to personal usage of our transportation system.

For example, let’s consider roundabouts. The United States has over 7000 roundabouts and 10 or more roundabouts in every state according to the Roundabouts Database by Kittelson & Associates. They are no longer a new idea, but yet their numbers still don’t come close to matching the 300,000+ traffic signals that exist. We don’t need all of those signals — that I am sure of, and this unbalanced signal usage continues to decrease safety and increase inequity for vulnerable road users.

Given that roundabouts provide better safety and equity, the United States should at least double the amount that we currently have in the next decade, replacing thousands of signalized intersections. A goal of 14,000 roundabouts should be a low bar considering the number of roundabouts in countries such as France and the Netherlands which have a much higher ratio of intersections that are roundabouts compared to the United States and far better road user safety records.

Changing the design standards of multilane roadways to allow for more buffer space from vehicles when a sidewalk is present should also not be a major undertaking. There could be higher costs for property acquisition and construction, however, but if the ultimate goal is to get to vulnerable road user equity and increased safety, the investment would be worth it. For an alternative to widening a footprint to allow for this buffer space, existing multilane roads could also utilize a road diet and largely keep within the same footprint, lowering those costs.

Separating vulnerable road users from vehicles in the same roadway footprint is the most desirable, especially for cyclists. Separated bicycle lanes or shared use paths offer the ability for cyclists to have the same route of travel as motor vehicles, but with the added safety and comfort of a buffer. Again, there is more cost and maintenance, but it is an investment in that user integration.

The most inexpensive method, of course, is to lower the speed limits in these roadway sections with pedestrian and bicycle facilities, as lowering speed increases both the safety and comfort of vulnerable users. There are several cities that have done this with a demonstrated reduction in vehicle speeds, like Portland, Oregon. However, studies have shown the appearance of the roadway is more influential to driver behavior than the posted speed limit, so the physical changes mentioned earlier are going to likely be more successful to increase vulnerable road user safety and equity than lowering speed limits alone.

The most groundbreaking change would be one that wouldn’t affect physical infrastructure at all, but it would have a cost and would fundamentally alter public education in the United States: integrating road user education into public schools from kindergarten through high school and beyond.

In spite of that cost and major change to public school curriculum and the curriculum for prospective educators in college, integrating road user education could also have the biggest return on investment with increased user safety and the reduction of deaths and serious injuries over decades because of that learned behavior at an early age. The investment to integrate road user education would also likely be far less costly than the programs in the IIJA to change physical infrastructure to increase vulnerable road user safety.

America is at a crossroads for road user safety. With the programs and language of the IIJA, and priorities of the U.S. Department of Transportation of increased safety and user equity for vulnerable road users, there is a unique opportunity to change our country’s direction. Just like a rotary, “accommodation” needs to be a term of a bygone era. Instead, vulnerable road user integration should be our new charge and standard for our highway system based on our knowledge and what tools we now have available to increase safety and equity for all.

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Jonathan French

Jonathan French

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Oregon Trail generation pragmatist, transportation professional, advocate of roundabouts, transportation funding reform, and a proud union member.