The decision to install a crosswalk is a bit more involved than simply buying some white paint and a roller. You must also buy some masking tape (if you want nice crisp edges). And you must also buy a big book called the Indiana Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Now I have often been tempted to buy one of those big books, but I found it more convenient to just buy (and store) the digital version (free tip: electrons are smaller than molecules — in fact, much, much, smaller — you can hardly see electrons).
According to the MUTCD, crosswalks have a dual purpose. First, they provide guidance for pedestrians — i.e., a delineated path to follow. Second, crosswalks alert drivers of a pedestrian crossing. This is particularly important at locations uncontrolled by traffic signals such as STOP signs or YIELD signs. Such locations often include a “PEDESTRIAN CROSSING” sign to help alert drivers to said crossing point.
If the pedestrian crossing is not situated at an intersection, i.e. if it is “mid-block,” additional considerations beyond pavement markings and signage should be examined. These considerations may include pedestrian signals (typically push-button activated) or speed tables. Please note that speed tables are not the same as speed bumps. Speed bumps are evil. Speed tables include a gradual ramping-up, a plateau area (where the painted crosswalk is located), and a ramping-down. The total width of a properly designed speed table could easily be 30 feet or more. And perhaps most importantly, speed tables are designed to be comfortable at the posted speed limit — plus, they are snow-plow friendly. The combination of a pedestrian crosswalk, speed table, and signage, is a great way to improve the safety of mid-block crossings (especially near schools) or on low-volume, low-speed roadways.
Many communities receive dozens of requests for pedestrian crosswalks. If a community believes a particular mid-block location merits consideration, the first step is to perform an engineering study to determine if conditions do, in fact, warrant a mid-block crosswalk. An engineering study will examine multiple elements, primarily the number of pedestrians crossing within a certain time period, the posted speed limit, number of travel lanes, and alternative solutions to enhance pedestrian safety. The study will investigate multiple conditions that may not be obvious to the casual observer (assuming the engineer is not, himself, a casual engineer). A marked crosswalk must also support users of all types and be constructed in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Simply installing signs and pavement markings is not sufficient. And of course, the crosswalk must connect two pedestrian facilities at either side, meaning that if no sidewalks exist on one side (or the other), it is likely not a candidate.
We’ve all seen pedestrians crossing roadways (often dangerously) where no crosswalk presently exists. And it’s clear that some crosswalk locations would likely create more problems than they solve. It’s not always a clear decision — it can be a bit of a chicken/egg situation (i.e., why did the chicken cross the road, etc.). To justify a crosswalk based on the number of pedestrians that cross without a crosswalk can be like determining the need for a bridge by measuring how many people are swimming across the river. Crosswalk locations, particular mid-block crosswalks, require careful analysis, and of course, some white paint and a roller (and some other stuff).
Chet Skwarcan has over 25 years of traffic engineering experience and can be reached at Chet@TrafficEngineering.com.