Policing Our Way Toward Walkability

How does one create a complete street? Certainly this involves the implementation of design standards such as bike lanes, sidewalks, and narrower travel lanes, but complete streets wouldn’t be complete without the concurrent enforcement of pedestrian-friendly policy. Failing to educate the public about the laws created to promote complete street initiatives, such as restrictions on obstructing bike lanes, and then enforcing those laws  results in fewer benefits derived from such innovative urban design. At worst, it undermines the public’s trust in such potentially beneficial policy initiatives.

There’s little doubt that bike lanes and crosswalks represent a comparatively low-cost means of enhancing our communities. Besides potentially reducing the number of cars on the street, bike lanes offer a healthier and more efficient transportation alternative. Evidence shows that they also increase sales at nearby businesses and increase property values. When car lanes were replaced with a bike lane and wider sidewalks in one San Francisco neighborhood, sales at area businesses increased substantially. Now without an actual A-B study to control for all other factors, it’s difficult to say that bike lanes and wider sidewalks were the sole cause of the sales increase; nonetheless, those businesses seemed pretty pleased with the change in infrastructure.


A Crosswalk in Decline: Moreland Avenue at McLendon Avenue in Atlanta. A terrible crossing experience for pedestrians in a largely pedestrian-oriented area.

Another affordable method of enhancing the pedestrian experience is the simple addition of crosswalks, or the restoration of those in decline. Ideally, all crosswalks should be accompanied by either traditional traffic lights or pedestrian traffic signals that clearly require cars to stop for those that are crossing. Anything less, is a hazard for both drivers and pedestrians. Crosswalks at intersections simply need to be enhanced; crosswalks should be clearly visible so drivers are aware that they need to take notice. Walking or biking as a means of transportation should be an enjoyable experience for those who would like the opportunity to do so and, importantly, for those who have no other choice.

In order for bike lanes and crosswalks to truly succeed, we need to enforce the laws that promote the goals of such designs. It’s frustrating to see how frequently parked cars are found obstructing bike lanes, or to witness the close-calls of car-pedestrian interactions at crosswalks (some purely reckless, others seemingly purposeful). But drivers get away with both because, in these instances, they are rarely held accountable. The Georgia Legislature has clearly stated that drivers must yield to pedestrians in crosswalks; if a pedestrian is in ( or about to enter) the portion of the crosswalk within the lanes the driver will be passing through, the driver must yield and take due care not to hit the pedestrian. At the same time, though, pedestrians cannot suddenly enter the crosswalk. [1] Clearly public education is lacking in regard to pedestrian-oriented laws, as evidenced by the seemingly wide-held belief that it is legal for a driver to prioritize their perceived driving right over someone else’s actual walking right.


Los Angeles Police parked in a bike lane. This is equivalent police parking in the middle of a driving lane when no emergency exists. Via LA Streetsblog.


It is downright violent and reckless for a driver to narrowly miss a pedestrian in a crosswalk. But this behavior has been normalized over the years because we fail to enforce the law; perhaps police don’t have the time or they don’t have the interest. Alternatively, we don’t provide enough education to inform drivers and pedestrians of their legal rights and duties. How can we expect people to feel comfortable walking around neighborhoods when the very laws protecting them are ignored or dismissed?

The same can be said for auto-oriented policies. The point of a bus-only lane is fairly straightforward: providing a lane that can only be occupied by a form of mass transit should encourage more people to use this option in times of heavy traffic. But, like bike and HOV lanes, the bus lane often falls victim to the driver’s tendency to overrun every open lane in their field of view. It’s understandably tough to abide by the bus lane rule when no buses are anywhere to be seen, traffic is piling up in the car lanes, and there is no physical barrier preventing a car from entering the bus lane. But again, the point of the bus lane is to safeguard the buses against the negative impacts of traffic. We are encouraging the use of alternative transportation modes by ensuring the bus has an open lane at all times. If we don’t enforce the rule then we are undermining any attempt to obtain this outcome.

A well-functioning city needs to give visitors and residents several viable transportation options throughout the day (and night) that meet a diverse set of needs. Realizing this doesn’t necessarily require sales tax referenda and the issuance of municipal bonds for large projects. We can (and should) invest heavily in passenger-rail transit to increase the transportation options and livability of our city, but we should also take advantage of less expensive upgrades (like repainting fading crosswalks), educating the public, and then enforcing the policies necessary to realize the goals of those upgrades.

Ideally, all these things should be done. Why spend billions of dollars providing the public with the ability to traverse large swaths of the metro area, to then not spend a fraction of that amount to provide them with transit options to explore their destinations? When local transit options are employed, we need to enforce the laws that make them effective. If the laws are clearly stated, drivers and pedestrians are well-aware of the rules, and if the rules are properly enforced then we allow our investments to create actual results.

[1] OCGA §40-6-91 (a)-(b)

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