Policing Our Way Toward Walkability

How does one create a complete street that harmoniously accommodates drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists? Certainly it 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 education and enforcement of urban design policies. At best, failure to educate and enforce 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 a car lane was replaced with a bike lane and wider sidewalks in one San Francisco neighborhood, sales at area businesses increased substantially. 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. At the very least we have some indication that businesses were helped and not hurt by 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 addition of crosswalks and 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 pedestrians. Anything less, is a hazard for both drivers and pedestrians. Crosswalks at intersections need to be enhanced to make drivers well aware that they are approaching a pedestrian zone and must yield when necessary. Walking or biking as a means of transportation should be an enjoyable experience for those who would like the opportunity to do so and 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. Parked cars are frequently found obstructing bike lanes and it’s all too common to witness the close-calls of car-pedestrian interactions at crosswalks (some purely reckless on the part of the driver, others seemingly purposeful). But drivers get away with both because they are rarely held accountable in these scenarios.

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 education and enforcement is lacking as its common to see drivers completely disregard this rule.


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 interest to enforce such laws, but clearly we need to provide more education to drivers and pedestrians of their legal rights and duties. We can’t expect people to feel comfortable walking around neighborhoods when the very laws protecting them are ignored, dismissed, or unknown.

The same can be said for auto-oriented policies. A bus-only lane is designed to encourage bus ridership by providing a dedicated, traffic-free lane for buses. Buses are cheaper and more versatile than trains and can allow more people to effectively move around dense areas. 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. Of course, the bus lane constantly being free from traffic is the point of the bus lane.

A well-functioning city needs to give visitors and residents several viable transportation options that meet a diverse set of needs. Realizing this doesn’t always 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 to basic infrastructure, educating the public, and then enforcing the policies necessary to realize the goals of those upgrades.

Ideally, all these things should be done. If we are going to spend heavily on mass transportation to move people across the metro area then we need to provide a safe environment to traverse the area around the transportation nodes. While concern is often voiced by public officials about safety while on mass transportation system, less concern is voiced about safety while moving too and from the system. 

Feeling safe in a neighborhood doesn’t just mean feeling safe from criminals; it also means feeling safe from cars while crossing the street and walking on the sidewalk. We have basic pedestrian safety laws designed to accommodate and encourage walking, but those laws are only as good as our education and enforcement efforts.

[1] OCGA §40-6-91 (a)-(b)

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