It Ain’t Easy Being Seen

11 23+post

Reston, Virginia, where my wife and I live, is famous for its roughly 50-mile network of walking trails. It’s possible to actually run errands by walking along these trails, but they’re mostly for recreation. The trails run through forested areas between housing developments, so that while you’re rarely very far from developed areas, you feel like you’re in the wilderness. It’s a good example of the importance of design. A sidewalk or a path does not make a place “walkable.” A comfortable and safe walking experience does.

However, at times these trails cross local roads. A handful of highway crossings use tunnels or bridges, but smaller roads simply have surface crossings. People on foot do have a lot of visible road to determine a safe crossing point, but there are no stop signs for motorists, and some of the crossings even lack crosswalks.

A lot of “pedestrian safety” rhetoric focuses on the responsibility of pedestrians to “be seen”: wear bright colors or reflectors, or even grab a flag and wave it around while crossing. (The first time I saw this, I assumed it was a parody of bad approaches to safety, but alas, it is for real.)

As users of the road, people who are walking should, of course, observe some basic crossing etiquette. They obviously have some responsibility for avoiding a collision. But more of that responsibility should fall on motorists, who are moving much faster and can inflict far more damage if they make a mistake. Beyond this, however, focusing on design itself is a way to move beyond assigning blame or identifying fault with road users. Too often, we all inhabit substandard spaces. We might not all bear the same responsibility, but we are in this together.

To illustrate this, I’d like to show you some photos I took of two crossings I frequently use, both while walking across the trails and while driving along the roads (note that I didn’t take the latter photos while sitting in the driver’s seat!). I’m very familiar with navigating these crossings on foot and in a car.

Here’s the first crossing. The first picture here is my point of view on foot, about to cross.

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