Mixed Signals: The Future of Pedestrian Safety in New Haven

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Every day, hundreds of Yale students break the law. We all do it on the way to class—at the intersections of Elm and College, Prospect and Grove, Chapel and York. We know a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared, and, in the pursuit of efficiency, we cross right down the hypotenuse of the intersection. The Barnes Dance—also called the pedestrian scramble—the traffic pattern in which pedestrians cross all directions at once, is the standard at most intersections in New Haven, especially downtown. It’s conducive to this pattern of diagonal crossing.

Turns out it’s illegal, and it always has been. 

We students don’t get ticketed, but on Dec. 19, nine New Haven residents were handed citations for diagonal crossing—$92 each. A week earlier, on Dec. 12, The New Haven Police Department (NHPD) had launched a pilot traffic safety program called Watch For Me CT, an education project funded by a grant of $15,000 from the Connecticut State Department of Transportation. Pedestrians were ticketed as part of the pilot program. 

After the incident was covered in the New Haven Independent, the public response was immediate. The police department took the outrage—voiced via internet and direct calls to the station—as a signal, and fewer than 24 hours after the citations were issued, Police Chief Otoniel Reyes canceled the tickets and promised that his patrol officers would stop ticketing pedestrians.

But the debate had already begun. Within a few hours of the New Haven Independent breaking the news, there were 42 public comments on the article criticizing the sudden and harsh enforcement of traffic laws which have for years gone unenforced. “Is this really about ‘safety,’ or is it another blatant cash grab/form of regressive taxation?” an individual with the username “RobotSchlomo” commented. Diagonal crossing is only the tip of the iceberg of the complicated, contested story of traffic in New Haven.

The Watch For Me CT grant would continue to fund the overtime salaries of traffic patrol officers—now issuing warnings rather than tickets—on Thursday and Friday afternoons for five more weeks. The officers, led by Sgt. Pedro Colon, patrolled four downtown crosswalks along Chapel Street, at the corners with Church, Temple, College, and High Streets. In a comment by email, Sgt. Colon said that he targeted enforcement at drivers and bicyclists who failed to yield to pedestrians, but also—and he emphasized this point several times—“pedestrians who failed to use the crosswalk properly or completely disregarded crosswalk signals.” After Chief Reyes ceased the pedestrian ticketing, violators who were stopped should have been issued a formal warning, and according to Sgt. Colon, given an educational pamphlet on how to correct their action. 

Chief Reyes, in an interview with Connecticut Public Radio’s “Where We Live” on Jan. 3, maintained the illegality of diagonal crossing. “By walking diagonally, it puts the pedestrian at greater risk of not being able to make it through the intersection on time. But more importantly, at an intersection, when someone crosses diagonally, a vehicle may be turning right and not see them, and they may be walking into the right of way of a vehicle.” 

But is crossing diagonally downtown actually more dangerous than the alternative? Nearly all the downtown intersections with a pedestrian-only phase also have a “No right on red” sign. This means that if a pedestrian gets hit by a turning car while crossing diagonally, it’s not because they’ve put themselves in danger by entering the center of the intersection. It’s because a driver has broken the law and run a red light. It doesn’t matter whether a pedestrian crosses within the painted lines of the crosswalk when a driver breaks the law by turning right on red and, not seeing the pedestrian, fails to yield. This is when crashes occur.

On Thursday, Jan. 16, Rachel Sterneck, PM ’21, was given a warning for jaywalking on her way home from class, crossing Chapel Street on College around 3:30 p.m. She crossed on a walk signal, but she was stopped by an officer at the other side, who told her that she had walked too far outside the lines of the crosswalk, and that she was receiving a warning. 

The officer pulled out a notebook, where he wrote down Sterneck’s name, date of birth, and address. She received no educational pamphlet, and more than anything, she was afraid she would be ticketed. “Of course, I was nervous,” she said, “and in the moment, I was just glad that I wasn’t getting a ticket.” Sterneck’s encounter raises a red flag.

Technically, according to both state and city law, crossing outside of the painted lines on a crosswalk signal is illegal. However, the “warning” she was given likely will have no legal power or repercussions. At an ordinary traffic stop, when a warning is given, the police will ask for your ID, which will be scanned and entered into a database. Then, if you’re caught in a traffic violation again, the police will know not to give you another warning, but to issue you an actual citation. Sterneck was never asked for her ID, which means she could have easily given a fake name or date of birth to the officer. This voids the validity of the warning, meaning it’s unlikely that it ever went into a permanent database.

Watch for Me CT was created by the state’s Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office in 2017 as a response to increased non-motorized injuries and fatalities in Connecticut. The grant money comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Connecticut is eligible for federal “non-motorized safety funding” because pedestrian and bicyclist deaths exceed 15 percent of the state’s annual total fatalities. Seven police departments participated in the program, which they each ran independently. Several, but not all of the participating NHPD officers, were trained on how to educate the public about traffic safety with the New Britain Police Department. 

Sgt. Colon views the pilot as an overall success. “After weeks of being on Chapel Street the number of violations did decrease compared to our first week.” He remains hopeful about the future of pedestrian safety in New Haven. “Continuing our partnerships with Traffic and Parking and City Engineering are critical to coming up with plans to keep the streets safe for everyone. We have to look back at the things that have worked and keep an open mind to newer strategies that may be in place in other towns like ours that may be able to make the streets of New Haven safer.” 

So what are those strategies, and how exactly will they make New Haven’s streets safer? 

Safer Streets

The same week that the Watch for Me CT pilot ended, a 55-year-old man was killed while crossing Whalley Avenue. It was the second pedestrian death by car in New Haven this year—equal to the number of gun fatalities by the same date. 

To Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin, GH ’22, who voted to approve the Watch for Me CT pilot, the program seemed like “a good opportunity” to protect the most vulnerable users of the city’s roadways. “We’ve had as many pedestrians die in car accidents this year as we’ve had homicides in the city. This is a really important concern, and people are literally dying because the streets aren’t safe.”

Since 2009, pedestrian deaths in Connecticut have doubled. Of the ten largest cities in New England, New Haven has the highest percentage of residents who walk to work, and last year, nine pedestrians were killed in crashes with cars on New Haven streets.

Whalley Avenue, where the man was killed, is five lanes wide. With turning lanes and shoulders, pedestrians cross 100 feet of street on a crosswalk. They have 21 seconds to do so. The average human walking speed is about 3.1 miles per hour. Twenty-one seconds is not enough time, even at an average pace. This means that to cross Whalley Avenue safely, you have to walk fast, and if you can’t—due to age or ability or other factors—you can’t cross the street safely, even if you follow traffic laws.

In January of 2017, Melissa Tancredi was killed at the intersection of York Street and South Frontage Road, when a driver drove onto the sidewalk, striking her. 

Laws against jaywalking wouldn’t have prevented Tancredi’s death, and Chief Reyes agrees that targeting pedestrians is not the most effective strategy. “Our goal is not to give tickets for jaywalking,” he told  NPR. “We clearly see that’s not having the desired impact. Our goal is not to penalize the pedestrian. Again, a pedestrian crossing in a crosswalk does not pose the greatest threat.” But he maintained that pedestrian enforcement and awareness is a part of keeping streets safe, and that he doesn’t plan to take it off the table.

“In my mind, the key would have been enforcement only on cars—motor vehicle drivers—because their motor speeding, their not paying attention, can have the most harm,” said Neil Olinski, a self-identified pedestrian advocate and Transportation Planner at Milone and Macbroom, a transportation and engineering consulting firm with offices throughout New England. “You can educate pedestrians to try to ward off [risky] pedestrian behavior, but at the end of the day, it’s about infrastructure.” 

Olinski is part of the Safe Streets Working Group—formerly known as the Complete Streets Working Group—an informal activist organization named after a law passed by the city in 2008. “Changing the way streets are laid out, design-wise, is the ultimate thing that creates the most safety,” he emphasized.

The Complete Streets legislation was pushed through City Hall by activists in response to two particularly horrific pedestrian deaths that year: the death of Mila Rainof, MED ’08, a medical student only a few months away from beginning her residency in emergency medicine when she was hit while crossing South Frontage Road, and the killing of Gabrielle Lee, an 11-year-old struck by a vehicle while crossing Whalley Avenue—which the death records repeatedly show as one of New Haven’s most dangerous streets.

Complete Streets makes streets complete, or in other words, safe, through standard engineering treatments for signage, lane widths, pavement marking dimensions, and turning radii, all pushing toward a lower target vehicle speed. Lowering vehicle speed is a primary goal for complete streets, because vehicle speed directly impacts the severity and number of crash-related injuries and fatalities. At 20 miles per hour, the odds of pedestrian death in the event of a crash are around five percent. At 30 miles per hour, it’s about 45 percent, and at 40 miles per hour, there’s an 85 percent chance that a pedestrian hit by a vehicle will die.

“Take Elm Street. It looks like a highway. It’s got four or five lanes, so motorists just drive unconsciously. Without even thinking about it, they just speed. Because they think, Oh, there’s all this extra pavement for me,” said Olinski. “Every extra lane is just more pavement that could be a conflict between pedestrians and a car.”

Adopted in 2010, Complete Streets created a design manual for the City of New Haven, which aimed to formalize a process for community participation in the city’s street redesign processes. This included a project request form, providing citizens with a public platform through which to submit information about street improvement projects. The design manual defines the goal of Complete Streets: “Complete Streets are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

The goal of the Safe Streets Working Group is to make sure that the Complete Streets legislation does what it promised to do 12 years ago: make changes in the design of the city streets that lower vehicle speeds and increase safety for all road users—and do so transparently and efficiently. Since it was passed in 2008, Complete Streets “has not lived up to where [organizers] had hoped we would be in ten years,” said Rob Rocke, GRAD ’96, another member of Safe Streets. 

“It kind of comes down to: what does the city want to prioritize—traffic flowing through the city, or safety?” said Olinski. “If it takes a little extra time for a car to go through the center of town, so be it. The middle of the city—you want it to be a place that people want to go to, not to get through.”

Renewal and Reversal

In the mid-20th century, the U.S. was committed to making its cities worthwhile places to go. Their strategy, however, relied on making them easier to get through. Faster, too.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the City of New Haven took in more federal funding for urban renewal infrastructure projects per capita than any other city in the U.S. These projects profoundly changed the New Haven we know. Most notable is the Oak Street Connector—an expressway designed to link Interstate 95 with Route 8, a Connecticut state highway 16 miles to its weStreet To build the highway through the center of the city, Mayor Dick Lee authorized the destruction of the entire Oak Street neighborhood, displacing some 800 families whose homes he had labeled as “blight,” instead prioritizing the quick car journeys of suburban dwellers through Downtown. Only one mile of the Oak Street Connector was ever completed, and it still stands between Interstate 95 and Chapel Street, severing The Hill neighborhood from Downtown.

Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture, wrote in 1967, “It would appear that we love the road much more than we do places, certainly more than we love cities, so that our political powers always gather behind the highway network, and we are ready to destroy anything for it.”

Since then, the tide has changed. City alders and planners have learned that streets designed to get cars through the city as quickly as possible are dangerous for the pedestrians who rely on walkable streets and public transportation. The 2008 Complete Streets Legislation is a part of this effort. The City is also engaged in an ongoing project of converting multi-lane, one-way streets, such as Church Street, back into two-way roads—a strategy which encourages drivers to drive more cautiously, reducing speeds and, therefore, deadly crashes.

On a larger scale, in 2010, the City received federal funding—$16 million—to begin the Downtown Crossing Project, a long term conversion of the Oak Street Connector from a highway back to a low-speed, multi-use road.

Mayor Justin Elicker, SOM ’10, FES ’10, who was sworn in on Jan. 1, has been at the center of that fight since he was an alder in East Rock. In 2011, he authored a resolution which criticized Downtown Crossing for repeating many of the car-centered design policies of the Oak Street Connector. Primarily, North and South Frontage Roads—some of the deadliest roads in the city—would remain four to five-lane roads. The Board of Alders’ resolution recommended turning North and South Frontage Road into a pair of two-lane roads with a target speed of no more than 25 miles per hour.

Phase I of Downtown Crossing was completed in 2016, converting the former highway into two one-way boulevards, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and South Frontage Road. The lanes were narrowed to slow traffic, the speed limit was lowered to 25 miles per hour, and a bicycle lane was added. At the end of the new roads, the city put in a shiny new 14-story research building at 100 College Street.

Last July, the city broke ground on Phase II, which will close the highway’s first exit into the city and convert Orange Street into a through road once again. The plan also calls for a protected bike lane and a pedestrian safety island mid-way through the crosswalk. Its projected completion date is late this year. Phase III will be complete in 2023 or 2024, connecting Temple Street to The Hill and finally reuniting the neighborhood to Downtown. The two phases are projected to cost $53.5 million.

 

Downtown Crossing is evidence of the high cost of traffic infrastructure. Redesigning the streets may be the best way to keep pedestrians safe, but cost and slow timelines are prohibitive. In 2017, the city contracted a redesign of eight intersections on Chapel Street, Elm Street, and Church Street. The projected cost is $3.2 million. In comparison, the $15,000 state grant from Watch for Me CT is a paltry amount of money. 

 

According to Smart Growth America, a D.C.-based independent nonprofit dedicated to community focused infrastructure, the standard practice for assigning speed limits is to measure how fast most traffic travels on a road, and then set speed limits so that only 15 percent of the drivers are exceeding that limit. This results in artificially high speed limits, which make streets unsafe for everyone. “Rather than designing roads that encourage speeding and then relying upon enforcement, states and cities should design roads to encourage safer, slower driving speeds in the first place,” their report “Dangerous by Design” reads.

 

In 1995, the Netherlands stopped jaywalking enforcement altogether, meaning it’s entirely legal for pedestrians to cross the street wherever they like. There’s been a change in culture for both pedestrians and drivers alike—when no one assumes the right of way, everyone drives and walks with caution, and it works. Road deaths in the United States and in the Netherlands both peaked in 1972, but by 2011, the Netherlands had entirely outpaced the U.S.’s progress. In America, traffic fatalities decreased by 41 percent, but in the Netherlands, the decrease was 81 percent. If fatalities in the U.S. had declined by 81 percent, 22,000 fewer people would have died. 

 

Enforcement is thought of as an effective and cheaper strategy, but police salaries can be prohibitive, especially in a city where budgets have historically fallen short. For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the City’s proposed budget reduced 490 police positions down to 429 and budgeted $4 million in overtime pay, half of the $8 million needed the previous year. When fully staffed, the traffic patrol division of the NHPD has only eight officers on the day shift (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and three on the night (3 p.m. to 11 p.m.). It is impossible to expect three officers to patrol 232 miles of streets to keep pedestrians safe.

 

There are a few cost-effective strategies which make safer streets. In terms of enforcement, red light cameras are cheaper than constant police patrol, and they may reduce traffic fatalities. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that red light cameras reduced the fatal crash rate of large cities by 21 percent, although other evidence indicates that while cameras do decrease the number of vehicles running red lights, there’s no clear suggestion that they reduce accidents. For now, there are no red light cameras in Connecticut, and there’s enough resistance to privacy violations across the state that, despite a concentration of support for cameras in New Haven, it’s unlikely that the city will install them any time soon.

The city has embraced some other cost-effective traffic calming strategies, including street painting. Colorful designs and patterns, painted onto the street, are designed to slow cars or encourage them to take wider turns. Last fall, traffic-calming designs were painted on Whalley Avenue between Howe Street. and Orchard Street, one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in the city. In terms of city engineering, street painting is a Band-Aid, but sometimes you need a trip to the emergency room. 

Rolling Ahead

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the Safe Streets Working Group had their largest public meeting to date. More than 40 community members gathered in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hill. In light of the ticketing incident in December, the pedestrian fatalities in January, and a general perception of recklessness on New Haven roads, the attendees were looking for answers. 

A generation of City officials who prioritized Complete Streets back in 2008 are now in the position to make change happen. Mayor Elicker, Roland Lemar, and Doug Hausladen, DC ’06—all three, former alders—are now the Mayor of New Haven, the co-chair of the Connecticut Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and the director of the city’s Transportation, Traffic & Parking Department, respectively.

Mayor Elicker opened the meeting with an acknowledgement of his dedication to the cause. “Complete Streets is one of the reasons I started to get involved in the community of New Haven,” he told the crowd. His mayoral transition report echoes the language of Complete Streets, outlining an initial focus on traffic calming, as well as transportation planning on Whalley Avenue and the Oak Street Connector.

Lemar has proposed two road studies to the Connecticut State Legislature, hoping to make safety improvements on Whalley Avenue and Ella Grasso Boulevard. 

Hausladen offered updates on a laundry list of improvement projects. The department’s new master plan is called “Safe Streets For All,” and with approval on new federal and state grants, Hausladen is confident about the city’s potential to make progress.

He also, importantly, addressed the diagonal crossing issue. “Our traffic signals are outdated, ” he said. One of his projects is to replace those outdated signals—which constitute all the pedestrian scramble intersections downtown—with concurrent signals. These are the standard, default signals you find in most cities. When there’s a go signal for the car, there’s a go signal for the pedestrian in the same direction. 

Approval and funding have been secured to update a number of Downtown traffic signals, four of which will feature a leading pedestrian interval (LPI). An LPI gives pedestrians three to seven seconds to start crossing before vehicles are given a green signal. With their head start, pedestrians can establish their presence in the intersection before vehicles start turning left or right into the crosswalk. Adding LPIs to an updated traffic signal costs nothing, but it makes a dramatic difference for pedestrian safety. 

And while a traffic overhaul will undoubtedly take time, a group of activists, politicians, and residents are committed to a safer future for New Haven.

1 Comment

  1. How does the City of New Haven compare other US cities? It was interesting to read the comparative statistics between the US and Netherlands, but are there statistics that compare US cities? In my experience in towns across the country, I’ve been shocked at the difference in pedestrian safety habits. In my purely observational experience, pedestrians abide by traffic walk-signals more as you get farther away from New York City. It remains the most, almost shocking memory I have of Minneapolis, besides the Walker Museum, which may be in St Paul. 🙂

    The pedestrians in Minneapolis seemed to be patient and undisturbed by waiting for the walk signal to change. At a downtown Minneapolis crosswalk, I waited VERY IMPATIENTLY with a group of associates who seemed utterly unmoved by having to wait for the crosswalk signal to change. I became acutely aware that my pedestrian habits, along with all “Greater New York City” pedestrians, are part of the problem and should be part of the solution.

    The difference in Minneapolis was so extreme that it’s my instant flashback memory of the city like the Ponte Vecchio is to Florence. I don’t know if Minneapolis has strict Jaywalking laws or what their pedestrian fatality statistics are, but I think New Haven pedestrians have some improvements to make. I believe all aspects of the problem deserve attention; driver and pedestrian education, street design, signals, and signage.

    I am a local artist that started the Lots of Fish – Art & Environmental Education project. Our RUNoff Art program engages the public and artists in street-art projects on storm drains and crosswalks to help reduce pollution entering our waterbodies through stormwater runoff and uninformed dumping. Traffic calming is also an intended outcome of our crosswalk painting project.

    Currently, we are focusing on school zones, but we can expand it to include downtown intersections. We have some partnerships with city departments and would like to increase the participation of local artists to help address the needs of both traffic calming and under-employed local artists. Any public support for this project, however “band-aid,” as the article suggests, would be helpful.

    “What’s good for Fish is good for People”

    Lots of Fish – Art & Environmental Education

    http://www.LotsofFish.info
    LOFprojectContact@gmail.com

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