In our hierarchy of transportation in the city, there is none more basic, fundamental and sustainable than walking. Not to mention, at the end of any trip, no matter how else you got to your destination, everyone becomes a pedestrian at some point in their journey.
According to our traffic laws, the pedestrian has the right of way when crossing. However, in practice, many drivers do not respect this right. Also, they'll often encroach upon the pedestrian so closely that it startles and strikes fear, or worse.
In a sign that some things have not changed much, Disney perhaps best parodied this conflict with the 1950 animated short Motor Mania. The film highlights the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like nature of people who are perfectly civil folks on foot but become a menace to pedestrians, like they just were, once behind they are behind wheel.
I’ve been known most for my advocacy for bicycling, but I do a lot of walking to get around as well. I feel very strongly that we need to do more to improve pedestrian safety and comfort.
I walk into downtown Santa Monica when I’m not in a hurry. I walk to get groceries. I walk to the bus stop when traveling Hollywood or downtown L.A. And sometimes, I make my 2-mile work commute on foot instead of riding my bike. I’ve even done a few epic urban walking events, like The Great Los Angeles Walk, walking along the entire length of Wilshire Blvd. from one end in downtown L.A. to other end at the St. Monica Statue.
Like most people who spend anytime walking in the L.A. area—which, contrary to popular belief and Missing Persons lyrics from the '80s, is actually a pretty substantial demographic—I’ve learned firsthand how little respect pedestrians get at times.
Santa Monica is certainly ahead of many other cities in Southern California in fostering a walkable environment, and this is reflected in our by the Web site WalkScore.com (#4 for the state). However, this walkability ranking is largely the product of our coherent street grid, diverse range of local businesses within walking distance and ample transit connections—not necessarily because walking is safer here.
Santa Monica also ranks #1 out of 104 cities of similar size in the state on the California Office of Traffic Safety for pedestrian deaths and injuries. (We’re also #1 in our population class for bicycle and motorcycle injuries and deaths as well.)
In fairness for comparison, and as local-law enforcement representatives will point out, Santa Monica has more traffic of all kinds than many similar-size cities, in part because of so many visitors who boost our non-resident population. However, I’m not interested in making excuses for our injury and death rates—I’m more interested in a culture change that can bring those numbers down. The string of involving pedestrians in Santa Monica should underline the urgency of the situation.
Creating safer streets is not a change that will come easily, and we all are collectively responsible. It’s going to require drivers to slow down (speed limits are not suggestions) and put down the cell phones. In an ideal world, drivers will be courteous and cautious around those on foot as they are required to by law. But since that is clearly not the case yet, pedestrians need to be very alert and not presume drivers will always yield even if the pedestrain has the right of way.
Law enforcement needs to get more serious about defending our most vulnerable road users and stage more crosswalk stings. We need to reform the laws and judicial system to take driving crimes seriously, instead of wrist-slaps and getting reckless drivers back behind the wheel again as soon as possible. Transportation engineers need to reflect the vital role of pedestrians in compact cities and stop placing safety considerations so far below the concern for vehicle speed and throughput.
Santa Monica has been making some positive changes over the years, including some traffic-calming measures and medians that make crossing easier, among other things. That's certainly more than can be said for a lot of our neighbors. However, our abysmal rankings by the Office of Traffic Safety clearly suggest these measures have not gone far enough considering our high level of foot traffic.
As an advocate for bicycling improvements, I think it’s also important to point out here that many of the safety measures advocated for improving bike safety, like bike lanes, result in improved safety for all street users. As Transportation Planning Manager Lucy Dyke has mentioned at several meetings concerning the pending , the reconfiguration of Ocean Park Blvd. reduced traffic collisions of all kinds, not just those involving bikes, by about half.
Our physical environment is only half of the equation, though. We have to develop a culture of safety and a culture of respect for our most vulnerable street users. To me, one of the clearest ways to distinguish right and wrong when it comes to interacting with pedestrians, whether it be in a car or on a bike, is if I cause alarm to the pedestrian, I’m doing it wrong.
I see people run across crosswalks sometimes like they are a gazelle surrounded by lions, or waiting at a curb endlessly, desperate for someone to finally yield. This is all backward, not only according to our laws, but our values as a city.
Walking is essential for us all in getting around, and our heavy foot traffic drives our local business as well. We need to put the pedestrian and their safety concerns first and really mean it. I love walking all over this town, but I’d also like to survive long enough to continue doing so for a long time to come.