A pedestrian offers real-world advice to safely navigate city streets

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 23, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thanks for devoting recent columns on safety strategies for commuters who choose to walk.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Three tips for pedestrian commuters — some common sense, some counter-intuitive — from a commuter who has been living car-free in D.C. since 1994.

1) Plan your route to avoid dangerous and stressful intersections. For example, navigating the intersection of 16th Street, U Street, and New Hampshire Avenue NW on foot during rush hour is likely to turn a nice walk into a terrifying near-miss. Turning-arrow patterns and drivers’ behavior have effectively negated pedestrian right-of-way on the south side of that intersection.

2) I’ve found that the standard advice to make eye contact with drivers (for example when they are turning through a crosswalk) often backfires. When drivers see me watching them, they sometimes take this as license to inch into the crosswalk directly toward me in an attempt to time their crossing with mine, passing only a foot or two behind me.

A modified version of the eye contact strategy seems to produce better results: After seeing that a driver has noticed me, I keep my head facing forward and watch the car from my peripheral vision. I know that the driver has seen me, but he or she might not be sure if I see him or her. This often seems to bring out drivers’ better nature, and they leave me plenty of space to cross to avoid startling me.

3) Though pedestrians shouldn’t have to, these days it is wise to treat the sidewalk as a four-lane highway. I try to travel on the right and glance over my shoulder before passing on the left, to avoid stepping into the path of a speeding bicyclist. (By the way, yelling “On your left!” only shows that you’ve mistaken the sidewalk for a bike path.)

— Greg Wahl, the District

Some write in to assert the rights of their form of travel versus some other form of travel. It’s often drivers versus pedestrians, or vice versa. It’s transportation ideology.

Wahl stresses the practical advice that makes urban travel not only survivable but also a good experience. This advice acknowledges realities of urban life without being timid about travel. More people should adopt the attitude, as well as the advice.

Stressful intersections tend to have common characteristics. Traffic can come at you from several directions, traffic volume may be heavy, the walk sign may be short, or you may have to cross multiple lanes with no traffic signal at all.

Drivers analyze their commuting routes. They learn where they might face a difficult left turn or an intersection where they have a stop sign, but the cross traffic is heavy and free-flowing. They figure out ways to avoid the difficult maneuvers.

A walking commuter should be making the same calculations, to limit stress and improve personal safety. The shortest route between two points isn’t necessarily the best.

I particularly admire Wahl for thinking through the “eye contact” strategy. While safety experts urge both drivers and pedestrians to make eye contact, many people who walk in congested areas challenge me when I repeat that advice.

They make solid arguments, based on experience. They often note that a driver who appears to be looking at them may actually be staring into windshield glare that obscures the walker’s location. Others know that drivers are often looking solely for other drivers, and may stare right through a pedestrian. Or if making a left turn, their entire focus may be directed at oncoming traffic and not at the crosswalk they are about to turn into.

The third tip reflects many comments I’ve gotten lately about difficulties on downtown D.C. sidewalks. Conditions aren’t as bad for pedestrians as they were in the heyday of the bicycle messenger, but walkers still need to be very aware of their surroundings. As Wahl points out, it’s not paranoid to look behind you.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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