In Little Rock, a Crosswalk That Forbids Crossing

By restricting pedestrian movement, the city rewards bad drivers

Don't let the big painted crosswalk lines in the road or the electronic pedestrian signal fool you: If it's between the weekday hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., you're not allowed to walk across Broadway on the north side of Markham Street in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. The intersection is home to City Hall, a 2,600-seat auditorium, and an old state capitol-turned-history museum on three of its four corners. Not exactly a pedestrian wasteland. Not pedestrian friendly either, thanks to this city sign, via the excellent MoveArkansas blog:

The image has a bunch of twitters in a knot, and the strong response is understandable. Evidence of auto-centric urban policy is particularly upsetting right now, as the importance of multi-modal street design gains attention across the country. Earlier this year Congress introduced a "complete streets" policy that emphasizes pedestrian safety, and this summer New York adopted its own policy into law, making 25 states who have similar laws or commitments to the effort. A pedestrian-friendly component of the long-term transportation bill has a few Republican opponents, but that seems like a fleeting function of economic distress more than a fixed ideological difference; after all, it was a Republican who helped initiate the program in 1991.

Frustrating (and confusing) as it may be, the Little Rock anti-crossing crosswalk sign isn't diabolical. The crossing once allowed walkers at all times, but was changed in November of 2005 to improve pedestrian safety. It seems the number of cars turning onto Broadway from Markham had produced a hazard the city hadn't anticipated. Generally speaking, Little Rock does all right by pedestrians. Its downtown district, home of the offending sign, has a Walk Score of 84 — on par with Chicago's Hyde Park. The death of a Little Rock pedestrian prompted a state senator to consider distracted walking laws. The city is even home to one of the longest pedestrian-bicycle bridges in the country. 

But while the city's heart is in the right place, its head is on wrong. Upon implementing the new no-crossing sign in 2005, the city's traffic manager, Bill Henry, offered this take: "Too often the motorists will be watching oncoming traffic to make the turn, and will not be mindful of pedestrians in the crosswalk." Instead of punishing the perpetrators, then, the city chose to punish the victims. In all likelihood the sign was the cheapest practical solution to a legitimate social problem, but this type of auto-focused mentality ultimately hamstrings urban movement, and pedestrian safety, more than it helps. 

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