Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pedestrian equilibrium

One of the things I love about New York City and hate about the Bay area and hate for different reasons about Los Angeles is the social equilibrium governing whether cars or pedestrians have to yield to each other.

In the Bay area, pedestrians can whimsically meander at whatever rose-sniffing pace they prefer into oncoming traffic, or ride their wheelchairs in figure 8s in busy intersections, and if a car so much as thinks about continuing through their green light, they're in trouble (minimum fine $140 as posted all over town), and screamed at / flipped off / socially ostracized by every onlooker. Pedestrians rule.

In New York, it's every man for himself. If you want to jaywalk, go right ahead, but it's your own responsibility not to get killed. The taxis might honk but they won't slow down, and they're moving pretty darn quick down that narrow one-way road...

In LA, pedestrians are strictly confined to the sidewalks, and jaywalking is ticketed diligently. I'm not sure what would happen if someone dashed in front of traffic a little too close for comfort because I've never seen it happen...

It's hard to find suitable data to see what the outcome of these different equilibria are, but as far as I can tell from various independent reports, the 5 boroughs of NYC have about 250 pedestrian fatalities per year. San Francisco has about 17. When you scale that by population (NYC has 8.5 million, SF 800,000), the equivalent number would be around 180.

But, New York has VASTLY more pedestrians than San Francisco. Sure, certain areas in the Bay area, like the Mission and downtown Berkeley, are crowded with people on foot. But EVERY neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC is like that. I couldn't find data on the percentage of people who primarily get around on foot or anything comparable, but anyone who has been both places can attest to the fact that it's not even close. I would guess NYC has several times as many miles-walked per capita.

When you take that into account, I'd feel statistically much safer as a pedestrian in NYC than in San Francisco, despite the higher real death toll.

(I'm not going to look up LA because I don't really care. I prefer to imagine that LA doesn't exist.)

This goes against the grain of the (annoyingly moralistic without regard to outcome) reasoning about traffic laws in Berkeley. "Pedestrians SHOULD always have the right of way because they're doing the environment a favor. Cars SHOULD always yield to crazy people because they don't know any better." Well frankly LA and NY have just as many crazy people and I've yet to see one there walking into the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour, causing cars to swerve and slam on their brakes, and yelling inane nonsense and flipping off anyone who almost kills them (this happened last week a few blocks from my house, nearly killing ME, because swerving and braking simultaneously is kinda dangerous on a two-wheeled vehicle...)

Even if you're batshit nuts, you'll learn pretty quickly that moseying down 5th avenue in Manhattan will get you killed. And if 95% of the time cars come to a screeching halt as soon as you head for the road, you'll stop thinking about looking both ways. That other 5% of the time brings up the accident rate drastically.

Berkeley city planning should hire a behavioral economist.