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Pedestrian-shaming campaigns have got to stop

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New York and Pittsburgh are the latest cities to blame walkers for their deadly street design

Photo by Linh Nguyen

Halloween is the perfect time to make people afraid of the dark. Maybe that’s why New York City’s Department of Transportation is employing spooky tactics to scare pedestrians by telling New Yorkers that walking at night is dangerous.

A campaign that launched today is the newest misguided attempt to prevent traffic deaths by shaming pedestrians—not by addressing the root causes of our country’s frightening epidemic: too many drivers using increasingly inadequate infrastructure.

Every year, cities see a spike in traffic deaths when it gets dark earlier, so NYC’s DOT has planned a week of awareness pegged to the end of Daylight Saving Time, telling people they should be more careful after the sun goes down. To get the word out, “street teams” are handing out flyers at dangerous intersections around New York City, buses and billboards will host ads, and radio spots will air during the evening commute. All at a cost of about $1.5 million.

The darkness-is-dangerous messaging is the latest in the particularly gory “Your Choices Matter” campaign rolled out by the city’s Vision Zero initiative, with the goal to eliminate traffic fatalities. This year has seen an increase in traffic deaths compared to 2015.

Are you scared yet?

But the problem with this kind of messaging—and any kind of “awareness” campaign when it comes to traffic safety—is that it always blames pedestrians for engaging in some kind of risky behavior. In this case, it’s daring to venture out after dark. There have been plenty of other pedestrian-shaming campaigns—starting with the invention of the term jaywalking—which target walkers for their choice of clothing, smartphone use, or simply not “paying attention.”

Toronto’s pedestrian shaming campaign told residents to wear black at their own risk
Toronto Transit Commission
In DC, you are supposed to make eye contact with every driver

These campaigns don’t address the real problem: More drivers are driving more cars than ever through poorly designed city streets.

This is not to say that New York City shouldn’t be taking some kind of action. According to crash data collected in the city, the number of pedestrians killed or injured at dusk increases by about 40 percent during the darkest months. It makes sense that the NYPD would want to do something, as it’s clear this is when the most people will be hurt.

Crash data shows an increase in pedestrian deaths just after dark on the shortest days of the year

But instead of making New Yorkers wary of the impending darkness, the campaign should address bigger issues around street design, lighting, and enforcement that would save lives day or night, in any weather, at any time of year. Especially in a place like New York, where the streets don’t shut down at dark, special attention should be paid to making the pedestrian experience brighter and safer.

Handing out flyers to New York City drivers promoting the “darkness and dusk” campaign

New York’s campaign does include a plan for targeting and ticketing drivers. A press release from the mayor’s office outlined how the NYPD will crack down on dangerous driving by increasing enforcement resources around dusk and focusing efforts on exceptionally dangerous intersections. Flyers are also being handed out to drivers to make them aware of the campaign.

But this is not enough. As many advocates have pointed out, New York City is not the only place in the world where the sun goes down.

In many extremely bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities—like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Utrecht—dusk can come as early as 3:00 p.m. These cities have solved the problem by building separated paths that allow people to move around the city at night without wearing lights, reflectors, or even helmets.

The $1.5 million campaign price tag in particular is problematic for many who would prefer to see that money go to capital improvements over gruesome bus shelter ads and flyers destined for the recycling bin.

In fact, $1.5 million is the cost of a pedestrian improvement project for the Canal Street entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, one of the most dangerous places in the city for walkers. The project added new signals, wider medians, shorter crossing distances, and redesigned traffic lanes. This shows that $1.5 million can go a long way, particularly at such a dangerous intersection (over 147 people had been injured at this intersection since 2010, with one person killed). Why not take this $1.5 million and fix another section of the city?

It’s horrific to think that any city would be mounting an expensive campaign to tell pedestrians to be safe instead of doubling down on efforts to actually make them safe. But it keeps happening.

In fact, a far more troubling campaign is rolling out right now in Pittsburgh. Promoted as a “playful” bit of Halloween-timed fun, improv actors dressed up like the Grim Reaper have been hired to wander the city, warning pedestrians about the perils of walking. There are also chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks as part of the campaign. Playful!

Don’t worry, if you don’t get to meet the Reaper in person, there’s another way the campaign plans to reach you:

In addition to engaging people on the streets, geo-fencing perimeters will be established at heavily trafficked intersections that will use pop-up advertisements on cell phones that encourage users to “Look Alive.”

Yep, pop-up ads on phones while people are walking and driving that warn people not to look at their phones while walking and driving.

But wait! That’s not even the whole campaign. The city has published a “Street Smarts” guide to safe walking, which includes old standby tips like “make eye contact” and “carry a flashlight,” as well as this gem:

Let me get this straight, Pittsburgh. You’re fully admitting that you haven’t even provided the basic infrastructure that allows your citizens to safely walk through your city. You have published a guide instructing people how they need to walk because the city is so dangerous. And on top of all that, you are paying a dude dressed up like the Grim Reaper to remind everyone that you have designed a city where death is literally around every corner.

Now that’s downright scary.