Thursday, July 11, 2019

Zero Vision: Ann Arbor's Promotion of Driver Convenience Over Pedestrian Safety

A pedestrian cautiously crossing Plymouth Rd at a mid-block crosswalk
A pedestrian crosses Plymouth Road at an RRFB-controlled crosswalk

In 2010 the Ann Arbor City Council, led by Mayor John Hieftje, enacted an ordinance requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians entering the crosswalk. Soon after, Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons (RRFBs) began to appear at major mid-block crosswalks, alerting drivers that a pedestrian was entering the roadway. It was a first bold step towards making Ann Arbor the most progressive city in Michigan in terms of prioritizing pedestrian access. Now, with many new faces on City Council, some of that progress is in danger of being reversed.

Bypassing Local Control

On March 18th 2019, City Council Members Kathy Griswold and Elizabeth Nelson proposed to change the local ordinance. The new ordinance would require pedestrians to enter the roadway before cars would be compelled to stop. Council voted to send this change to the disability and transit commissions, where it was roundly criticized by both local disability and pedestrian advocates. Under pressure from the community, the proposal was pulled from consideration.

After failing to pass the proposal locally, CM Griswold sought the help of State Representative Ronnie Peterson (D-Ypsilanti) who recently introduced HB 4738.

HB 4738 mirrors the earlier proposed city ordinance - it would be a statewide law that requires drivers to stop and yield to pedestrians who enter the roadway (cars are already required to yield under current law). If passed, it would supersede Ann Arbor's current local ordinance, and legally bar other local Michigan municipalities from adopting similar pedestrian-friendly laws in the future.

Muddy Data, Illusory Safety

All of the elected Council Members say they have the best interests of pedestrians at heart, but there is obvious disagreement on what actions the city should take to make pedestrians safer. Some of their arguments are based on data and evidence, but many are not.

CM Griswold claimed in the June 2019 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer that Ann Arbor pedestrians are distracted, and walking blindly into oncoming traffic due to a "false feeling of security." This kind of assertion has been frequently and repeatedly shown to be victim-blaming at best, and treating a systemic problem as if it were the result of the individual actions of a few bad apples. In a 2010 study it was shown that the most common cause by far of pedestrian-involved crashes is driver inattention. We can trust that statistic has continued to rise as smartphones have become more ubiquitous.

CM Eaton claims pedestrian safety is worsened by our crosswalk law
CM Eaton's claims could not
 be substantiated by the data
In a July 19th Facebook post, Council Member Jack Eaton stated that vehicle-pedestrian incidents have increased in Ann Arbor since passage of the pedestrian ordinance in 2010, and worse, that the rate of increase in Ann Arbor is greater than the national average. CM Eaton did not produce any data to support his claims that our 2010 pedestrian ordinance caused a spike in traffic-related injuries and deaths. As for his claim that the new law will become part of driver's training in Michigan, it essentially already is. "Sharing the Road" is Chapter 6 of What Every Driver Must Know, the manual used in Michigan Driver's Education. In the section on pedestrians, there is the advice that "even if you have a green light, you must yield to people crossing the street or intersection."

In the July 1st 2019 City Council meeting, CM Griswold claimed that the number of pedestrians struck in Ann Arbor has increased 40% in the past ten years, much greater than the Michigan average, while other communities like Grand Rapids have seen a decrease in pedestrians hit in the same time period.

But the data from Michigan Crash Facts, a University of Michigan data project, do not support the arguments of either CM Eaton or CM Griswold. In fact, the data suggest that pedestrian-involved crashes have been on the rise since at least 2004, well before the 2010 ordinance. That trend continues today, and similar, if not worse, trends appear to be true for other Michigan cities with similar populations and density, including Grand Rapids. The rate of increase between 2007 and 2017 for Ann Arbor is about 2%, a far cry from the 40% claimed by CM Griswold.

Life and Death in the Streets

Nationally, the numbers are far bleaker. The number of pedestrians killed on American roads has risen dramatically since 2004.

It's not pretty

Ann Arbor, in comparison, has relatively few fatalities per 100,000 residents compared to the national average, both before and after the 2010 crosswalk ordinance. We also have fewer fatalities per 100,000 residents than the Michigan average, despite our local "unsafe" crosswalk ordinance.

Ann Arbor has lower pedestrian fatalities every year since 1996

But even one death is too many, which is why we should continue to seek to improve.

Distraction from the Big Picture

Distracted driving enforcement:
not a priority in A2 or elsewhere
CM Griswold has been effective since joining Council in bringing attention to the inadequate lighting that many of Ann Arbor's sidewalks suffer from, and she should be applauded for that. High-contrast lighting is indeed part of the solution - the Governors Highway Safety Association released a report on pedestrian safety in 2017, in part recommending better lighting and adopting Vision Zero.

But the GHSA also recommends localities step up traffic enforcement, increase separation from motor vehicles, and implement road diets and traffic calming. These are evidence-based measures that have proven again and again to save pedestrian lives.

In a 2017-2018 Western Michigan University study, the Ann Arbor Police found that increased enforcement caused the percentage of cars stopping for pedestrians to skyrocket from 28 percent to 65 percent. Even at intersections where there were no police present, drivers stopped for pedestrians at significantly increased rates during the enforcement period. Changing driving culture and improving pedestrian safety through enforcement has been shown to be effective, even locally.

And yet, with national pedestrian injury and death rates steadily climbing, Ann Arbor's City Council has chosen instead to focus on brightly lit crosswalks and limiting pedestrian rights, rather than evidence-based measures like increasing enforcement for distracted driving. Overlay the rates of smart phone use, distracted driving, and pedestrian deaths in the United States and you start to see a causality trend that makes a little more sense than one local crosswalk ordinance passed in 2010.

Distracted driving and resulting fatalities: increasing dramatically

Strange Allies

Multiple Ann Arbor City Council members, including CM Griswold and CM Jane Lumm, have accepted donations from James C. Walker, a lobbyist for the National Motorists Association. Walker and local attorney Tom Wieder have in the past threatened lawsuits against Ann Arbor in order to increase local speed limits.

argues for increasing speed limits
The NMA does not believe in reducing speed limits,
an evidence-based approach to pedestrian safety
The NMA is an NRA-style driver's rights group dedicated to fighting for increased speed limits, opposing Vision Zero, road diets, traffic calming, and even drunk driving standards. Why would the lobbyist for such a group donate to a self-professed "pedestrian safety advocate" like CM Griswold?

To be clear, the votes of CM Griswold and others on City Council are not being "bought" by some powerful automobile lobby. But when a lobbyist chooses to donate to a politician, it is a good indication they are donating to someone who shares their beliefs and values, a person who represents their interests.

Next Actions

Ann Arbor's current ordinance allows a pedestrian to wait safely on the curb and cars must yield the right of way. If HB 4738 is adopted, pedestrians, including children and those using wheelchairs, will be forced to put themselves into harm's way by entering the street before a vehicle is required to stop.

This law will not address a single factor that evidence shows to make a difference in pedestrian safety. Drivers will continue to access city streets designed for maximum car velocity rather than pedestrian safety. Ann Arbor's current City Council will likely continue to deny road diets and traffic calming measures. Enforcement of speeding and distracted driving will continue to be a low priority, and in the end, our most vulnerable users will continue to be struck and killed in our crosswalks at increasing rates.

As of this writing, HB 4738 has been referred to the Transportation Committee. Michigan house TC members include Jack O'Malley, Gary Eisen, Triston Cole, Jason Sheppard, Julie Alexander, Joseph Bellino, Gary Howell, Lynn Afendoulis, Tim Sneller, Cara Clemente, Tenisha Yancey, Jim Haadsma, and Nate Shannon.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article read "In 2010, Ann Arbor's Mayor, John Hieftje, signed an ordinance into law requiring..." We've updated the article to reflect the fact that Council and the Mayor enact ordinances.


  1. I always look both ways before crossing a street, you should and should also teach younger people to do the same at an early age. You can't legislate the Laws of Physics. Phone mesmerized people are subject to Darwin's wims.

  2. Cell phone use by drivers isn't the only problem. If you walk in Ann arbor there are idiots walking with their face in their phone who don't pay attention. The bump into other pedestrians and cross the street where there is no cross walk. I am for increased enforcement of drivers not stopping at crosswalks if pedestrians are ticketed for crossing where there is no crosswalk

  3. Distracted driving and distracted walking can be issues. I feel like there is a lot more responsibility on drivers based on their capacity to do greater harm.

    Regarding looking both ways, this ordinance does not say you shouldn't look both ways. It says that when you are waiting to cross at a crosswalk, drivers need to yield to you.

  4. Bman and Johnnya2, I don't think I or anyone else would advocate that pedestrians should cross blindly. It's safest to confirm traffic is stopping before crossing, and in fact the RRFBs audibly warn pedestrians to cross with caution, vehicles may not stop.

    The revised state law would not curb behavior of pedestrians - people have complained about distracted pedestrians since horse and buggy days, well before 2010. At best, it will just allow drivers to ignore pedestrians attempting to cross.

    As pointed out in the article, driver inattention is far and away the most common cause of pedestrian-caused accidents.

    1. Nonetheless, that is what they do, I've seen some refuse to look either way and step into the street with their nose in the air, as if they're being called to their salvation.

  5. Bman, we "legislate the laws of physics" every time we put up a stop sign. It's all a matter of political will.

    1. Your stop signs have no effect on 1/2mv^2 Pedestrians are saved from their demise by considerate people, it would behoove the pedestrians to show some consideration themselves.

  6. This was an interesting read. I think we can all agree that people should be able to cross streets safely. Jumping off from there, I think we can all agree that people (including children) have died in our mid-street crosswalks.

    I think we can also agree that the Transportation Commission is populated by voting members who are political appointees who have no education or experience in traffic engineering or transit. That the author uses the lack of support on the part of the Commission's "pedestrian advocates" as evidence of anything, I think, undermines the author's own credibility and judgement. Voting members who have no education, training or expertise in traffic engineering or transit have ample standing to comment on issues related to their own expertise, i.e. beekeeping, video gaming, bike sales and repair, assisting a dean of libraries, etc....not a pedestrian crosswalk ordinance.

    I think we can also agree much of this piece is prejudicial claptrap written by an author who did not bother to acknowledge his long-standing public attacks on certain members of Council, including those mentioned herein. This piece should have started by including that information for the reader in order to accurately assess the writer's motives.

    The motives become clear, however, when we realize that the author's piece is undermined by sentences that suggest some psychic ability: "Under pressure from the community, the proposal was pulled from consideration." (Who told the author this?) Without a quoted source, the assertion is simply the author's guess. Such guesses leave us wondering why the author didn't ask the original sources to confirm or deny what amounts to speculation.

    "After failing to pass the proposal locally, CM Griswold sought the help of State Representative Ronnie Peterson (D-Ypsilanti) who recently introduced HB 4738": Without a comment from CM Griswold confirming that this is, indeed, what she did this is, again, the author passing off tea leaves and Tarot cards as "information."

    The author writes, "In the July 1st 2019 City Council meeting, CM Griswold claimed that the number of pedestrians struck in Ann Arbor has increased 40% in the past ten years." Then, the author uses data that does not include the previous 10 years to "refute" Griswold's data (2009-2019 gathered by city staff from internal sources).

    "But when a lobbyist chooses to donate to a politician, it is a good indication they are donating to someone who shares their beliefs and values, a person who represents their interests." Mr. Walker is a kind and intelligent man who would, no doubt, have gladly spoken to the author.

    "Ann Arbor's current City Council will likely continue to deny road diets and traffic calming measures." Will likely? Clairvoyance? Again, only by speaking with a majority of the members of Council should this statement be included. It is little more than prejudicial claptrap.

    At this point, while Damn Arbor is making an effort to inform people, the site is presenting another unbalanced, sloppy, incomplete "op-ed" disguised as reporting. Then, the piece is spammed out via social media as a "great" article. Get some different writers who have the journalistic skills necessary to look at these issues less from the stance of a psychic and more from the stance of an unbiased source.

    1. Thanks so much for reading. A few points of clarification on your criticisms:

      1) Council felt it was important enough to vote in the majority to have Transportation and Disability Commissions review the proposed change. Community reps from both commissions criticized the proposal, after which it was pulled, as stated above. Referring to this ordinance, CM Nelson wrote that she felt it was very important to get the input of the Disability Commission, and I agree.

      2) Ronnie Peterson introduced HB 4738 in Mid-June, well after the local ordinance proposal was pulled. Griswold has stated publicly she was working to get a state crosswalk bill introduced, and posted a picture of her and Rep. Peterson at the capital on Facebook. 

      3) The data for this article goes to 2017 because that is the data that has been finalized at this time. I don't believe it is appropriate to analyze preliminary data. I would hope CM Griswold is not basing governing decisions on 6 months or less of preliminary 2019 data.  

      4) As you may know, 3 new road diets were discussed recently at council and a majority of CMs voted to send them back to transportation even though the transportation commission had voted to recommend their approval. A majority of CMs at this time said they would likely not support these road diets.

  7. Actually, making a state wide standard is a wise ide in an already diverse Ann Arbor population.

    Given the collective lack of attention I see in Ann Arbor cyclists and pedestrians, collective safety is better served by more, not less legal support for pedestrians to be vigilant. It may not feel fair, but drivers have huge speed and weight advantages.

    Any electonic operations that are not hands-free should be thoroughly enforced under 'distacted driving and walking' ordinances.