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.

    2. Pat, do you think it would be a good idea or a bad idea to look at cities with low rates of pedestrian deaths and use the methods by which they achieve this?

  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.

  8. "It may not feel fair, but drivers have huge speed and weight advantages."

    Which is why they should face the brunt of enforcement and enjoy the least privilege when it comes to infrastructure design.

    1. Sounds good, but will it really work? I say the enforcement will not budge the safety metrics much at all but I guarantee you insurance companies will love it! BTW, getting an honest answer to this question is really, really hard!

  9. Erich, Thanks for writing this article and pulling together some of this data. I referenced it when I met with Rep. Peterson on behalf of WBWC earlier this week. It should be noted that the Ann Arbor Public Schools just released a statement opposing HB 4738. Here's a small quote from their statement: "If House Bill No. 4738 passes it will create unsafe conditions and confusion for student walkers and bikers. This district will not, in good conscience, educate students to step off the curb into the street as vehicles approach. This bill will essentially negate the work that has been done to increase student walkers and bikers by creating an unsafe and confusing crossing law for our community"

    Thanks, Erica Briggs

    1. The fallacy is that the existing law has reduced the probability of a pedestrian/vehicle collision. This article does not make the case the law has achieved any harm reduction, it merely makes the case that it is hard to tell if it has made things worse. Increasing the number of cars that stop for pedestrians has not translated into a safer environment for pedestrians.

  10. Orson,

    Vision Zero is a critical part of making it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, right? The data are clear that cities that embrace Vision Zero (New York, for example) see pedestrian and bicyclists injured and killed less often. Let's get behind this!

    The difference between Ann Arbor and these other cities, is that the crash data are used to target the most dangerous intersections in these larger, more sophisticated cities. In our city, a crosswalk ordinance was pushed and written by a tiny non-profit which has been given outsized influence for purely political reasons. Now, this same, small, elite, politically-connected group of people want road diets because we'll slow down cars everywhere. It's kinda like using a cannon to keep mosquitos in check.

    Present council members want to get comprehensive crash data from city staff, who either did not collect it over the past several years (worst case scenario), compiled it inexpertly or are simply not prepared to reveal that our Pedestrian Crosswalk Ordinance is a failure that road diets can't save.

    In L.A. like New York, Vision Zero has primarily targeted the most dangerous intersections. Earhart Road is not a dangerous intersection and no data support the decision or need to bike lanes. In fact, why don't we know how much or how little people use our multi-use paths and bike lanes? We're spending millions and millions on new bike lanes. We know from the U.S. Census that bike commuting in Ann Arbor has only risen 1/2 of a percent over the past nine years.

    Still, we have no protected bike lanes on State Street, Main Street, etc....and no biking group calling for them. Why? Because that would mean advocating for the removal of parking, which these Road Diet/Vision Zero activists are unwilling to do, or afraid to do, because they would be laughed out of the room by Taylor and shouted down by DDA Board members. So we need bike lanes on Earhart Road and Traverwood? Nope.

    What we need to know is which are the most dangerous intersections for bikers and walkers in Ann Arbor. Huron high school? Plymouth Rd.? Carpenter Rd.? Packard and State? I ain't got those data, and neither do the City Administrator, Erica Briggs or any member of City Council. That's an enormous problem, and partially why this fight has become a pissing contest about who has the power to dictate public policy.

    Present Council members want to see the crash data and then have staff recommend changes. City staff make loopy decisions, then spend hours trying to justify those decisions (i.e the recent 37-page "report" justifying road diets). Rather than work together, local activists insist on undermining these efforts to base Vision Zero efforts on crash data.

    As for the AAPS and HB 4738, the AAPS didn't come out against anything: Liz Margolis (who has no education, experience or training in engineering or traffic planning) did. She is the district's Executive Director of Student and School Safety ( She has a B.A. in Communications and prior to this job was a media/communications staffer. It's obscene she was given that position of responsibility by Dr. Swift. Margolis's decisions have shown clearly that she's a menace.

    I don't believe Vision Zero is rocket science. It's just that for the past 18 years, certain people and groups were given political permission to play mad scientist with our city's transit policies as long as the experiments played well on a campaign website. People have died in our crosswalks as a result of that. We could follow the example of cities that are using verified crash data to decide where improvements are needed to make walking a biking safer, and use a variety of Vision Zero tools, instead of obsessively focusing on road diets.

  11. Interesting read indeed! I crunched data on 5 cities (Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, East Lansing and Detroit) and found 1) Pedestrian/Vehicle collisions follow the total number of Vehicle collisions in a given city. A rough rule of thumb is that there are 1.4 pedestrian/vehicle involved crashes for every 100 vehicular crashes. 2) Population (Pop/sq-mi) density does have correlation to the crash rate but is small in effect. 3) The total number of vehicle crashes per city seems to follow the economy, that is, the lowest rates were at the nadir of the Great Recession. The better the economy, the more pedestrian/vehicle crashes. 4) Ann Arbor experienced a bump of 9-10% in pedestrian/vehicle crashes after the Pedestrian Ordinance went into effect; this is calculated by controlling for total vehicle crashes and population density in the five city study.

    Here is the fallacy the article is promoting from my reading: 1) Yes, Ann Arbor had the lowest rate of pedestrian/vehicle crashes in the five cities but that is not what is being studied. The question is if the Pedestrian Law is a positive or negative for safety--I found it to be a negative adding to Ann Arbor's low rate. Are the authors of this article saying it is okay to increase the collision rate because Ann Arbor has not exceeded it "budget" for vehicle/pedestrian collisions? Or it is okay because the rate is increasing in other cities too due to an improving economy? 2) The second fallacy is assuming the improvement in compliance with the law after enforcement actions were taken is proof of improved safety. The rate of compliance is a measure of pedestrian convenience NOT pedestrian safety. Pedestrian safety is measured in pedestrian/vehicle collisions per 10,000 population.

    The article's virtue signaling by claiming victim status for pedestrians is really getting long in the tooth. Pedestrians are in the best position to determine the outcome of our city's pedestrian/vehicle crash rate. Yes, drivers are distracted and are unreliable, why should they be trusted to always stop? Sending drivers to prison who run over pedestrians will offer no deterrence and will only serve to increase the pain in the community. Better to avoid incidents to begin with. Pedestrians need to be trained to make eye contact with drivers and to wait until it is safe to cross each lane.

    What is the justification for civil sanctions if the safety is not improved? We should expect the crash rate to go down when a proper controlled study is performed if there are real penalties involved. The supporters of Ann Arbor's Pedestrian Safety law need to demonstrate the crash rate metrics actually improve due to the ordinance to justify its existence and they have not done this. It is not anyone's job to prove the law is a negative; it is the supports job to prove it is a positive.

  12. Damn Arbor,

    In regard to James Walker and the NMA, your characterization of the organization as an "NRA" type group is over-the-top. I would characterize the group as a pro-motorist, civil rights group who defend the 4th and 5th Amendments and the Bill of Rights in general. Here is a pointed question for you but a serious one as well, is your goal to help insurance companies maintain their profit margins? What if it turned out that many of the assumptions you take for granted in your editorial piece end up in practice only helping insurance companies?

    I have looked at the cost/benefit of our MI drunk driving laws and have concluded they are a really bad deal for the public and a really good deal for insurance companies who receive about 60% of the cost of a drunk driving conviction. Do these laws save lives? It is not straight forward or easy to use statistical crash data to prove one way or another that increased enforcement saves lives or reduces property damage. One study claims there is a 1% reduction in drunk driving fatalities for every 10% increase in drunk driving arrests. However, I crunched the numbers and it ends up costing the public about $10 million dollars for each fatality avoided with these numbers. Guess what, the Opioid crisis is killing about 6 times the people drunk driving does right now; what could you do with $10 million dollars to cut back on these deaths? We choose to pay millions to insurance companies to clean up the mess after something bad happens rather then look at ways to prevent problems to begin with. Law enforcement approaches are typically a very expensive way to do harm reduction.

    Your reference to strange bedfellows was really ironic! So many things in our society are simply not what they advertise themselves to be! I really can't blame people for getting caught up in it--but we really need to do our best to recognize a false narrative for what it is!

  13. I appreciate the fact the authors of this article chose to go in and look at the actual safety metrics, namely the number of pedestrian/vehicle collisions rather than simply looking at the number of vehicles stopping for pedestrians and saying an increase in that metric is evidence of an improvement in safety. However, given that the current Ann Arbor Pedestrian Crossing Law is billed as a way to improve safety and HB 4738 is billed as a detriment to safety, how can you justify making these claims when the actual data presented does not support the claim which is the very heart of the controversy? The data presented supports the claim that the current law did not substantially make things worse when supporters of the law are claiming an improvement in safety.

  14. '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.'

    The problem with this line of reasoning is it ends by precluding a data driven approach to problem solving. If we only care about figuring out "whose fault it is" and punishing the miscreants with the matter going no further than that; we never have to worry about whether there is actual improvement in the relevant safety metrics. This is how many of our laws work; there is never any attempt to determine the efficacy of the law against some objective measurement. If we are going to protect the public from drunk, inattentive or speeding drivers is it unreasonable to expect that we can show the enforcement effort pays off in a verifiable reduction in incidents? Can someone step up to the plate and explain what the purpose of punishment is if said punishment never results in an improvement in relevant safety metrics? Surprisingly, it is rare that the responsible authorities publish studies which attempt to determine how effective enforcement actions are at improving safety. Most studies merely report how many people were arrested/charged with offenses and various metrics about the demographics of offenders and victims. They almost never report the amount of harm reduction as a result of the enforcement action taken--this was true of an annual report of drunk driving arrests produced by the Michigan State Police.

    The measures which ultimately prove effective at avoiding incidents may not be viewed as fair or desirable but the burden will be on the critics to present a better alternative.

  15. The Ann Arbor law is a well-meaning but terrible piece of legislation. Anyone that drives around town regularly sees pedestrians with their faces down at their cell phones walking right into traffic as if cars can stop in milliseconds. The vast majority of pedestrian crossings have no signals and poor lighting, making them especially dangerous at night. Thanks to the crappy condition of our roads, many of the crossings themselves are poorly painted and difficult to see.

    I saw one car rear-ended by another when it slammed on its brakes for a pedestrian. I saw a pedestrian almost killed when the car in the first lane stopped but the one in the second lane one had no way to see the pedestrian. I've had pedestrians walk in front of my car when I had the right-of-way at an intersection with a flashing yellow, completely oblivious that the law changes depending on where they cross.

    The law is especially bad because it's different than the rest of Michigan, even nearby townships like Pittsfield and Ann Arbor Twp, which have non-obvious boundaries with the city. It's time for a repeal.