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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A match made in ER heaven: Boston drivers and jaywalkers

Crossing to their own beat:
Injuries up, but jaywalking abounds on Hub’s busy streets

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

Shortly after 11 a.m. on a sunny Thursday, a most astounding thing happened on the busy intersection of the Boston University Bridge and Commonwealth Avenue. Alexandra Slender, a BU sophomore, stopped at a crosswalk, waited for the white gleam of the “Walk’’ sign, and crossed.

It was a rare act of civil obedience for a pedestrian in Boston, repeated by almost no one else on this day at this intersection. Throngs of iPod-wearing, cellphone-texting walkers blew through the red “Don’t walk’’ signs, barely acknowledging the flustered drivers who slammed on the brakes and banged on their dashboards in futility.

Other cities hit unruly pedestrians with fines that can cost upward of $50. The $1 ticket for illegally crossing the street in Massachusetts would deter no one, even if Boston police bothered to issue citations, which they do not do. In a city infamous for its combative drivers, the walkers are no less aggressive, immersed in what one pedestrian advocate called “a culture of jaywalking’’ - despite statistics that suggest Boston is increasingly perilous for those on foot.

Last year, 13 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in Suffolk County, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up from 10 the two previous years and 8 in 2005. The rate of pedestrian fatalities in Boston is low compared with other cities its size - a fact officials here attribute to the city’s compact layout, which generally prohibits high-speed driving.

But the number of Boston pedestrians taken to the hospital after accidents involving motor vehicles in 2008 shot up to 1,178, over 150 more than in any of the previous three years. That’s about 193 per 100,000 people. By contrast, there were 124 injuries per 100,000 people in New York City in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics were available from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In Denver last year, a city of nearly Boston’s size, there were 39 pedestrian accidents per 100,000 people, according to the Denver Police Department. In Seattle, a city with nearly Boston’s population but much higher jaywalking fines, there were about 89 pedestrian injuries per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Boston officials are amid a campaign to improve crosswalks and intersections to make them safer for typical pedestrians - meaning people in a hurry. It is nowhere near enough to stem the tide of illegal crossings. On any given day, at any given intersection in Boston, pedestrians cut off drivers on the notoriously clogged labyrinth of city streets. They wander off narrow sidewalks to avoid a puddle, a dog, or one another, without regard to an oncoming 10-ton truck. They take over thoroughfares en masse, in little urban coups d’etat. Daring individuals step out and stare down drivers defiantly, like toreadors in a bull ring.

Even Slender’s law-abiding act was guided not by philosophy, but by footwear. “Usually, I just cross,’’ she said, pointing toward her flimsy pair of flip-flops. “Today I have the wrong shoes for hurrying across the street.’’

Jaywalking - the act of crossing against a signal, or not using a crosswalk when it is within 300 feet - is illegal in Massachusetts. With the fourth violation in a calendar year, the $1 fine goes up. To $2.

“The fine doesn’t do the trick,’’ said Boston police Superintendent William B. Evans, who heads department’s Bureau of Field Services. He had not heard of any officers issuing citations for jaywalking, even though he believes the proliferation of mp3 players, personal digital assistants, and other digital devices have made pedestrians “even more self-absorbed,’’ and more likely to jaywalk, than ever.

Distractions are not the only reasons walkers cross out of turn. At the especially chaotic intersection of Congress and State streets, no more than 30 yards from the site of the Boston Massacre, David Brown set out from the curb on a “Don’t Walk’’ sign, in front of a moving taxicab. Brown stared at the cab. Luckily for him it stopped.

“I’m from Boston,’’ Brown explained.

Boston’s transportation commissioner, Thomas J. Tinlin, observes this uneven clash of wills and weight classes all the time. From an operations center on the seventh floor of City Hall, Tinlin can watch a wall-size array of monitors, which broadcast in greenish tint live feeds from up to 200 cameras installed throughout the city. Here, transportation engineers can adjust the timing of signals, make note of problems, and dispatch police to unclog congestion.

During one recent lunch hour, a monitor showed gridlock on Congress and State, caused by a construction site. Pedestrians, sensing the opportunity to save time, were dashing across Congress Street between backed-up trucks rather than walk the extra 100 feet to the crosswalk. Others were at crosswalks, but ignoring signals. On the monitor, it looked foolhardy.

“You have pedestrians who are making poor decisions,’’ Tinlin said.

The decisions did not look so poor on the ground. Roxana Santana, in a hurry to cross the street, pressed the button that she thought would render a “Walk’’ signal. It did not. Few people know this, but the buttons at some busy intersections are programmed to work only at night, when traffic is light. (“It’s supply and demand,’’ Tinlin said.) A crowd materialized as Santana grew impatient with the “Don’t Walk’’ signal. At a lull in the traffic, everyone started to cross, and after one last glare at the button, she joined them.

“I took a chance,’’ she said.

People jaywalk, said Rosa Carson, program coordinator at the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston, “because street infrastructure really disregards pedestrians’ needs.’’

WalkBoston has completed a study of what works and what does not at 200 city intersections, and, once it has tallied the results, plans to share them with local officials.

“Improving the infrastructure won’t solve the problem overnight but would, likely, move things in a safer direction,’’ Carson said.

In many other cities, jaywalking is not as ingrained in the pedestrian culture. Carson described being “amazed’’ in San Francisco to find pedestrians waiting at “Don’t Walk’’ signs, even when there were no cars. Seattle has been combating jaywalkers for years - no matter who they are. Kenny Williams, general manager of the Chicago White Sox, reportedly was slapped with a $56 jaywalking fine in Seattle in August. Manny Ramírez, still with the Red Sox at the time and perhaps accustomed to Boston jaywalking mores, was nabbed for illegally being Manny on a Seattle street in 2008. Ramírez was lucky - he got off with a stern lecture.

In cities such as Los Angeles or Houston, where major thoroughfares are multilane, high-speed boulevards, the layout discourages unprotected forays into traffic, said Jeff Larson, general manager of SmartRoute Systems Inc. in Cambridge.

Boston is taking a few steps. City transportation engineers, aided by recently installed digital-control boxes that allow them to program and synchronize signals at many city intersections, recently re-calibrated more than 100 traffic lights to give pedestrians more time and opportunities to cross. New traffic configurations allow pedestrians and cars going the same direction to cross an intersection simultaneously; signs tell vehicles to yield to pedestrians and walkers to watch out for cars. The city has introduced “Don’t Walk’’ signals that count down how much time is left to cross - an upgrade long commonplace in other cities. And City Hall has proposed legislation that would raise the fine for jaywalking to $20, and $50 after the first three offenses in a calendar year.

Above all, Tinlin said, the city is trying to accommodate everyone on the sidewalks and roads, not just those sitting behind the wheel.

This approach has yet to change habits. Drivers, Evans said, still cut people off in crosswalks, infractions that result in dozens of tickets a week. Pedestrians still jaywalk with no fear of penalty.

Tinlin, born and raised in South Boston, knows all about that.

“I tried to jaywalk this morning and my 7-year-old daughter said ‘Dad, why aren’t we using the crosswalk?’ ’’ he said recently. “Do I wait for the walk all the time? I’d love to tell you that I do, but I don’t.’’

“But I know that what I’m doing is wrong.’’

Globe correspondent Jack Nicas contributed to this report.