05 November 2009

Wave Your Flag, Pedestrian!

A reader mentioned pedestrian flags in Berkeley, California in a comment and added "I'm serious!" so I thought I'd check out this fantastic example of victim blaming in Bubble Wrap Society.

He was serious. Is that scary or funny or both? Not sure. Flags are placed near intersections and the idea is that pedestrians pick one up and hold it when they wish to foolishly exercise their human right to safe urban mobility.

Most of the flags have been stolen and few use them apparently. Ironically, 48 hours after these went into [non]use, a pedestrian was hit by a car. Here's what Berkeley City Councilwoman Polly Armstrong said about it at the time:

"We hope over time - when drivers are paying a little more attention than that driver was - that the flags would be helpful." She added that, "Pedestrians have to be on guard and aggressive with their flags."

"After hitting the pedestrian, the driver swerved into the oncoming lane and collided with another vehicle. The driver was cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian. While saddened by the news, Berkeley officials saw the accident more as a testament to intersection's danger than the flags' effectiveness."

Read that first paragraph again... she hopes drivers will become 'a little more attentive' but pedestrians have to be "on guard and be aggressive with their flags."

Ignoring the bull. I don't know why Berkeley doesn't just go all out and legislate mandatory all-ages pedestrian helmets.

Or just ban walking altogether. Nevermind lowering the speed limits on the streets or installing traffic calming measures. Nah. Blame the squishy traffic users who are only stunting society's progress by showing up sans car.

The San Francisco Chronicle has an article about these pedestrian safety flags from 'back in they day' - 2002. Are they still in use in Berkeley?


Bikejuju said...

We have those in my neighborhood in West Seattle as well. I agree that they are kind of insane.

Anonymous said...

When I went to Japan 20 years ago they have those flags for pedestrians as well.

Lucas Jerzy Portela said...

You should get to know Porto Alegre (state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) solution for pedestrians:


Simply, they imported the hand-sign commonly used in the national capital, Brasilia, for years.

Porto Alegre is know as one of the 40 best administrated cities in the World for decades.

Plus, it got ramblas. Being the southier capital in Brasil, the spanish platin influence (Argentina and Uruguay) is remarkable. Plus, the number of german and italian imigrants is astonishing - what gives a "Berlim-like" up-hill passagens all long the city.

I'm from another states, Bahia. The Capital, Salvador, (International Capital for the Black Diaspor, and known as "the most barroque city in the world"), is almost vertical. Thus, we needed solutions off mass transport that could climb a scrap of 100m from the bay, all long the sea, and up. The solutions where Urban Elevators - the famous Lacerda Elevator, constructed in 1879, and the beatifull inclined-plans, wich gives you a astonishing sight of the older city - the first capital of Brazil.

Google it! Sure you're gonna like.

burrito said...

They have those flags in Madison, WI too - a place where I nearly got smooshed when I first arrived because I foolishly thought a car would stop at a crosswalk! Silly me for not being aggressive enough with my flag.

Vance said...

It seems like about a century late for this type of position. I mean, look at the placement of that cross-walk for Pete's sake. In spirit, I so agree with you, however pragmatism must rule and this doesn't seem pragmatic to me.

I, for one, wish for the spirit, or notion, of complete ped autonomy to guide reasonable, and pragmatic, planning. And not necessarily that it be the only thing considered.

Nice find though. My knee-jerk is to side with you, but on thinking, I'd have to say this is asking a bit much of other users in different modes.

BG said...

The flag system was used, briefly, in Charlottesville, Virginia (at a spot where several pedestrians had been hurt). I think it lasted about a month; all the flags were stolen.

In better news, they've now built a pedestrian bridge at the trouble spot.

portlandize.com said...

I think we should give pedestrians rocks to throw at windshields. That should get the driver's attention.

Lori said...

They recently put them in near the Northeast Branch of the Seattle library. They are ridiculous.

mattly said...

I believe they are still in use in Berkeley.

Despite its reputation as a hippie town, Berkeley traffic is brutally aggressive, to the point where it can turn even otherwise sane drivers into raging maniacs.

To its credit, the city has made several attempts at traffic calming beyond things like the pedestrian flags. The residential neighborhoods are full of speed bumps and diverters, and as a driver taking unfamiliar side streets is a risky proposition if for no other reason then you might get stuck going in the opposite direction. Diverters are the one thing I miss from Berkeley that I wish my adopted home of Portland would employ more.

Unfortunately as one commenter suggested, the city's problems started much longer ago, when it was architected. It's just not laid out well enough to handle all the car traffic being pushed through it. Another highway might help that, but I suspect it would only make the problem worse by encouraging more traffic.

Public Transit in Berkeley proper is mostly limited to a bus system that is subject to the whims of traffic. Yes, there's Bart, but only three stops that are about as widely spaced as the Tube in London. Bart is a regional transit system, not a municipal one.

I think the solution lies in encouraging _less_ traffic (as I'd suspect other readers of this blog might lean as well); that would probably mean something akin to London's congestion charges. Unfortunately due to the way the city's borders work that would be nearly impossible to enforce properly.

You think about these things long enough, and if you're not tied down with a job or property you come to the conclusion I did: go somewhere else.

Peter said...

Last time I was in Berkeley (2 years ago?) they were still in use. One of these flag bins was at a signalized intersection on University Ave not too far from Shattuck ( near the UCB campus).

So, apparently, a red light is not enough to stop drivers from running over pedestrians as they make a right on red!

I could not make myself use one of the flags.

OTOH - I've done a lot of bicycling in the are (Albany, Berkeley, Oakland). Except for the killer hills on the east side of town, I rather enjoy the bicycling. I don't find the drivers aggressive when I'm on a bike.

Nate Briggs said...

These were also introduced in Salt Lake City - with the commonly-observed result that they were all stolen. Only the empty receptacles are left.

For awhile the SLCPD was conducting "pedestrian sting" operations: with an officer on foot using a crosswalk and signalling to motorized officers when a motorist failed to stop.

That program was discontinued - for reasons which were unannounced.

But, in my opinion, that was a program that could really make a difference.

The cutting edge of alternative transportation is traffic enforcement: just mandating that motorists obey the law.

Nate (SLC)

dyrlægen said...

I saw a guy waving a red flag in front of a bull once, think it was in spain...

Zweiradler said...

@ Portlandize:
Good idea. You could also use tomatoes or eggs :)

Gerard said...

Sadly that's a long way and a complete reversal from when the car first appeared.

In the UK the 1865 Locomotive Act "stipulated that self-propelled vehicles should be accompanied by a crew of three: the driver, a stoker and a man with a red flag walking 60 yards (55 m) ahead of each vehicle. The man with a red flag or lantern enforced a walking pace, and warned horse riders and horse drawn traffic of the approach of a self propelled machine." That only lasted a few years, but to see the Bull actually in charge of the China Shop is rather sad.

portlandize.com said...

To be honest, I just don't understand why people aren't more enraged about the loss of life in our cities - not just due to automobiles (grandpa's/dad's arsenal could be another one), but that is a big one.

How is it that so many people can lose their lives because of someone's careless behavior, blatant arrogance, or simple bad planning (on the part of the city), and hardly anyone even blinks?

It just makes me hopping mad.

dr2chase said...

This kind of stuff get tiresome. In the Slate article referenced a few posts back, if you look at the comment section, very many people have completely turned the notion of "responsibility" on its head -- it's the pedestrians (and cyclists) that are "responsible" for their own safety, not the drivers of great big heavy cars.

And when I have to put something in the street to let people know I intend to cross, I try to pick something with a little heft, not some wimpy flag.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but a flag actually makes pedestrians *less* safe. It tells drivers: "Don't pay attention at crosswalks, becuase if someone wants to cross they will be waving a great big orange flag to get your attention. In the meantime, you may continue to text, talk on your cell, reach down onto the floor of your car, or anything else other than pay attention to the world outside your car."

Drunk Engineer said...

"So, apparently, a red light is not enough to stop drivers from running over pedestrians as they make a right on red!"

Enforcement is the obvious answer to problem intersections where drivers don't follow the law. In Berkeley (like most CA cities) that isn't being done for the following reasons:

1. Lack of funds. The city would have to pay for the patrols, but any revenues gained from fines goes to the State. As a result, car drivers speed with impunity, and run no risk of getting ticketed for not yielding to other road users.

2. State Law. In California, the 85-percentile of traffic on the roadway dictates the speed limit. This makes it difficult to write speeding tickets even if police wanted to.

3. Blame the Victim. The mentality of the police dept. is that any cyclist or ped who gets struck and killed by a car was not exercising "due care". The most disgusting example of this was the recent death of a 5-year-old preschooler, struck by a truck at an intersection with stop signs. Cops blamed the 5-year-old.

On the rare occasion when the BPD does conduct more intensive enforcement, the result is lots of jaywalking tickets to peds, and lots of tickets to cyclists (for not doing complete stop at a Stop sign).

As far as the Flags go, they have been removed. It was an experimental project, and city staff came to obvious conclusion that they didn't work.

Dottie said...

Ugh, this story really pisses me off! Drivers almost never stop for crosswalks. My husband has taken to walking in front of cars to force them to stop, but I'm worried he'll get hit one day and some drivers accelerate and swing around him instead of yielding.

Mikael said...

good points, drunkengineer.

they've been removed but by all accounts they managed to hang around for a few years and it seems that the idea has spread to other cities...

Ryan said...

In Toronto at designated crosswalks, once you push the button to cross, your suppose to hold out your arm straight and point at the crosswalk.

Was like that back when my Dad lived there in the 60's, 70's and although most residents have never heard of this, I'm pretty sure it is still law today.

Yokota Fritz said...

I totally love Mikael's bull in the china shop metaphor and his suggestion that wrapping the goods in bubble wrap is probably the wrong approach.

We also have those flags at a crosswalk in Menlo Park. When the transportation department in Longmont, CO tried to set up something similar along Main Street 2003, the local motorists went nuts about how much they'd be impeded by those dangerous pedestrians who dare to walk across the street.

@Dottie - I do the same thing, walk in a crosswalk directly in the path of a car. I playfully run my finger across the hood if they encroach into the crosswalk zone.

Anonymous said...

First time I saw a flagged intersection was Ketchum, Idaho on a busy main st. People used them routinely to cross a busy 4-lane road and they worked fine. I thought Berkeley's adoption of the idea. They may work best on busy urban street that otherwise has lots of foot traffic, reducing flag theft. And what do you do with a big orange plastic flag anyway?

Adrienne Johnson said...

Solution- just take off your clothes and cross the street. Everyone stops for naked people : )

Anonymous said...

Don't be silly, they never were at more than a few especially dangerous intersections, and everyone laughed them off the street from the very beginning. I've never actually seen one (having variously worked and lived there since).

That said, pedestrians running around at night out of crossings and dressed in head-to-toe black are perhaps a bit foolhardy as well.. There's victim blaming, and then there's giving the other side a chance.

And to be entirely fair to Berkeley, the traffic-calming measures they put in place in the 70s were very effective and still function very well to keep cars down in the neighborhoods, both in numbers and in speed. Can't be helped if they got some flag-waving fools on the city council since.

niels said...

Beyond sick, if you ask me - Also saw similar flags in 2004 in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Great blog btw.

Cottenham Cyclist said...

Why didn't they use the more appropriate white flag ? ... Help! Don't hit me! I surrender!