A Tale of Two Corners

The corners in question

Two intersections that I pass on my daily commute offer vastly different pedestrian experiences.  Walking vaguely north-ish on 3rd St N in the North Loop you first encounter 6th Ave N, where despite the stop signs giving priority to cars on 6th over their automotive brethren on 3rd, I experience the most consistent yielding to pedestrians of any unsigned, unpainted crosswalk in the city.  Yet the next block up, at 7th Ave N, cars consistently fail to yield despite the crossing being “with” the stop signs.  Here are a few reasons I speculate may be behind the unusual level of respect at one corner, and the egregious level of disrespect at the next:

A day in the life

  • Built form.  The intersection at 6th has 5-8 story buildings planted at all four corners, leading to a sense of enclosure rarely felt in our parking lot-pocked metropolis.  It may be that this atmosphere leads motorists to conclude that they’re in a real city, where rules of pedestrian priority apply.  In contrast, at 7th the buildings are mostly lower, though one corner holds a tall 8-story warehouse that extends the full block to 6th, two corners are populated by 2-story buildings, and one corner has been cleared of all structures so cars can be stored there.  Could it be that this low- or no-rise environment results in an assumption of automotive priority?  Do drivers get distracted by the bright blue sky?

    North Loop living at Scylla Lofts and Charybdis Flats

  • Tension and release.  At 7th, motorists coming from the north have just passed from between two 7-story buildings to get to this lower-slung corner.  As sailors have known for centuries and Frank Lloyd Wright introduced to architecture, traffic moving through a constrained area will tend to speed up, and it’s possible that the same principle applies here, speeding cars through to and beyond 3rd St N on the momentum encouraged by passing through the narrow space between two tall buildings.  Of course, as I mentioned above, there are tall buildings at 6th as well, but as 6th is a wider street than 7th, perhaps proportion leads motorists to perceive the buildings on 7th as taller than their neighbors on 6th.
  • Street design.  As I just mentioned, 6th (the courteous street) is wider than 7th (the discourteous one), which is an outcome we wouldn’t expect if we follow the maxim Wider=Faster.  These corners also defy the logic of woonerven or shared spaces, as in this case the users are less courteous on 7th, which is not delineated by striping or even very many signs (except for the stop sign).  Strictly speaking, the same is true of 6th, but this street is effectively striped by its patches of asphalt and bare brick.
  • Street texture.  Speaking of, I always assume pavement texture affects the way people drive – it seems like adding roughness is a sure-fire way to get people to slow down, and sure enough on these corners 7th is paved with (somewhat) smooth asphalt while 6th has brick pavers – but only on half the street.  On the side of 6th that is paved with asphalt I experience as much yielding as on the other side.
  • Street connectivity.  These being Avenues in the North Loop, neither 6th nor 7th is especially connective.  7th extends to just the two blocks centered on 3rd St, although I sort of suspect that that could be a contributor to rude driving – most motorists are only there because they’re lost, so they’re too busy trying to figure out where they are to watch for pedestrians, or else they realize they missed their turn and they’re cruising back to where ever they’re late getting to.  6th is more connective, since it technically extends to Olson Hwy.  It terminates a block north of 3rd, though, and thanks to a combination of a small rise and the 4th St Viaduct, it appears to terminate within a block or so south of 3rd as well.  It’s possible this appearance of non-connectivity cuts down on attempts to cut through, while the actual connectivity discourages the selfish confusion seen on 7th.

    The real dock street

  • Street use.  All this analysis may come down to one thing: how the street is used.  In the North Loop, streets have traditionally been used for loading docks.  Both 6th and 7th still have loading docks on them, but while on 7th the truck loads parallel to the street along the curb, on 6th the loading is done perpendicularly, so it’s not uncommon for a semi to stretch across the roadway and leave enough room for only one car at a time to go past.  This would of course be a clue that you’re not on a typical barrel-through-and-ignore-your-surroundings roadway, so maybe a typical reaction is to be more courteous to fellow users.

It seems like for the decades we’ve been pouring money into roads, very few have stopped to think about how design affects the behavior of users.  It wasn’t until the 70s that Hans Monderman in Holland may have been the first to buck this trend and actually put his theories of transport psychology into practice.  The concept of the woonerf is dependent on touchy-feely theories of design or psychology, so while it’s been popular on the continent and even spread to parts of Britain, the American road engineering establishment, the early successes of which depended on a veneer of scientificity, has not been receptive.  Chucking the old familiar signs and stripes may be a radical change, but it’s just as radical to assume that after millenia of engineering and design co-existing and cooperating in built environments, the roadway is the first human structure that has no need of design.  So you may not agree with my observations and conclusions about these particular corners – and if you don’t, or have something to add, please do so in the comments – but I hope you agree that the field of transport psychology needs more attention.

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