Why Aren’t There More Crashes at the Airport?

MSP Terminal 1

MSP Terminal 1

If you have ever witnessed first-hand the glorious vehicular chaos that is dropping off or picking up someone up at a major airport terminal, you may have wondered how there’s not constant, complete system breakdown.

This video of LAX illustrates nicely just how many moving parts there are all around at an airport drop off.

I make this modern day Death Star trench run 4+ times a day driving for Uber, depositing bleary-eyed travelers of the night to the check-in spots for their red eye flights. From a purely transportation planning point of view, the MSP Terminal 1 drop off corridor has all the elements to be a giant game of Human Frogger. Four lanes, any of which can quickly change between travel and parking lanes, cars zigzagging in and out through any opening they can find, and scores of people exiting abruptly from cars and sleepily stumbling across the lanes, their minds fixed on getting through check-in and bracing themselves in anticipation of the body scan. All of this takes place with no traffic control and hardly any traffic signs.

Yet, with all this close quarters movement of people and cars, in my 100+ visits at peak travel time late at night, I have yet to see as much as a fender-bender, let alone a pedestrian strike or major accident. How is this possible? How is there not an ambulance permanently posted on site where they stick the rookie EMTs because, “If they can witness the constant carnage and still keep their nerve, they can handle anything”?

Human Frogger, MSP Edition

Human Frogger, MSP Edition

I have a theory about how this paradox can function, and I think there are a few things transportation planners could apply to the planning of urban streets. As I see it, there are 3 critical elements to this equation.

  1. Speeds are slow. At 15 miles per hour, the speed limit in this area, there is enough time for drivers and pedestrians to process the chaos and confusion around them and avoid accidents. And yet, even at this slow speed, everything still moves along smoothly, people get where they need to go and move along without incident. On a related note, if there were collisions at this speed, the chances of pedestrian deaths would be very low. As this study shows, at even 20 mph, fatalities are quite low. Compare that to just 10 mph faster: at 30 mph, pedestrian fatalities are the result of nearly half of all incidents. Food for thought when posted speed limits and/or operating speeds in even the densest parts of cities is often 30 mph.
  2. Pedestrians and drivers must constantly communicate directly. Without traffic signals, people directing traffic, or even much signage to give guidance, it might be assumed that the system would face gridlock on an almost perpetual basis. But the truth is quite the opposite. Without formal direction, people must rely on one another to signal intentions. This means all parties are more alert and directly focused on others moving around them.
  3. Danger is expected. This one is a little counter-intuitive, but if you have driven around the Cities for long enough, at some point you have driven through an area where pedestrians are likely to wander into the street without warning or even awareness of what they are doing. Maybe it was an area with a lot of bars where drunks shuffle into the streets with as much grace and self awareness as the walking dead, maybe it was in a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants from a land where the car has not yet claimed dominion over the streets. Wherever it was, I would bet it changed your driving behavior. I would bet you became more aware of pedestrians, were more on edge, and ready to slam on the breaks in a split second. It may be annoying, but I guarantee that your hyper alertness made for much safer streets for all. It’s not just your imagination, The Atlantic wrote a nice article describing how safer streets for pedestrians come from making drivers more uncomfortable. As a driver, if you expect danger around every corner, you are more alert and able to react to sudden dangers quickly.

Airport drop-offs are not perfect analogues for city streets; people generally move in one direction and there is not the dynamics of a city street system and its flows and cycles. However, I think the lessons are at least worth trying in urban settings. Sure, slower speed limits, less reliance on traffic control devices, and the heightened awareness brought on by pedestrians that have a greater presence and right in the streets might be annoying to drivers. But what is more important, less annoyance for drivers or far fewer pedestrian fatalities and injuries? And lest you think pedestrians accidents with cars are insignificant in this state, read this.

9 thoughts on “Why Aren’t There More Crashes at the Airport?

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    With this, why aren’t there more driver/pedestrian crashes at the front doors of Target or Costco or Walmart?

    Same reasons.

    1. John Lynch

      The Atlantic article you linked is a good one. I just spent a couple weeks driving in the UK and Ireland for the first time. I can attest to the notion that “the best driver is an unsettled one”. Driving on rural Irish and Scottish roads is a whole different ballgame. There are no shoulders. Stone walls or hedgerows often butt directly up to the edge of the lane. Around every corner, a large truck could be coming your way. You have to be on alert at all times. During the entire trip (I think I drove close to 1000 miles) I was thinking, “This is how people should feel while driving. All the time.” We should be *forced* to feel uncomfortable while piloting an instrument of potential destruction.

      I was also impressed with the abundance of traffic calming structures in every town through which I drove. A simple narrowing of a lane at the edge of a reduced speed limit, pedestrian occupied area makes all the difference. We have a lot to learn.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        I’ve driving a fair amount in the UK and Ireland myself and I know what you mean. I didn’t need a speed limit, because I was rarely comfortable enough to approach it.

        But the local drivers were, which is a factor we have to consider as well. Narrow, winding roads next to a stone wall are great for keeping outsiders at low speeds, but eventually, you get used to it.

  2. Kasia McMahonKasia

    I just happened to see this article today after getting back from a trip to Rome. I wondered this exact same thing! Every street is total chaos yet saw no accidents. The streets there are obviously fairly old and often narrow and are shared by motorcycles (which are allowed to drive in between lanes), peds, strollers, cars, and trucks–yet no accidents or even close calls that I saw.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Zach, excellent post. You are spot on about the danger element. Some of the narrowest and ‘most dangerous feeling’ roads I regularly drive on are in the UK. A total road width of 18′ (between rock berms or hedges – no clear zones for the UK) is normal and less than that not unusual (no center strip with less than 16′ btw). These are their B roads, often posted for 60 MPH and include a number of large semi trucks. Oh, the UK also has one of the safest road systems of all developed countries. The US with our wide strait lanes, shoulders, and clear zones? The most dangerous road system of all developed countries.

  4. Scott

    Kasia nailed it. Take Rome, make the streets narrower, and eliminate sidewalks completely. You have Siena. All the streets are complete streets…with pedestrians, scooters, kids on bikes, and taxis, private cars, city buses, and delivery trucks all sharing the almost exclusively one-way streets. It was fantastic. Cars move cautiously and slowly, as do scooters. Pedestrians move to the side to let cars pass, and the whole thing just fluidly works. Everybody is predictable, and there is constant subtle but real communication that keeps everybody safe.

    Oh, yeah, add in outdoor cafe seating in the streets, as well. Some of the chairs even have reflectors on them!

  5. Diane

    A lack of large vehicles — semis, buses, delivery vans, fire trucks etc. might also be a factor in that smaller vehicles of more similar sizes fit more easily into the open spaces — a predictability factor for drivers and pedestrians. Large vehicles are a challenge for pedestrians and other drivers to see around for turning or lane changes plus harder to perceive speed accurately , making parking & lane changing/lane crossing more difficult.

    In my personal experience, far more as a driver than pedestrian, everybody going the same direction at slower speeds is what makes the system do-able. The second someone guns it or veers suddenly into or out of an opening is what makes me nervous and not wanting to repeat the experience .

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