Some find Salt Lake City’s crosswalk flags “degrading.” Do the drivers actually stop for them?

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For more than 20 years, Utah’s capital has strived to make its notoriously wide streets safer by planting bandana-sized, fluorescent orange flags in buckets at crosswalks across the city.

A pedestrian should grab one, wave it at oncoming cars and get to the other side of the street unharmed.

Since officials introduced the flags downtown, the banners have multiplied, bloated at more than 300 registered locations around the city, and carved a place in Salt Lake City culture, either as useful tools, novelty, or as a resource the contempt for people who want to be safe enough without crossing the streets.

Salt Lake City believes that with a few hundred dollars to install, these flag stations are a cost-effective way to help drivers see pedestrians better and improve safety.

However, according to police department traffic data, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to walk or ride a bike in Salt Lake City. This year alone began with a series of Car-pedestrian crashes just days after Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced the city would join the ‘Vision Zero’ campaign to reduce road violence. By that time, the City Council had already voted to reduce speed limits to 20mph on many local roads following a series of fatal accidents in May.

Consistent with those efforts, the city is also reinvesting in its crosswalk flag program, said city transportation engineer Dan Bergenthal. Partly to ensure that every existing station is actually equipped with flags.

Supporters of the local advocacy group Sweet Streets say the flags are at best a pavement solution for dangerous roads. Reid Ewing, a professor of urban and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, is less optimistic.

“I wouldn’t rule them out entirely,” he said, noting “they probably won’t do much harm. But traffic engineers believe they give people a false sense of security.”

“You may have the best of intentions,” Ewing continued, “but creating a false sense of security in pedestrians is detrimental to safety.”

Why orange flags?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The crosswalk warning device at 200 South on Edison Street on Friday, February 3, 2023. Salt Lake City is investing again in the long-standing bright orange crosswalk flags, but some are wondering how effective they are.

The flags were first introduced in Salt Lake City more than 20 years ago, after the city’s then newly formed Pedestrian Safety Committee heard a pitch from a council member who had recently visited the smaller town of Ketchum, Idaho, and noticed similar flags at crosswalks. The committee decided to give it a try.

The local program originally started downtown — as more people were going there — and was deemed a success, Bergenthal said. Soon, residents and business owners outside of downtown began putting up flags in their neighborhoods, and the city began working with schools to place flags near campus.

Each flag costs about $2. If they deteriorate, are stolen, or otherwise disappear, either the municipality or city will pay to replace them. although that doesn’t always happen. Several people told the Salt Lake Tribune they saw empty canisters at flag locations in their neighborhoods.

Today, most flag stations are sponsored by community members or corporations. And most are on the east side.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The largest concentration of city-sponsored flags is in Downtown and Central City. Sugar House in particular has the most flags of any borough with 56. The vast majority of its flags are sponsored by volunteers.

Bergenthal said Salt Lake City’s famously wide streets make the flags “particularly effective” here. He pointed to a 2006 study by the Texas Transportation Institute analyzing crosswalk locations locally and in Kirkland, Washington, which showed that an average of 65% of drivers gave way to pedestrians at staged crosswalks. When the public used the flags, an average of 74% of drivers stopped.

On average, more drivers yielded to pedestrians with flags than pedestrians without flags, even when they used pedestrians according to the 2006 study, zebra crossings with highly visible signs and markings, overhead flashing yellow beacons, or medium-sized refuge islands. A spokesman for the Texas Transportation Institute could not find any research on crosswalk flags.

Some crossing treatments performed better than flags in this study — such as high-intensity activated crosswalk signals — but all cost significantly more than flags. Such a “HAWK” signal costs between $100,000 and $150,000, Bergenthal said.

“Boy, for the price of a HAWK signal, you could make a lot of crosswalk flags,” he said.

He also said the flags really work – they give drivers a clear signal that someone intends to cross the road. In response to a reader outcry about the flags, some pedestrians told The Tribune that the flags made them feel safer crossing streets, especially at night.

Ewing, the U. professor, read the Texas study differently and found that compliance rates for people carrying flags varied, with some below 50%.

“Would you trust your kid with a flag when driver compliance rates are 46 to 79 percent?” he said in an email, noting that HAWK signal compliance rates are closer to 90 percent. “There is no substitute for a red traffic light.”

What do pedestrians think?

Bison Messink, who lives near Trolley Square, said he mostly uses the flags ironically when friends or family are in town. They think they’re “hilarious,” he said, and will often pull them out and “parade around with them.”

The only time Messink uses them, he admitted, is when he’s “trying to upset someone.” The program urges pedestrians to “take absurd measures to protect themselves rather than do anything to harass the cars.”

Adam Cook lives on the West Side near Glendale Middle School and said he regularly sees motorists speeding down California Avenue on their way to Interstate 15.

“You see how people basically treat the neighborhood like it’s their freeway first and where people live second,” he said.

Although he doesn’t use the flags, he said if he had children he would prefer they used them. even then he would still worry when they crossed the street.

“It feels like people don’t care enough,” he said. “Cars are getting bigger, people stay the same size. And so the idea is that the solution to this is, “Well, I should wear a flashing light on my head; I should carry my flag; I’d have to put a military flare up in the air,'” seems misguided, he said.

Cook continued, “People should finally be able to walk around their neighborhoods.”

In fact, some who responded to The Tribune’s call reported near misses with drivers not stopping for them despite waving a flag.

That’s part of the problem, Taylor Anderson said at Sweet Streets. The flags assume that visibility is the reason drivers don’t back down. The problem is more complicated.

What about more effective solutions?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pedestrian activates a crosswalk warning device before crossing 200 South at Edison Street on Friday, February 3, 2023. Salt Lake City is investing again in its longstanding bright orange crosswalk flags, but some wonder how effective they are.

Ewing, the U. professor of transportation, lives near a set of intersection flags on Lower Avenues. He said he saw few people using them. And even then, they don’t slow down traffic.

“It’s demeaning,” Anderson said. “You’re basically taking the responsibility from the person driving a multi-ton vehicle and putting it on the most vulnerable person in society, who is just a person trying to live and exist.”

He said the flags were more of a “symptom” of Salt Lake City’s wide streets “than a solution.”

“But it’s also like wearing a helmet when riding a bike,” Anderson said. “It is not a law, it is not required and it should not necessarily be expected. But if it makes you more comfortable, then do it.”

Traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, roundabouts or reduced lanes are a better way to protect pedestrians, Ewing argued, because the effect on drivers is “physical” rather than “psychological” as the infrastructure forces them to slow down.

The good news is that the city plans to install some of these traffic calming measures as part of its Livable Streets program. with a particular focus on west-side communities.

The bad news: There’s no timeline yet for when residents will see these changes in their neighborhoods, said the city’s transportation planner, Laura Stevens.

Still, she hopes the new infrastructure will help make up for the lack of orange flags on the West Side, where many residents work multiple jobs and may not have the time or money to sponsor crosswalk flags.

In the meantime, while the city reinvests in the flag program, Bergenthal said workers will review which locations are still functioning, which sponsors have opted out, and work to promote it again.

But how often these flags are used depends on people’s willingness to grab one.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Some find Salt Lake City’s crosswalk flags “degrading.” Do the drivers actually stop for them?

Justin Scaccy

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