State Law Requires You To Stop for Pedestrians

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A couple of
years ago, the city of Boulder, Colorado decided to install new
crosswalks for pedestrians to accommodate the large number of student-pedestrians
who walk from local neighborhoods to the University of Colorado
campus. These were no ordinary crosswalks, however, because the
city of Boulder decided not to place these new crosswalks at intersections
where one would expect pedestrians to cross streets. They also decided
against erecting pedestrian bridges or digging pedestrian tunnels
over or under the streets. Instead, in a fit of bureaucratic idiocy
worthy of Bismarck, the city of Boulder decided to construct crosswalks
across the middle of the busy streets surrounding campus.

Here's
how Boulder's new crosswalks work. Pedestrians who want to cross
one of the busy streets surrounding campus approach one of the new
crosswalks. As they approach, traffic whizzes by at 30 miles per
hour, because there are neither stop signs nor traffic lights at
the crosswalk. When the pedestrian reaches the crosswalk, he presses
a button on a sign which lights up three flashing yellow light bulbs
on the crosswalk sign. These flashing yellow lights are meant to
signal to drivers that a pedestrian is crossing, and that they must
immediately stop in the middle of the road to allow the pedestrian
to cross. The pedestrian then crosses the road after having (hopefully)
stopped both directions of traffic.

The extreme
absurdity and danger of these crosswalks is hard to convey in words.
You really need to see them in action (or, better still, cross
one of them) in order to grasp how idiotic and reckless the city
of Boulder really was in constructing them. These crosswalks are
extremely dangerous, in the first place, because they employ flashing
yellow lights rather than red lights to stop drivers. I hate to
break it to the anti-car tree-huggers in Boulder, but red lights
mean "stop" to drivers in this country, whereas yellow
only means "slow" or "caution." Drivers who
have never been to Boulder surely cannot be expected to know a
priori that three flashing yellow lights mean "Stop: people
are walking into moving traffic."

Another
problem that should have been obvious to the city of Boulder stems
from the fact that it snows in Colorado. One would have imagined
that it would have occurred to the city that it is mind-numbingly
stupid to set up crosswalks through moving traffic in places where
snow and ice make braking difficult. Add to this the fact that it
is difficult to see pedestrians in the snow or the dark, (yes, pedestrians
can walk out into moving traffic at these crosswalks even after
dark), and you have a recipe for inevitable vehicle-pedestrian collisions.

Still another
problem results from the congestion that these crosswalks cause
in the city. Even a single pedestrian has the ability to stop all
cars for several seconds as he crosses the street, and this occurs
every few minutes throughout the day. The effect of this constant
stopping of traffic should be obvious; it has increased congestion
dramatically, particularly in winter. (Boulder is known as a car-hating
city, and this inconvenience to drivers was surely part of the appeal
of the crosswalks to the green bureaucrats working for the city).

I would like
to make a prediction. I predict that it is just a matter of time
before a pedestrian is killed or seriously injured at one of Boulder's
new crosswalks. I further predict that when this inevitable event
occurs, the bureaucrats and politicians responsible for the creation
of these crosswalks will not be held criminally responsible for
the accident. This will be a moral outrage, and it is one of the
most disgusting features of the socialization of roads. Politicians
and bureaucrats are always insulated from being held responsible
for recklessly creating dangerous roads.

It would be
easy to view Boulder's new crosswalks as a lesson to voters to select
more capable politicians to take care of important things like roads.
This view would be shockingly naïve. The problem in Boulder
is ultimately not that there exist brazenly stupid and myopic politicians
and bureaucrats in charge of road design (even though it is clear
that Boulder's politicians and bureaucrats are indeed both
mind-bogglingly stupid and myopic). Instead, the problem stems from
the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, we Americans have come
to believe that roads have to be provided by the State. There is
absolutely no rational basis for this belief. On the contrary, we
Americans recognize that when the state takes over the provision
of other goods, both the quality and supply of those goods will
decline. Why do we not recognize that the same principle holds for
roads? Do you think a private road provider would be willing to
risk the liability of constructing pedestrian crosswalks through
moving traffic? Of course not. Not only are such crosswalks pointless
and absurd, but the criminal and civil liability inherent in constructing
them would discourage even the thought of creating them.

The lesson
to be learned from Boulder is that whenever roads are provided by
the state, we can expect to receive both more dangerous and heavily
congested roads than if they were provided by profit-driven entrepreneurs.
If we ever want to truly rectify either the mortally dangerous state
of our roads, or rage-inducing congestion most of us confront every
day, then we're going to have to give up on road socialism.

P.S. If you
have a son or daughter attending the University of Colorado, Boulder,
I suggest you tell them (like you did when they were four years
old), to cross streets at intersections.

October
7, 2006

Mark R.
Crovelli [send him mail]
is a graduate student in the department of political science at
the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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