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