Cornell Local Roads Program

Designing for Pedestrian Safety

Thomas Dewar



Thomas Dewar, whiskey distiller,
(1864-1930) remarked, “There are two kinds of pedestrians… the quick and the dead”.

This past May, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) hosted the FHWA’s Designing for Pedestrian Safety workshop. This training is designed for those professionals that have an impact on the pedestrian system: traffic engineers, maintenance personnel, planners, and law enforcement. The workshop is part of an effort to make our highways safer for pedestrians. Peter Eun, FHWA Transportation Safety Engineer ( and Matthew Carmody, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc (VHB) Engineering Director of Transportation ( were the instructors for this two-day presentation which I attended.

people crossing the road at an intersection

In 2011, there were over 4,000 pedestrian fatalities and nearly 70,000 pedestrian injuries nationwide ( while New York State pedestrians experienced 296 fatalities and 15,689 injuries. These pedestrian injury incidents/accidents typically are catastrophic leaving the pedestrian with severe injuries and disabilities. Source

Ralph Waldo Emerson



“The civilized man built the coach,
but has lost the use of his feet”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson 1841

Historically, transportation officials embraced the automobile, analyzing and funding to enhance vehicular safety and capacity while pedestrian needs were overlooked or provided only as an afterthought. Accommodating pedestrian safety and accessibility is an important element because:

Although pedestrian safety and accessibility has been Federal Policy since 1991 (ISTEA), some municipalities are hesitant to accommodate pedestrians fearing an increase liability exposure. That fear is based on the myth that if a municipality is aware of an issue (on notice) and fails to address it, liability exposure is increased. A sound study, plan of action and a post implementation study will reduce your municipality’s liability exposure while providing a safer travel way for your constituents.

Generally, pedestrian safety and accessibility should be an integral element of the planning, design, construction and maintenance (including work zones) of all highways for your municipality. Planners should be looking at the land use, street connectivity, access management and site design to provide for a walkable community.

man walking a dog along a 'goat trail'

Speed is a major factor in both the occurrence and severity of pedestrian incidents/accidents. Curbs and sidewalks define pedestrian activity and do more to slow traffic than speed signs. While providing a shoulder has been shown to improve safety for all users at some point, even in rural settings sidewalks may be needed. A ‘goat trail’ along the roadside indicates that a sidewalk may be needed. Sidewalks reduce pedestrian crash risk by 88 percent. The sidewalk area should be a part of the street, not just an addition.

Ask yourself:

Sidewalk corridors are more than a paved strip. The sidewalk corridor includes the:

Diagram illustrating the different zones in the sidewalk

Source: FHWA

A non-mountable curb defines the edge of the roadway and discourages vehicles from parking in the sidewalk corridor. The Furniture Zone provides the space for utilities, signs, plantings and snow storage, keeping the sidewalk clear. The appearance of the furniture zone can be a traffic calming element that will affect traffic speed. The Pedestrian Zone provides the space for the pedestrians, including people in wheelchairs. New ADA standards will require 4 feet wide sidewalks with 5 feet wide recommended and 6 feet desirable. In a central business district with lots of pedestrians, 8-12 feet width is recommended.

The Frontage Zone provides space for window shoppers, door swing, sidewalk commercial use (e.g. café seating) and planters.




Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side

Street crossings account for the greatest percentage of pedestrian incidents/accidents. Like our chicken friend, pedestrians are trying to get to the other side. Unfortunately, pedestrians often choose convenience over safety. NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law (V&T Law) does not prohibit mid-block crossing and unless prohibited by local statute, (as done in New York City) crossing mid-block is not illegal. Why do pedestrians cross mid-block? Convenience might be one reason, but midblock crossings also present fewer conflicts. However, vehicle speeds may be greater at the mid-block so when a crash does occur, the odds of injury are much greater.

pedestrians and cars interacting along a street

If there is a demand for mid-block crossing it should be accommodated by clearly marking and posting the crossing to identify it to the motorists and pedestrians as a crossing. Crosswalks should be located to provide good sight distance for the pedestrian to see approaching traffic and for traffic to see the pedestrian.

The NYS V&T Law states that a crosswalk exists at every intersection whether marked or not. Although marking a crosswalk identifies the crossing area to the motorist and identifies the crossing for the pedestrian just marking a crosswalk without other treatments may increase pedestrian crashes.

A few common pedestrian facility treatments include:

There are lots of other options such as islands and special beacons that may be useful. All pedestrian treatments should be installed only as a result of an engineering study. That study will ensure that the devices are in compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Black and white photo of an intersection in New York City
Herald Square, NYC. 1936. Source:

In-street pedestrian crossing signs (R1-6 yield) are popular devices. NYS V&T law requires the motorist to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk so the R1-6 stop version (on right in figure below) should not be used in New York State. These in-street signs should be securely mounted to the pavement to minimize the possibility of the sign assembly becoming a projectile.

2 R1-6 signs
In-street pedestrian crossing signs (R1-6)
Note: the sign on the right is not used in New York State

The Pedestrian Crossing sign series may have a fluorescent yellow-green background instead of the standard warning sign yellow. But, when a fluorescent yellow-green background is used, a systematic approach featuring one background color within a zone or area should be used. These non-vehicular warning signs should not be used:

Enhancing a sign’s conspicuity to improve motorists’ compliance can be accomplished by many means including increasing the sign size, double posting, adding warning beacons or adding a retroreflective strip to the sign support.

Enhancement should be used on specific locations rather than as a general installation as over use will diminish the enhancement tool’s impact.

Vehicle speed is a huge pedestrian safety factor. Lower vehicle speed improves pedestrian safety. However, most motorists will travel along a roadway at a speed that they perceive to be safe for the facility and conditions. Posting a lower speed that will only be obeyed with constant enforcement will be perceived by many drivers as harassment and not be effective in the long run. Traffic calming techniques may be useful to help lower vehicle speeds in some cases (

Providing pedestrians with properly installed and maintained facilities will promote safety, encourage pedestrian traffic and support your business community. Although providing your community’s pedestrians with safe travel ways is a positive, the fact is that these endeavors will compete for your limited resources.


Pedestrian safety and planning:

AASHTO Highway Safety Manual:

Complete Streets: Planning Safer Communities for Bicyclists and Pedestrians workshop manual (pdf)

NYSDOT Standard sheets on sidewalk and curb details

FHWA’s web site on sidewalks and trails

Al Bachner, P.E., Safety Circuit Rider, Cornell Local Roads Program


By Al Bachner, P.E., Safety Circuit Rider,
Cornell Local Roads Program

Article Update

Does creating a plan to deal with highway design or safety defects or accommodation issues increase liability?

In the Summer 2014 Nuggets & Nibbles the article ‘Designing for Pedestrian Safety’ stated that it is a “myth that if a municipality is aware of an issue (on notice) and fails to address it, liability exposure is increased.” If a municipality is aware of an issue (or should have been) and does NOTHING liability is actually increased. The myth described in the article is that having a plan that may take a while to implement may increase liability. Liability is not increased if the municipality provides an adequate justification for the delay. Friedman v. State of New York, 67 NY2d 271 (1986).

Having a sound, well thought plan actually decreases liability if the plan is followed. The plan should prioritize which work is done first so repairs and upgrades are made in a systematic way. Just randomly fixing defects is not adequate. To illustrate, let’s look at an example from the article: a demand (or goat) path showing a need for a sidewalk. Once the path has been there long enough to be established as a goat path, it would be clear to most folks that the Town or City should have known about the need to accommodate pedestrians. Having a plan to upgrade the sidewalks (and install new ones) over a reasonable period of time would be defendable in court. Trying to claim you were not aware of the need is likely to fall on deaf ears. Upgrading sidewalks only after complaints might not fix the most critical sections in a reasonable manner. Only having a plan with a well thought out priority for repairs would be reasonable and defendable in court.

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