In this blog, we've talked a lot about trail crossings and crosswalks -- here, here and here are a few posts, there's lots more. The underlying problem is that trails were added onto an existing road system without any thought as to how they would interact with the existing physical and legal infrastructure. Traffic engineers want to assign right of way to traffic on the road when a trail crosses a road, but there's two problems with that. First, under current laws they have very limited means for doing that. In both DC and Virginia cyclists using a crosswalk have the rights and duties of pedestrians, and the only duty of a pedestrian at an uncontrolled crossing is to avoid entering the road so suddenly that traffic is unable to yield. The only traffic controls which apply to pedestrians are walk/don't walk lights, or traffic lights in their absence. The only way to remove pedestrian right of way at a cross walk is to install a traffic light. Traffic lights are expensive, so engineers try to circumvent the law by putting up stop signs, which leads to a dangerous situation where right of way is ambiguous.
In my browsing I happened upon this post at a dot.gov discussion group for traffic engineers, where the subject came up. The thread starts with a sentence that would be a great opening for a novel:
Sometimes you know what something means and then you get confused
when you read the definition.
One guy on the thread gets it:
Doesn't marking the crosswalk and having STOP signs on the trail confuse the right-of-way assignment?
Bingo! And then he offers a solution:
If the crosswalk lines were not marked and MUTCD (and state laws) were changed, the right-of-way assignment would be much clearer (my opinion).
You don't even have to change the law -- just remove the crosswalk markings. This guy gets it -- crosswalks aren't there to show pedestrians how to get to the other side, they are a signifier that pedestrians have right of way. Without them the crossing becomes a mid-block crossing without a crosswalk, something all local codes recognize. At a mid-block crossing, pedestrians may cross, but they must yield to all traffic in the road.
Cyclists should welcome the removal of crosswalk lines. Sure, we lose technical right of way, but no one could say we really benefit from it now. By removing the ambiguity safety would be improved. Most important, it starts a conversation about treating cyclists and pedestrians as stakeholders in the transportation system that need to be accommodated, not just as impediments to automotive traffic. When traffic engineers truly practice their craft, right of way assignments are made from traffic volumes not from traffic types. I suspect there are some trail crossings along the Capital Crescent Trail where trail volume is greater than road volume, and there we have a legitimate argument that they should be controlled to give right of way to trail users.
Finally, what are the rights and duties of cyclists at mid-block crossings? I don't even dare speculate. That's an entirely new question.