Safety climate, not just pedestrian infrastructure, affects walking behavior

By Chris McCahill

To get people on foot adhering to traffic rules, according to one new study, road designers likely need to consider not only the immediate walking environment (sidewalks and crossings) but also the entire traffic safety climate of an area. According to the study, pedestrians tend to break the rules and make mistakes more often when they perceive city traffic as less “safe” and less “harmonious.”

For the study, the research team collected more than 300 questionnaires in the city of Anshun, China. The way they designed their study, they were able to gather information on three distinct factors:

  • Pedestrian behaviors and transgressions, such as how likely people are to cross the street between parked cars or stopped traffic.
  • Pedestrian inconveniences, such as blocked or messy sidewalks, detours, and difficulty crossing the street.
  • Traffic safety climate, which can be described using phrases like “stressful,” “safe,” and “demands fast reactions.”

The link between pedestrian inconvenience and transgressive behavior, identified in this study, is fairly well known. For instance, FHWA research points out that pedestrians are likely to ignore crossing signals if they have to wait for upward of a minute and cities are starting to shorten those wait times.

This study adds another critical link to that relationship, as described by the authors:

We discovered that the effect of the inconvenience pedestrians perceived in city traffic on pedestrian transgressive behavior was fully mediated by the functionality of the traffic safety climate. When pedestrians perceive inconvenience when participating in city traffic, they are inclined to blame the functionality of the traffic system. Because pedestrians regard the functionality of city traffic as less “safe” and less “harmonious”, they tend to deliberately break legal rules or make errors with no intention of violating the law.

This means poor sidewalks and crossings can affect people’s overall perception of traffic safety and cause them to break the rules. Fixing those issues can go a long way. But it also suggests that more holistic design efforts, such as traffic calming projects, can improve people’s attitudes toward the system—and perhaps make them more compliant, even—when they encounter minor inconveniences.