Mixed reviews for MOTU’s snarky new pedestrian safety campaign

“A driver hits a pedestrian once every five hours in the city of Philadelphia,” says Ema Yamamoto, of the Mayor’s office of Transportation and Utilities.

Standing at the corner of Cecil B. Moore and Broad Street this morning, Yamamoto, the project manager for the city’s pedestrian education and enforcement program, introduced MOTU’s new public safety ad campaign, “It’s Road Safety, Not Rocket Science” that’s meant to educate motorists, and pedestrians, and cyclists about the rules of the road.

“In 2013 alone we saw more than 1800 pedestrians hit by drivers,” she said, “These are shocking statistics. Injuries and fatalities caused by traffic crashes are not mundane, and they should not be an acceptable part of our lives here in Philadelphia.”

The intersection of Cecil B. Moore and Broad was selected for a reason: between 2008 and 2013, 13 pedestrians were hit by cars there. And it sits within one of three zones the city has identified as high-crash corridors that they’re targeting for stepped-up road user education and enforcement: Broad Street from Race to Lehigh,  Market Street from 5th to 22nd, and the area around the Olney transportation center. 

Check out Azavea’s map of pedestrian crash locations between 2008 and 2013, and click on the dots to see how many pedestrians were hit there, and read our analysis of the city’s most dangerous intersections:

PennDOT released a report this week that found traffic fatalities falling to a new low statewide, but rising 9% in Philadelphia.

“Since 2001, pedestrian crashes have fallen by 25% statewide,” said Brad Rudolph, safety press officer for PennDOT’s District 6 office, “but here in Philadelphia we’ve seen a spike in those numbers in recent years.”

To combat this trend, in the spring of 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded PennDOT and the City of Philadelphia a two-year “Pedestrian Focus Cities” grant to conduct a public education campaign aimed at reducing pedestrian crashes and fatalities across the city.

Since Christine Fisher covered the campaign when it was first announced in 2013, MOTU has released more details about the enforcement and education components of the campaign.

Police have been issuing warnings to pedestrians, and warnings and citations to motorists, in the high-crash corridors since October. Failure to yield citations are $50.

Also, by now you’ve probably seen some of the snark-laden campaign posters bearing common-sense road safety tips that are destined for over 1,100 buses, trolleys, and transit shelters throughout the city. If not, you can check some of them out on the website, along with some new videos produced for the campaign.

You may have guessed from the branding that PennDOT and MOTU’s goal is to reach 18-34 year olds. There’s a reason for that: people in this age group are most frequently the victims and the perpetrators of pedestrian crashes.

“They make up 40% of the drivers who hit pedestrians and 30% of the pedestrians who are hit by drivers,” says Yamamoto.

Interestingly, all of the new videos are focused on pedestrians’ bad habits, not motorists’. And that emphasis on pedestrians has been causing some consternation about the campaign on urbanist Twitter

Local transportation planner Victoria Harris has been one of the campaign’s most vocal critics on social media, arguing that the framing unhelpfully draws an equivalence of culpability between motorists and pedestrians.

“The campaign is unfortunate,” she wrote in an email, “It misses the real reason we have safety issues in traffic. Certainly everybody is responsible for paying attention to their surroundings. But a car can kill people. Drivers should be a million times more the focus of this campaign because a driver bears the responsibility for not killing people. Distraction is a problem, yes, but in Philadelphia more people are hit by aggressive drivers than distracted ones.”

Norman Garrick, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Connecticut and a board member of the Congress for New Urbanism, agrees with Harris that equating driver and pedestrian misbehavior is mistaken, and he’s seen the same issue cropping up in some other cities who received the federal pedestrian safety money (though notably not New York City which has conspicuously put the greatest onus on motorists.)


“In a lot of these situations, equal blame is apportioned to people in cars and people who are walking,” he said, “Walkers are blamed for not crossing at the right place, or not using the sidewalk. Most people behave in a way that is natural to how the place is designed. If you don’t have appropriate sidewalk infrastructure or crosswalks, people take shortcuts. If you design a place where people can drive fast, then people drive fast.”


Garrett also raised a common theme from the Vision Zero campaigns in New York and San Francisco: city streets should be designed so that predictable human mistakes aren’t fatal.


“If other people are walking with their cell phones,” he said,”I don’t think the outcome of that action should necessarily be people being killed. If you’re in an urban place like Center City, the outcome of the walking and using cell phones is that you delay somebody else and they get annoyed. It’s not fatal, so focusing on that is I think the wrong way to go.”


I asked Yamamoto about this critique of the It’s Road Safety campaign, and while she understood the perspective, she doesn’t see the campaign as apportioning blame so much as laying down some norms for all users, one component of which is pedestrian alertness in the age of smartphones.

“I appreciate that sentiment,” she said, “And we really recognize that in the urban area, it is important to really focus on distracted driving behavior because if people are driving a three-ton vehicle, they shouldn’t be texting on their phone. I totally agree. But in addition to that, pedestrians also need to be reminded to look up and really be aware of their surroundings. The national conversation has been about distracted driving. We don’t ever hear about distracted walking, in terms of the type of media campaign the NHTSA has put on.”

Yamamoto also pointed out that while the federal money is specifically for a public education and enforcement campaign, there are other state and city initiatives addressing safety issues from an engineering standpoint. She cited the Streets Department’s installation of more than 500 pedestrian countdown signals and the retiming of more than 2400 intersections to favor safe pedestrian crossings.


And she also noted that the state’s Automated Red Light Enforcement camera program designs and implements safety devices throughout the city of Philadelphia, like the modern roundabouts we wrote about recently.

Ema has supplied PlanPhilly with some shapefiles of complete streets changes MOTU has made during the Nutter administration, which we’ll be sharing in the near future. 

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