In Bridgeport, Connecticut, city officials are putting a neon spin on pedestrian safety. This week, the city introduced bright yellow pedestrian crossing flags designed to make people in crosswalks more visible to drivers. A handful of one-foot-square flags will be kept in boxes near street crossings. The idea is that pedestrians will pick one up, carry it across the street, and drop it off on the other side.
It's certainly a cheaper plan than redesigning streets to slow traffic and make drivers more aware of pedestrians. And it's a bright yellow sign telling people "the city cares about your safety!"
But it's terrible urban design. It presents yet another (albeit small) impediment to walking. It's neither convenient nor intuitive to have to pick up a flag every time you get to a crosswalk, and then set it back down on the other side of the street. What if you're carrying groceries, and don't have a free hand? It is a literal sign that walking is dangerous, and drivers can't be trusted not to mow down pedestrians. It puts the onus on the pedestrian to be seen, rather than on the driver to watch for people crossing legally with the light.
Moreover, other cities have found flag-crossing programs costly and largely ineffective. Similar programs have been piloted in places like like Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kirkland, Washington, and Metuchen, New Jersey.—with less than stellar results.
In Seattle, where the crossing flag program has been discontinued, the department of transportation observed that "having a flag available does seem to make pedestrians more visible to motorists, however there was not a consistent pattern of improved compliance observed, and some locations were not able to be evaluated due to frequent theft of the flags." In Berkeley, California, a three-year pilot program found similar results: that the system was costly—because people kept stealing the flags—and "did not appear to have a significant effect on pedestrian safety."
But, great for people who want to act out their secret color guard dreams in public space.