Why Won’t Milwaukee Drivers Yield to Pedestrians?

Why being a pedestrian in Milwaukee is so dang hard, and how to gain an edge

If alien visitors arrived in Milwaukee and took a look around, they’d probably get some mixed-up ideas about the state’s traffic laws. Seemingly defenseless life-forms move up and down concrete pathways and scurry out of the way of big metal boxes called automobiles, a superior race.

To the human eye that’s actually paying attention, Milwaukee’s traffic dynamics appear no less dystopian. At 6:30 on a Tuesday evening in April, a bag-toting woman waited for eight vehicles to speed in front of her before skittering nervously across East Brady Street at North Arlington Place. Over the next half-hour, during 58 interactions between pedestrians in crosswalks and cars with time to stop, cars yielded on 17 occasions as required by state law.

This busy intersection surrounded by bars, restaurants and a tea shop isn’t an outlier. According to a recent study, it’s above average, if anything. In our otherwise neighborly city, “The current social norm is for drivers not to yield,” says Robert James Schneider, an associate professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee who was part of a team that studied driver-pedestrian relations here. “People are afraid to walk across the street.” He estimates that only about one in five drivers will stop if given the chance. During our Brady Street investigation, the rate was about one in three.

To study the problem, the research team fanned out to 20 busy intersections spread across the North, East and South sides amid rush periods on weekday evenings. Out of a total of 364 opportunities to yield, drivers did so only 60 times, or 16 percent. The presence of painted crosswalks or crosswalk signs at the intersections made no serious difference, nor did the age or gender of the pedestrian. Cars yielded somewhat more often to white pedestrians, but the study warns that factors other than race could be responsible for the difference. Narrow roads tended to help by putting pedestrians closer to drivers, as did lower speed limits. Brady Street is both narrow and relatively slow moving.

So, what can be done? Schneider points to a program in Gainesville, Florida, that increased driver yield rates at crosswalks from 50 percent to about 80 percent in just a few years. At the heart of the initiative was more aggressive enforcement by police – once drivers knew they could get in trouble, they followed the law. Even after the project ended in 2011, yield rates didn’t backslide and stayed more or less the same.

Efforts in Wisconsin have remained smaller in scale. Sting operations funded by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation used plainclothes police decoys to cross streets, and cops pulled over vehicles that failed to yield. A potentially more impactful initiative is underway at the Milwaukee Department of Public Works, where officials are working on a pedestrian master plan with the objective of making walking more safe, comfortable and enjoyable. The document, scheduled for release this summer, could change how the city builds streets or enforces laws.

“The current social norm is for drivers not to yield. People are afraid to walk across the street.” 

— Robert James Schneider, associate professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee

Comparing Milwaukee’s yield rate to those in other cities isn’t yet possible, according to Schneider. But another study he was involved in suggests that the Midwest’s overall record is the worst in the country. Researchers asked local transportation officials across the U.S. to estimate how often cars stop for pedestrians. Only in the Midwest did the average come out to less than 40 percent. The West Coast did notably better (about 60 percent), and the East Coast fell somewhere between the two.

Ultimately, much of the responsibility for pedestrian safety rests with drivers, Schneider says, and a culture change is needed to protect the fragile humanoids of Milwaukee. Cars, he says, “are the ones traveling with the opportunity to yield.”

Cross talk

How to make like a chicken and cross the road – safely

1. Step into the street when you first approach a crosswalk. Drivers are more likely to stop if you’re assertive and they know for sure you aren’t waiting for a bus.
2. Signal you want to cross – gesture, point, motion.
3. If someone stops for you, don’t wave them on. This is not the time to be charitable. Stick to the rules.
4. If crossing multiple lanes, check that each one is safe. State law makes it illegal to pass a vehicle that has stopped for a pedestrian.
5. Reinforce good behavior. Wave, smile or give a thumbs-up to drivers who stop.

“Survival of the Swiftest” appears in the June 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 28th, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.