Sunday, June 1, 2014

Legally Blocking the Crosswalk?

The first question on anybody's mind is surely: What kind of jerk parks in the crosswalk?

The more important question is: Why would New York City, a place that relies so heavily on walking, enact regulations to make it legal?

In 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) quietly changed the parking rules to allow drivers to block unmarked crosswalks at T-intersections.

According to the New York City Department of Transportation
it is legal to park in the locations indicated with red circles.
Source: NYC DOT

The rationale has never been particularly clear, but it appears NYC DOT was under pressure from politicians from the more auto-oriented parts of the city to allow more parking. The parking constituency was very vocal, and none of the organizations representing pedestrians or the disabled seemed to take notice of this erosion of the pedestrian's ability to simply get across the street. Moreover, professional engineers who should have known better did not speak up. The change makes intersections more dangerous and undermines legal protections for pedestrians.

Allowing cars to park even closer into the intersection compromises intersection sight distances. Sight distances in much of New York City were already substandard by national engineering guidelines. NYC DOT has developed its own, reduced sight distances in an attempt to maintain a minimum margin of safety without sacrificing much more parking, yet it is still commonplace for intersections to fail to meet even NYC DOT's reduced standards. In recent years, NYC DOT has increasingly used "daylighting," which removes parking spaces near intersections, to provide safer sight distances at targeted locations. This is particularly useful for increasing pedestrian safety. Unfortunately, this parking rule change automatically plunged intersections all over the city into the shadows of poor pedestrian visibility.

The specific legal loopholes that were used to steal crosswalks from the walking public, in order to provide a few more spaces to park private vehicles, is very murky. Digging into the details, it appears the method used to effectuate this little land grab was incomplete for its intended purpose and did more violence to the legal rights and protections of pedestrians than merely forcing them to find a way around cars blocking their crosswalk.

When they changed the regulations, they actually made it illegal for pedestrians to cross the street at these locations!

Let's take a look at some relevant sections of the VAT:
§ 110. Crosswalk. (a) That part of a roadway at an intersection
included within the connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks on
opposite sides of the highway between the curbs or, in the absence of
curbs, between the edges of the traversable roadway. 
§ 1151. Pedestrians' right of way in crosswalks. (a) When
traffic-control signals are not in place or not in operation the driver
of a vehicle shall yield the right of way, slowing down or stopping if
need be to so yield, to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a
crosswalk on the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling, except
that any pedestrian crossing a roadway at a point where a pedestrian
tunnel or overpass has been provided shall yield the right of way to all
(b) No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety
and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is
impractical for the driver to yield.
(c) Whenever any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at any
unmarked crosswalk at an intersection to permit a pedestrian to cross
the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear
shall not overtake and pass such stopped vehicle. 
§ 1202. Stopping, standing or parking prohibited in specified places. (a) Except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic, or when
in compliance with law or the directions of a police officer or official
traffic-control device, no person shall:
1. Stop, stand or park a vehicle:
d. On a cross walk;
Under State law, unmarked crosswalks are specifically recognized and the rights of pedestrians are well established. It may appear that §1202 would allow for parking on a crosswalk if a City law were passed to allow it, but any such law would be incompatible with the requirement under §1151 to yield the right of way to pedestrians. A revision that addressed §1151 was necessary.

To make these changes, New York City had to supersede State law. The City is empowered to override the VAT on some issues, including crosswalks:

§ 1640. Traffic regulations in all cities and villages. (a) The
legislative body of any city or village, with respect to highways (which
term for the purposes of this section shall include private roads open
to public motor vehicle traffic) in such city or village; subject to the
limitations imposed by section sixteen hundred eighty-four may by local
law, ordinance, order, rule or regulation:
3. Regulate the crossing of any roadway by pedestrians.

The solution the City found was to redefine crosswalk in the Traffic Rules in Title 34:
(i) Marked crosswalk. That part of a roadway defined by two parallel lines or highlighted by a pattern of lines (perpendicular, parallel or diagonal used either separately or in combination) that is intended to guide pedestrians into proper crossing paths.
(ii) Unmarked crosswalk. That part of a roadway, other than a marked crosswalk, which is included within the extensions of the sidewalk lines between opposite sides of the roadway at an intersection, provided that (A) the roadway crosses through the intersection rather than ending at the intersection, and/or (B) all traffic on the opposing roadway is controlled by a traffic control device. 
By removing the crosswalk status from t-intersections (that is, where the roadway ends at the intersection), pedestrians no longer have the right of way, and vehicles can be allowed to park there. There is a modicum of engineering rationale here, since it is not very safe for pedestrians to cross at locations with inadequate sight distances. This solution is incomplete, though, since pedestrians still maintain the right of way at all-way stops, but the NYC DOT parking rule allows vehicles to block these locations, leaving an unresolved conflict between the VAT and the City's Traffic Rules.

Of course, pedestrians do not know crossing t-intersections is illegal, and the NYPD is not out there writing jaywalking tickets for crossing the street there. The presence of curb ramps inviting pedestrians to cross at many of these corners, combined with the obscurity of the rule that makes the crossing illegal, would probably provide more than enough grounds for any ticket that was ever written to be tossed by a judge anyway. With no hint of any compliance with the prohibition against crossing, the engineering rationalization that this solution is safe lacks any operational validity.

On the bright side, the actual incidence of drivers parking in these locations remains sporadic. More often than not, the curb ramps are not actually blocked by parked cars, even though the drivers could get away with it. Some of this may be due to an effort to be respectful of pedestrians, but I suspect it is more the result of a general lack of knowledge that parking is actually allowed. Although NYC DOT has the illustration of these parking spaces on its website, it is not a widely-known fact. I only became aware of it a little while after the rule was changed, because my Community Board received complaints from drivers who knew about the new rule and had received summonses from Traffic Enforcement Agents who did not know about it yet. The fact that a sizable share of those who do, in fact, park in these locations use NYPD placards further indicates that the legality of parking in these locations is not widely known, even among those charged with enforcing parking regulations.

There is one final problem: the legal provisions that now obscurely prohibit pedestrians from crossing the street in intuitive locations could undermine the prosecution of any drivers who hit pedestrians crossing in these locations. The ability of a driver's defense attorney to state that the pedestrian was "crossing the street illegally" when struck by the driver could substantially bolster his defense.

The notion that pedestrians would be pushed aside to provide a few more free parking spaces is offensive enough. The fact that intersections were made more dangerous for pedestrians with so little benefit to anybody else is shocking. Creating a situation that would allow bad drivers to blame their victims for merely trying to get across the street alive is just too outrageous.

This parking rule never should have been introduced in the first place. Since it is not widely known and somewhat sparsely used, it would be hard for any pro-auto groups to claim that it infringed on their "rights." It is time to restore the legal status of crosswalks and ensure that pedestrians can cross the street conveniently, with the full recognition and protection of the law.


  1. I didn't know about this rule until I saw a car parked in front of one of these ramps near my apartment with a sign in the window that read "Attention NYC Traffic Enforcement Officers: It is legal to park here!" And then outlined the specific rule.

  2. I don't believe this is entirely correct. Pedestrians are allowed to cross the street outside of crosswalks (except on blocks bounded by signalized intersections) - they just don't have the legal right-of-way. (As if motorists ever grant pedestrians the right-of-way where there are actual crosswalks.)

    An article from 2009:

    1. NYC Traffic Rules only allow pedestrians to cross the street within a crosswalk at intersections. Since these locations at t-intersections are no longer legally crosswalks, it would be illegal to cross there.

      Title 34
      Department of Transportation Chapter 4
      Traffic Rules

      Section 4-04
      (c) Restrictions on crossings.
      (2) No pedestrian shall cross any roadway at an intersection except within a crosswalk.

    2. Thanks. I stand corrected.