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For more than 20 years, Utah’s capital city has endeavored to make its notoriously wide streets safer with bandana-sized, fluorescent orange flags placed in buckets at crosswalks across town.
A pedestrian is meant to grab one, wave it at oncoming cars and make to the other side of the street unscathed.
Since officials introduced the flags downtown, the banners have proliferated, ballooning to more than more than 300 registered locations around town and carving out a place in Salt Lake City culture as either useful tools, novelty items or a source of disdain for people who want roads be safe enough to cross without them.
At a couple hundred dollars to install, Salt Lake City believes these flag stations are a cost-effective way to make drivers better see pedestrians and keep them safer.
Yet, it’s become increasingly dangerous to walk or bike in Salt Lake City, according to traffic data obtained from the Police Department. This year alone began with a series of auto-pedestrian crashes, just days after Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced the city would join the “Vision Zero” campaign to reduce traffic violence. By then, the City Council had already voted to reduce speed limits on many local streets to 20 mph after a series of fatal crashes in May.
In line with those efforts, the city is also reinvesting in its crosswalk flag program, city transportation engineer Dan Bergenthal said. In part, to make sure each existing station is actually equipped with flags.
Advocates with the local advocacy organization Sweet Streets say the flags are at best a band-aid solution to dangerous roads. Reid Ewing, a University of Utah professor of city and metropolitan planning, is less optimistic.
“I don’t want to rule them out entirely,” he said, noting, “they probably don’t do a lot of harm. But there is a belief among traffic engineers that they give people a false sense of security.”
“You may have the best of intentions,” Ewing continued, “but if you create a false sense of security for pedestrians, that works against safety.”
Why orange flags?
The flags were first introduced to Salt Lake City more than 20 years ago, after the city’s then-newly formed pedestrian safety committee heard a pitch from a council member who had recently visited the smaller city of Ketchum, Idaho, and noticed similar flags at crosswalks. The committee opted to give it a try.
The local program initially launched downtown — since more people walked there — and was considered a success, Bergenthal said. Soon, residents and business owners outside the city center began reaching out to set up flags in their neighborhoods, and the city began working with schools to place flags near campuses.
Each flag costs about $2. As they degrade, are stolen or otherwise disappear, either community sponsors or the city pays to replace them, though that doesn’t always happen. Multiple people told The Salt Lake Tribune they’ve seen empty canisters at flag locations in their neighborhoods.
These days, most flag stations are sponsored by community members or businesses. And most are located on the east side.
The greatest concentration of city-sponsored flags are in downtown and Central City. Sugar House in particular has the most flags of any neighborhood, with 56. The vast majority of its flags are sponsored by volunteers.
Bergenthal said Salt Lake City’s famously wide streets make the flags “especially effective” here. He pointed to a 2006 study by the Texas Transportation Institute that analyzed crosswalk flag locations locally and in Kirkland, Washington, which showed an average of 65% of drivers yielded to pedestrians during staged crosswalk crossings. When members of the public used the flags, an average of 74% of drivers stopped.
On average, more drivers yielded for pedestrians with flags than for pedestrians without them, even when those pedestrians used crosswalks with high-visibility signs and markings, overhead flashing amber beacons or median refuge islands, according to the 2006 study. A spokesperson for the Texas Transportation Institute couldn’t find any follow-up research on crosswalk flags.
Some crossing treatments performed better than flags in that study — like high-intensity activated crosswalk signals — but all cost significantly more than flags. One such “HAWK” signal costs between between $100,000 and $150,000, Bergenthal said.
“Boy, you could do a lot of crosswalk flags for the price of one HAWK signal,” he said.
He also said the flags really work — giving drivers a clear signal that someone intends to cross the road. In response to a reader-callout about the flags, some pedestrians told The Tribune that the flags made them feel safer crossing streets, especially at night.
Ewing, the U. professor, read the Texas study differently and noted compliance rates for people carrying flags varied, with some below 50%.
“Would you trust your kid with a flag when driver yield compliance rates are 46 to 79 percent?” he said in an email, noting that HAWK signal compliance rates are more like 90 percent. “There is no substitute for a red light.”
What do pedestrians think?
Bison Messink, who lives near Trolley Square, said he mostly uses the flags ironically when friends or family are in town. They think they’re “hilarious,” he said, and will often pull them out and “parade around with them.”
The only time Messink uses them, he admitted, is when he’s “trying to get a rise out of someone,” noting that the program asks pedestrians “to take absurd measures to protect themselves rather than doing anything to inconvenience the cars.”
Adam Cook lives on the west side, near Glendale Middle School, and said he regularly sees drivers speed through California Avenue on the way to Interstate 15.
“You see people basically treating the neighborhood like it’s their highway first and the place people live second,” he said.
While he doesn’t use the flags, he said if he had kids, he’d prefer they use them. Even then, he would still worry when they crossed the road.
”It feels like people don’t care enough,” he said. “The cars keep getting bigger, people keep staying the same size. And so the idea that the solution to that is, ‘Well, I should wear a flashing light on my head; I should carry I flag; I should have to shoot a military flare into the air’” seems misguided, he said.
Cook continued, ”People should ultimately be able to walk around their neighborhoods.”
Indeed, some who responded to The Tribune’s callout reported near-misses with drivers who didn’t stop for them, despite waving a flag.
That’s part of the issue, said Taylor Anderson, with Sweet Streets. The flags assume visibility is the reason drivers aren’t yielding. The problem is more complicated.
What about more effective solutions?
Ewing, the U. transportation professor, lives near a series of crossing flags in the lower Avenues. He said he’s only ever seen a few people use them. And even then, they don’t slow traffic.
“It’s demeaning,” Anderson said. “You’re basically taking the responsibility from the person driving a multi-ton vehicle and placing it on the most vulnerable person in society, which is just a person trying to live, trying to exist.”
He said the flags were more of a “symptom” of Salt Lake City’s wide roads “than a solution.”
“But it’s also like wearing a helmet while you’re riding a bike,” Anderson said. “It’s not the law, it’s not required and it shouldn’t necessarily be expected. But if it makes you feel more comfortable, go ahead and do it.”
Traffic-calming measures like speed humps, roundabouts or reducing lanes are a better way to keep pedestrians safe, Ewing argued, because the effect on drivers is “physical” instead of “psychological,” since the infrastructure forces them to slow down.
The good news: The city has plans to install some of those traffic-calming measures as part of its Livable Streets program, with a particular focus on west-side communities.
The bad news: There’s not yet a timeline for when residents will see those changes in their neighborhoods, city transportation planner Laura Stevens said.
Still, she hopes the new infrastructure will help make up for the lack of orange flags on the west side, where many residents work multiple jobs and may not have the time or money to sponsor crosswalk flags.
In the meantime, as the city reinvests in the flag program, Bergenthal said workers will asses which locations are still functioning, which sponsors have opted out, and work to promote it again.
But how much those flags are used depends on people’s willingness to grab one.
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