Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Walk This Way: Harrisburg’s streets are unusually dangerous for pedestrians. What can be done?

Illustration by Jonathan Bean.

Evelyn Hunt pointed to the street map sprawling across long tables.

Post-it notes in pink or blue were scrawled with such phrases as “Heavy foot traffic” and “Raised intersection?” Hunt put her finger on the north side of 19th and State streets.

“For some reason, more of the accidents happen on this side versus the other,” she said.

Immediately, a consultant slid a pack of pink Post-its toward her. Wordlessly, he was inviting her to add her observation to the comments accumulating on the map.

In an effort impressive for its swiftness, a phalanx of municipal, regional and state officials is examining how to make Harrisburg-area roads safe for all users. Starting with a particularly deadly stretch from Camp Hill to Harrisburg, the push is on to help motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists move in harmony.


To Zero

The cliché about dangerous roadways is that somebody has to die before government finally steps in.

Maybe five deaths since 2017 along one speedway of a Harrisburg road inspired a shared epiphany. Maybe the senseless death of Cynthia Wilson, apparently crossing State Street for a quick trip to the store, was the last straw. Amid the outcry, the city turned to a Vision Zero Action Plan, vowing for zero roadway fatalities by 2030.

Traditional transportation planning incorporates the three elements of mobility, accessibility and safety, said Harrisburg’s city Engineer Wayne Martin. But safety has taken the proverbial back seat.

“There’s now a national and international shift toward safety being the number-one priority,” he said.

Which explains the sudden elevation of State Street, and hazards citywide, in the public policy agenda.

“Believe me when I say the statistics on State Street should be enough to get past any concerns for travel-time delays and things like that,” Martin said.


Process & Plan

Urban traffic deaths might seem anomalous—after all, city streets aren’t beltways—but the killer component is speed differential, said Martin. Today’s cars are increasingly safe for occupants, but the more drivers exceed speed limits—which peaks on State Street at the close of the work day, according to a Vision Zero finding—the higher the speed difference between the vehicle and the unfortunate walker or bicyclist.

“We know that the auto industry is going to be more advanced,” Martin said. “So, we need to focus on these other road users, because they’re more susceptible.”

Enter Vision Zero. It’s a process and action plan in one. Officials scrutinize crash data and anecdotal evidence to uncover the problem spots. Vision Zero task force meetings attract the full array of agencies responsible for and using city streets: city administration, police, engineering, Capital Area Transit, Harrisburg school district. Because the state owns many of the roadways under scrutiny, including State Street and Front Street, PennDOT is at the table.

“The challenge is, we’re trying to move large volumes of traffic, especially the commuters coming in during the morning,” said PennDOT spokesperson Greg Penny. “How do you balance the interest of moving large volumes of traffic with the interest of providing safety to bicyclists and pedestrians?”

Vision Zero’s rapid response component targets the most troublesome areas first. Road data provide hard evidence, while input from residents, motorists and pedestrians offers real-life perspective. Hence, surveys conducted during rush hours, and community input meetings with maps and Post-it notes, like the one attended by Evelyn Hunt.

“We can look at all the statistics we want about crashes and timing of signals and vehicle volumes and speeds, but that’s not going to pick up a near-miss,” said Martin. “That’s not going to pick up aggressive behaviors. You’re really going to get that from community members.”

Initial solutions are inexpensive and quick to implement, especially compared to pricey, drawn-out construction projects. Upgrades such as line painting “can be done cheaply,” Martin said. State Street’s center lane is a legacy of streetcar days, and its luxurious, 12-foot lanes inspire drivers to put pedal to metal.

“Those lanes don’t have to be 12 feet,” said Martin. “We can definitely get away with 11 or 10. You start narrowing those lanes, it’s a shorter distance for pedestrians to cross, and it slows vehicles down.”

For pedestrians, quick fixes can include uniform lighting to eliminate dark spots, crossing signals flashing countdowns instead of those ambiguous hands and time-delayed signals that provide pedestrians a few seconds to step into crosswalks and be visible to left-turning motorists.

And because pedestrians sometimes—make that often—need encouragement to use crosswalks instead of jaywalking their way through live-action Frogger games, medians can be planted with prickly rose bushes.


Camp to Allison Hill

When it comes to traffic corridors, motorists and pedestrians don’t care who’s responsible for maintenance and safety. The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission is a regional coordinator dispersing federal transportation dollars, and its Harrisburg Area Transportation Study, or HATS, formulates transportation plans for Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties.

A HATS study that now includes Forster Street through State and 15th streets actually started life as a look at the Camp Hill bypass—officially, Cumberland Boulevard. Residents unnerved by the December 2016 death of their friend Diana Davidson, killed by a speeding drunken driver, discovered an alarming string of crash data and asked HATS for a review.

“There are not sidewalks the entire length of our walking community,” said Brett Miller, a Camp Hill resident who, with resident Sherry Bowman, created the Camp Hill Cumberland Boulevard Task Force. With Davidson in mind, the group vows to “make sure this never, ever happens to anybody else,” Miller said.

Harrisburg then asked that the study extend through Forster Street and State Street, with an eye on projects that could alter traffic patterns and deter collisions, whether car-on-car or car-on-pedestrian.

Expected to wrap up in late 2018, the study “will include some medium- and longer-term things to be looking at,” including the “road diets” that slim down wide lanes, said TCRPC Executive Director Steve Deck.

“Some of the ideas we’re proposing are things tried out in other areas and found to be effective. Not perfect, but effective,” he said. “I think people will see some significant improvements even with some short-term stuff that’s happening this year.”

The study earmarks about $300,000 for traffic safety improvements, Deck said. Collaboration among municipalities and agencies is inspired by safety concerns—a “no brainer,” he said. “While there’s some competition in what to do next, typically these organizations want to work together to improve safety.”

Miller speaks highly of the local, regional and state officials involved.

“I applaud the officials who stood up and took notice and did something, because they’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “We’ve talked to people in this field who say they’ve never seen anything move so quickly.”

Enforcement & Education

Nationwide, 49 states allow local police to enforce speed limits using radar. The outlier? Pennsylvania. A bill to put Pennsylvania in step with the other 49 passed the state Senate in November 2017 but, so far, has stalled in the House of Representatives.

Its passage into law is a Vision Zero goal. The topic is “a sore subject with most municipal police offices,” said Harrisburg Police Bureau spokesperson Capt. Gabriel Olivera. The department uses other enforcement methods, including timing devices and speedometers, but personnel shortages mean that officers are stretched too thinly for regular traffic stops.

“We are responding to many, many calls throughout the day,” said Olivera. “Because we’re responding to all the calls, it doesn’t allow us the ability to stay in one location to enforce traffic.”

Miller would appreciate a stronger dose of education about motorist, pedestrian and bicyclist safety—in homes, schools and municipalities. Common sense helps, too, she said.

“Until the experts figure out exactly what can be done to make the road and safety better, please adhere to the crossing signals, the crosswalks and the underpasses because it really does make a difference,” she said.

Indeed, both motorists and pedestrians would do well to reacquaint themselves with the rules of the road, according to numerous people interviewed for this story. After all, anyone who’s spent time in Harrisburg likely has noticed infractions by all parties, with epidemics of both speeding and jaywalking.

Front Street has become a particular focus of concern since PennDOT made changes to that state-owned road a couple of years ago. Crosswalks were added at more intersections, but that seems to have caused greater confusion than actual safety improvements. After all, what happens when you add multiple crossing points to a street that many drivers still treat as a high-speed corridor—a highway—into the city?

To wit, a few months back, a security video went viral that showed a woman being hit and thrown by an SUV at Front and Herr streets as one lane of traffic stopped to allow her to cross at an intersection, but the other lane did not.

Lower Paxton Township resident John Norton has been on the other side of that problem.

He got caught in a five-car pileup this spring, caused by a motorist stopping to allow a pedestrian to cross Front Street. He has also seen near-misses, whether between cars and pedestrians or fender-benders. Few people, he said, understand that state law requires pedestrians to actually occupy a crosswalk before motorists must yield.

“All we did back in the day was pretty simple,” said Norton, who long lived in a Front Street apartment and walked his dog in Riverfront Park nearly every day. “We stood by the side of the road until it was safe to cross, and then we’d cross. During rush hour, we sometimes had to wait five or 10 minutes. What’s the tragedy in that?”

Continue Reading