Will this story impact Madison pedestrians?

Forgive the pun. But I have a little local news to complain about. Ever since I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, I have noticed the awful behavior of pedestrians in the downtown area. Citizens, many of them students, cross high-speed, major streets when they are not supposed to. In particular, the parallel one-way streets of Gorham/University and West Johnson, especially where they both cross State Street – the backbone of downtown Madison.

When driving through town, I often see pedestrians starting across the street, crosswalk or not, and they may or may not be paying attention to oncoming traffic, which is often going at 25-35 miles per hour. Sometimes pedestrians are walking along State Street, a pedestrian/bike/bus-only mall, and instinctively start across a street that crosses it, only to catch themselves as they remember that 2-ton hunks of metal are bearing down on them and they forgot to look.

Considering that kindergarten was not that long ago for some of these people, you’d think that they would remember the simple lesson of looking both ways. Even for those who do remember to do that, they often lack the judgment to decide when it is safe to cross. I have stood on the corner of State Street and Gorham, while there is a green light for the Gorham traffic, and watched people try to run across the street before the horde of headlights runs them down. Sometimes when a few try to cross, more people decide that there are too many pedestrians for the cars to run over, and join in an impromptu human wall – forcing the cars to stop.

And I know what it is like being a pedestrian at these intersections, too. It’s a green light for Johnson, and there are no cars for 100 yards. You realize that the light is going to change anyway, and you don’t want to wait there forever when you know it is safe for you to cross. It is the proverbial red light in the middle of nowhere, and you feel like a chump standing there, especially when other people are crossing and continuing on their way.

There is pedestrian peer pressure in Madison, and sometimes you feel like just walking across without looking – but sometimes when you look you realize that no one noticed the diesel truck accelerating toward the crowd. Humans are social animals, and we often look to each other as shortcuts to investigating the truth for ourselves. The idea that it is safe to cross is often a short-lived meme in a localized group of pedestrians, broken by the honks from vehicular traffic.

Indeed, if you are driving through these places where people are apt to dart across the lanes and you dare to honk at them, you will sometimes be met by blank stares of puzzlement – ‘I was honked at? While jaywalking in Madison?’ In the evening on more than one occasion I have found certain middle digits raised in my direction – including one from an undergrad who also decided to dare me to run them down by standing in my lane defiantly. Oh, to believe that you are invincible – a short-lived fantasy, literally.

This occurred at the intersection of Johnson and Frances Street, in front of a popular burger joint and bar called the Nitty Gritty. The news I have to report is that on Tuesday, a pedestrian was run over and killed while crossing this intersection. Thy Vong was running across the street with two others, and a driver swerved to miss hitting the two and struck him. If you will notice from the Google Street View link above, this intersection has a traffic light – there is little doubt in my mind that they were attempting to cross – hurriedly – while the light was green for oncoming traffic.

Why is this behavior so endemic to Madison? Although I have only a limited experience of pedestrian behavior in American cities, this is the worst that I have seen. Ariela and I had a conversation with a police officer a few months ago who was standing at this intersection – and she seemed to think that is was because of the student population.

Then why wasn’t Davis like this? The worst I ever saw in that college town were some careless bicyclists. Ariela used to drive around UCLA all the time as well, and observed nothing like this at all. Granted, many of the jaywalkers are students at UW-Madison, but that doesn’t explain why these students are behaving in that way.

And the man who was recently killed was 41 years old – probably not a student.

Is it because it is a city? Yet again, the UCLA example speaks against that explanation. And I’ve been in San Francisco enough to know that people there know that the path of moving cars is to be avoided.

It seems to be something fairly unique to Madison (although I would be interested to hear about other locales that have the same problem). It also seems strange because Madison has a lot of bad drivers – and you’d think that knowing that would compel you to be careful crossing the street. (corrected, below)

Could it be the local drinking culture? Most bad street-crossing decisions are made at night when the bars are busy – and I don’t doubt that the defiant lane-stander I mentioned above had a few ethanolic concoctions himself. Vong was hit at 10:15 pm. UW-Madison has had a reputation for being a party school, within a party city, within a state that has the dubious distinction of having the highest binge drinking rate in the country. On a rainy day you can walk from bar to bar all the way across downtown without getting your feet wet.

The brewing industry has historical importance in the area, even a well-liked sports team is called The Brewers. Heck, the range of local beers is excellent, outmatched only by the cheese. Alcohol laws here are also Utah-esquely strict – you can’t even buy alcohol past 9 pm in stores. No doubt this was put in place to try to keep the drinking rates down for public benefit. However, you can still buy alcohol from bars on into the night.

Wait a second.

Is the 9 pm alcohol rule helping or hurting? It’s 8:55 pm and you are at home and feel like getting something to drink. If you are like me, you might consider picking something up and bringing it home. But with 5 minutes to go until the EtOH cutoff point, your only option to get a drink is to go to a bar. In short, the 9 pm law is forcing people to go out on the street and drink if they didn’t think to buy something earlier in the day. This is a separate gripe of mine, so take it with a grain of salt. But I have serious doubts that it does anything positive to affect the local drinking culture.

I’m certainly not suggesting that this law is directly connected to pedestrian behavior, nor the recent tragic death. But I do wonder what factors, both legal and social, make people endanger themselves so, and how this could be stopped. Finally, I wonder if the news of this accident will have in impact on Madisonites and make them realize – Thou Art Mortal – And (Kinetic) Energy = 1/2 Mass x Velocity Squared.

KE = 1/2M(V)^2

Update 07.09.2009: I heard on the radio today that Madison’s drivers are ranked the 13th safest of the 200 largest cities in the nation. I have corrected my statement above. And thanks to Ms. Inoculated Mind’s comments below, I re-checked my equation and forgot to put in the “1/2” in where it should be.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

6 thoughts on “Will this story impact Madison pedestrians?”

  1. Wow, Karl, well written. I wish you were this eloquent when talking to me at home and not yelling simple minded epithets like “Dang ‘gone pedestrians. I’ll mow them over I will.” Wait, that wasn’t you, that was me. Sorry.
    Anyways, I love the “EtOH cuttoff point.” I get the reference now that I’m taking summer chemistry.
    Oh, and that last part should actually be an equation in a textbook.


  2. A similar thing happened in Ketchikan last year. A woman walked in front of a Duck (those bus/boat things). The driver couldn’t see her so when he pulled out, he ran her over, partially decapitating her. Who walks in front of a running vehicle, especially when she can’t make eye contact with the driver? That poor driver has to live with that for the rest of his life. The tourist areas of Juneau and Ketchikan have gotten so bad that the city has hired crossing guards to baby-sit the tourists. Otherwise they back across the road trying to take a picture of their ship.
    I think people have lost part of their survival instinct. We value life so highly, that people begin to think they are invincible. If you went to a country where life is cheap, I bet you wouldn’t see people challenging cars.


  3. This sort of thing happens in Santa Cruz all the time. It’s students, it’s tourists and it’s locals. Though we like to blame it on the University students, mostly because the people I remember doing it seemed like they were students, I don’t think they actually were. It’s a Santa Cruz mentality that they have the right of way over all traffic.

    It’s kind of funny when that clashes with the bicyclists, many of whom also think they have the right of way over all traffic. At a four way stop, where all cars had to stop for little old me to cross, I was almost mowed down by a bicyclist who blew through his stop sign. He had the gall to give me a dirty look for being in his way even though I had the right of way and was there long before he reached the intersection. Micah almost got ran over by a bicyclist while he was on a bicycle too. Micah stopped as he was supposed to at a stop sign, then, since there was no one else there, proceeded to cross the intersection. He was barely able to stop in time to prevent getting hit by the bicycle that didn’t stop at all.

    I agree with Kristina. We are probably too safe on the street. We need to scare the crap out of people more often. Let’s start a movement. Raise a million dollars and pay it to the person who gets the most points, if you know what I mean, and only pedestrians and bicyclists who don’t obey traffic laws are worth points. He he he… I need to get a big iron grill for the front of my car…


  4. As a family friend of Thy, I have to point out he was a very intelligent man. Unfortunately, a disgustingly large amount of Wisconsin (especially Madison) residents seem to think the only way to have a good time is by way of alcohol. I see sober people, mostly students, jaywalking downtown every day. I have almost hit a few, because of their own stupidity. That is sober stupidity. It is my opinion that alcohol is the problem. Thy was drinking, he had been depressed and was finally going out to have a good time. And he actually was in a good mood for the first time in a long time that night. When under the influence, people don’t think right – no matter how much they claim they do. Obviously, he wasn’t thinking straight while crossing the road at night, with his friends/family. From what I’ve heard, the driver wasn’t drunk/speeding/running a light. Thy’s family, or at least all the ones I’ve talked to – even though it hurts them, they know the driver is not at fault. Assuming he wasn’t doing any of the above, hopefully he knows that, too. It’s bad enough he has to live with the knowledge that he was involved in this tragedy. People need to find some intelligent ways to have fun instead of pathetically hitting every bar/club in town as their first option.

    And to Jennifer Mogel – people like you talking about living beings as “points” – you’re the ones who truly do not deserve the life you have.

    This is a serious matter. Thy made a mistake – the mistake was DRINKING. As a sober man, he was always very cautious. He was a very loving, caring and kind person. That’s more than I can say for most of the people who commented here. Better to die a good person than to live an asshole.

    And to the author – you make valid points. But respect the dead, and his family – and omit names next time. That way, you can make your point without being an insensitive jerk.

    Thank you.


  5. Hello Nisha,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I am very sorry for your loss, and I did not mean to be insensitive. If you will re-read the post I avoided saying very much about this incident in particular, and when I did I said it was a ‘tragic death.’ Primarily, I used it as a springboard to discussing the Madison pedestrian issue as a whole, with multiple anecdotes.

    I got the urge to write about this incident in the vain hope that something can be done about local city behaviors that make life more difficult, or at the least come to understand more about why it occurs. Although obviously, you would know more about Thy than I, I’m not sure if the mistake could be pinned on merely drinking. How many other small decisions were involved that if different, could have averted this outcome? Was it the most significant factor, or was peer pressure the bigger problem? I don’t want to get into a discussion about those details, but what I have learned from several tragic experiences I have been through is that there is not often an easy solution that could prevent such things. Just my two cents on that.


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