Community Voices: You are a Non-Fixed Hazard - Own It

By Jeff Merz, AICP LEED AP – Planner with G70

According to the “Driving Test Success” website, if you are not a driver in a car, you are likely a human (or pet) “non-fixed hazard” if you fall into any of the following categories. Below are some of the different types of hazards that you can expect to see when driving in residential areas:

  • Pedestrians
  • School crossing patrols
  • Children running out from between parked cars or playing at the side of the road
  • Animals running out into the road (mainly cats and dogs)
  • Cyclists and motorcyclists

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At one time before the predominance of cars, many of the “hazards” above were what streets were FOR in neighborhoods. Cars eased their way through the neighborhood, at 5 or 10 mph and had to be vigilant to avoid “non-fixed hazards” and if they injured someone or damaged something, it was always the driver’s fault.

New York City actually had a program that closed down streets so children could play after school in a convenient, safe space; visible to parents and adults in adjacent houses; and safe from cars. At one time, cities valued the importance of outdoor play and exercise near a child’s home over facilitating as many speeding cars as possible through our residential streets. Below is a modern group of adults in a stickball league on Manhattan’s west side. Adult beverages add to the competitive festivities.

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In the early part of the 20th century, after the increased proliferation of cars on streets, and the resultant carnage from conflicts with traditional street users, an anti-automobile movement was born. The messaging condemned motorists as “road hogs” and “speed demons”. Cities erected prominent memorials for children killed in traffic accidents, and newspapers covered traffic deaths in detail, usually blaming drivers. They also published cartoons demonizing cars, often associating them with the Grim Reaper.


The car industry fought back in the 20s and 30s. It was a systematic and calculated response by the industry and other car interests. Whereas before, drivers killing pedestrians was the problem, the industry reframed the dialogue in terms of the pedestrian in the way of cars with roads the sole domain of cars. Pejorative language, criminal-esque nomenclature, and marginalization of non-drivers; has been baked into American society ever since. Its most effective marginalizing tool to date is jaywalking.

A propaganda response to anti-car sentiment, “jaywalking” was an invented term. The word was first used to describe "someone from the countryside who goes to the city and is so dazzled by the lights and the show windows that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians" and “in mid-western slang a jay was a person from the country who was an empty-headed chatterbox, like a bluejay”. Pedestrian as clueless bumpkin.

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As we now know, the car industry won the battle starting around 1930 and the subsequent decades saw residential/local roads became the exclusive domain of private vehicles at increasing speeds and volumes (along with a few anemic bus lines). No more stickball, children’s hopscotch, streetcars, or street cart vendors. Instead, we continue to see a concurrent reduction/removal of sidewalks to expand vehicle lanes, filling in of landscaped medians, and addition of turning lanes and gentle curves to allow faster movements in intersections all in the cause of bettering the Level of Service. The result: children are no longer able to walk safely to school, kupuna are too scared to walk to the corner market, and bicyclists are too skittish to travel amidst speeding cars.

What are we left with today?

Non-fixed Hazards Cowering on “Refuge Islands”

A pedestrian refuge island is a median with a refuge area that is intended to help protect pedestrians who are crossing a multilane road. This countermeasure is sometimes referred to as a crossing island, refuge island, or pedestrian island.

Will this really protect you from a rogue driver? Would you feel safe or vulnerable here? Source:

The saddest sight in any neighborhood has to be the lone pedestrian waiting on a refuge island while vehicles at 45 mph race inches away on all sides, and waiting for the “go” signal to scurry over to the other side of the road, all the while looking to ensure a driver is not running a red light. I find the very concept and nomenclature of a refuge island offensive. The latin root refugium is defined as a place to which one flees back; indicating regression, withdrawal, and retreat. As one who grew up and lived most of my life in large urban centers, and walked everywhere, I have had to ambulate amongst these refuge islands for years. They inherently make a non-driver feel vulnerable, confused, and sensory-assaulted; especially when plopped within a multi-lane arterial roadway.

Do you really want your kids crossing this 6 lane arterial street while cars whiz by at 45 mph? No wonder children don’t walk to school anymore. Source: PxFuel.

Would you even attempt to use this crosswalk? How about at night or in the rain? Some people don’t have a choice. Source:

Where are we going?

There is now a convergence of numerous societal, fiscal, ethical, environmental, and philosophical realities which are turning the tide on car dominance/pedestrian subjugation throughout the world.

Business as Usual Reality:

  • Failure to raise gas tax/registration fees: Back when gas/registration taxes actually covered the full costs of roads and car impacts, it made sense that drivers could dictate roads as the exclusive domain of cars. Drivers’ refusal to allow their gas and registration taxes to be raised, along with the increasing cost of road infrastructure, has resulted in more and more general fund tax money being spent to maintain roads and car infrastructure. The result: Now that everyone pays for roads, everyone (bicyclists, pedestrians, accessibility-challenged) have a say in how roads are used or not used.
  • Exorbitant cost of cars and car roads/parking infrastructure: Some studies indicated that many families spend more on vehicle costs than on housing. Depending on which city one lives, surface parking spaces cost about $5,000 to $10,000 to construct (including the value of the land they occupy). Structured parking costs between $25,000 and $50,000 per space.
  • Environmental, social and health impacts of cars: Aside from the air and water pollution generated by cars, the negative impacts on our physical and mental health from driving and commuting is now being seen.
  • Lack of affordable housing: By requiring significant amounts of land and expensive, structured parking to accompany housing, we add significant costs to housing construction and allocation of land to the car that could be used for housing.

Better Solutions:

There is a concept of shared space and naked streets, where the road is not dedicated to one mode of transportation but is a tableau encompassing all users in a ballet of mobility - a rather elegant concept, no?

While there are numerous champions and practitioners of these concepts, the patron saint of this approach is Hans Monderman. As is frequently the case with the Netherlands concerning innovative solutions, this Dutch engineer turned traffic planning on its head. While I have discussed the “woonerf” in an earlier Hawaii APA newsletter, Monderman takes the “woonerf” to a new level. At its most basic, shared space/naked streets concept is that traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from each other; even the speed bumps, speed-limit signs, bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings, must be removed. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer. "All those signs are saying to cars is, 'This is your space", and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you,"' said Monderman. "That is the wrong story."

My favorite story about Monderman is when he redesigned a 5,000 car-a-day intersection in the Netherlands by mostly removing signage, street lights, lane divider stripes (after which there have been no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999). Then he did an experiment:

Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square - backward - straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions.

Imagine doing that at the Atkinson-Ala Moana intersection in Honolulu. Other concepts associated with the shared space solutions generally include some or all of the following features:

  1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road - not signs and signals - dictates traffic flow.
  2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.
  3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.
  4. Do it in the road: Cafés extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
  5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
  6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

A shared space scheme in New Road, Brighton, United Kingdom. Source: ShareAlike 2.5, Creative Commons.

This is not a solution for arterial roadways and many state highways in Hawaii which have to convey traffic around congested areas, but it is a solution for neighborhoods where people and businesses are at a certain critical density such as Wahiawa; Kalihi and Waikiki on Oahu; Kahului and Lahaina on Maui; Kailua-Kona and Hawi on the Big Island; and Hanalei and Hanapepe on Kauai. Many of these people-centers already operate as quasi-shared spaces anyway.

Most telling for me of coming full circle on this car problem is the California passage of the Freedom to Walk Act in 2022 which allows pedestrians to jaywalk without fear of being ticketed. Pedestrians must still exercise care to cross safely but so must drivers to ensure the safety of any pedestrian crossing a roadway. This law is one small step in bringing dignity, safety, and respect to non-car drivers on our public roads. Let’s hope there are more like it.

In the meantime, grab some buddies, beers, POG drinks and pupus, start a stickball league on your residential street, and celebrate enjoying an afternoon with your fellow non-fixed hazards.

Additional Reading and References:

The views discussed in this article are those of the contributing author and do not reflect those of the APA Hawai‘i Chapter.