Crossing When Black? It'll Take Longer


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

3025 Crossing When Black? It'll Take Longer
How long it takes to cross may depend on your race. Credit: Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock

The black and white stripes at pedestrian crossings may look commendably egalitarian, but racism creeps into everything. Researchers have established, and quantified, one of the privileges white Americans experience without knowing about it – the opportunity to cross the street quickly and safely. Motorists are less likely to stop at crossings for black people, even when the pedestrian clearly has right of way.

Legal discrimination may be long gone, but more subtle racism remains widespread. Dr Arlie Adkins of the University of Arizona tested for one little-noticed bias; whether it is harder for African-Americans to cross the street unimpeded than white people.


Adkins had six men – three black, three white – repeatedly attempt to cross the street at an urban pedestrian crossing. Observers counted the number of cars that passed before the pedestrians were given the chance to cross. He reported the results in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behavior, a journal probably unused to venturing into such hot button territory.

Over 88 trials the black participants had to wait 32% longer than the whites for safe passage.

"It was not a very large study, so we weren't sure the amount of data collected would be enough to reach statistical significance, so we were surprised to see how quickly the significance showed up," Adkins said in a statement. "Drivers were clearly displaying behaviors consistent with implicit racial bias."

Naturally a study conducted at a single crossing cannot be extrapolated to the entire country. The experiment took place in downtown Portland, Oregon, where Adkins did his PhD. While famously socially liberal Portland has been dubbed “the whitest city in America," based on low ethnic diversity in the city center, and a history of far more lethal forms of discrimination.


Citizens of other countries might want to wait for the same test in their home cities before concluding this is a specifically American problem.

Evidence for racial bias, usually unconscious, has been well studied in areas such as criminal sentencesemployment hiring and deciding whether to shoot. However, Adkins described the study as the first of its kind to have been reported, and has begun extending it, including to see whether there is a difference in driver response to men and women, and whether behavior varies with crossing type.

"We are not saying drivers are overtly racist," said co-author Dr Kimberly Kahn of Portland State University. "These subtle forms of stereotyping are pervasive across society, and the majority of Americans hold some level of subconscious bias or association just by growing up in this culture.”

African-Americans pedestrians are more likely to be killed in traffic accidents than their white counterparts and the study suggests this may be driven by more than living in dangerous locations.


Kahn noted, "Improving the pedestrian experience is not just going to be an engineering problem. You have to bring in psychology to get a deeper understanding of the issues we are trying to solve."

  • tag
  • racism,

  • unconscious bias,

  • traffic safety