Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Crosswalks

Pedestrians


To make streets walkable, empower pedestrians to cross anywhere

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.


Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer. They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today—pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield. (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don't have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot. Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete. It's not just that roads designed for fast driving aren't good for city living. Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails. It doesn't make streets safe. And it's too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure. Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car. With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility. This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians—a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy. Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly. Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars. And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals—no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike—make roads safer. Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first. Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals. When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal. Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain. It's like economics, where markets usually work better than central command. Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy. Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example—situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York—full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving. Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today's hazardous mess. The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes. Details need to be added. Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets. Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change. But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.

Pedestrians


Timing signals to work for pedestrians is impossible

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post in a multi-part opinion series.


At Arlington's "intersection of doom," the traffic signals are so complicated they're nearly impossible to follow. Photo by author.

Walk signals are not only unsafe and inconvenient, they're also incapable of making pedestrian travel efficient. Engineers simply don't have the time or resources to correctly configure every traffic light for pedestrians.

Traffic lights and signs are not police officers standing in the intersection. When engineers use them to direct traffic as if they were, they impose on themselves a task they cannot carry out. In real-world practice, it is simply not possible to program the lights and place the signs in a way that moves people efficiently. The engineers are short of information, time, and money.

Highway departments don't even have the resources to fully optimize traffic controls for drivers. They traditionally simplify their work by planning for the busiest time of day. But traffic, especially foot traffic, flows all day. Outside rush hour, both drivers and pedestrians find themselves standing and watching empty streets, waiting for slow lights timed to minimize rush-hour backups.

It is possible, as New York and a few other cities have shown, for complex signals to make walking easier. Pedestrians get a few seconds to enter a crosswalk before cars can turn. Or turns are banned while people are crossing.

But if you try to orchestrate movement on foot in this way at every streetcorner, the traffic engineers' job becomes entirely unmanageable. They cannot possibly find the time to adjust every walk signal for the proper balance between walking and driving.

And even when walk signals are properly adjusted, the engineer still knows less than the person walking on the street. Anyone standing on the corner can see whether cars are coming. The pedestrian knows best when it will be safer to cross immediately than to wait for the green light and dodge turning vehicles.

In any case, highway agencies rarely give foot travel much attention outside big-city downtowns. At best, they make a half-hearted effort to meet federal minimums. By-the-book engineering creates hazards in the form of disappearing sidewalks, badly timed lights, and inscrutable signage.

Walk signals are expensive

Not only are walk signals costly in staff time and information, they are a financial burden. Highway agencies say that the cost of installing a full-featured traffic signal is a quarter to half a million dollars, and sometimes more.

There are thought to be more than 300,000 signalized intersections in the United States. (No one really knows the exact number.) Retrofitting all of them with walk signals to current standards would run up a bill in the ballpark of $100 billion.

Incremental fixes just create new problems

The rules for crossing streets grow ever more complex, and they have come to resemble the Gordian knot that the ancient Greeks were unable to untie. Straightening one piece out only creates new tangles.

Rosslyn's "Intersection of Doom," where drivers turn right across a bike path, shows this dynamic at work. After much public agitation, the walk signal on the bike path was set to begin before the green light. But drivers still came through the busy crosswalk when turning right on red. So a flashing don't walk signal went in. Now drivers need eyes on three sides of their heads to comply with the signals.

Signals for the blind have undergone a similar evolution. When walking is controlled by a traffic light, those who can't see use traffic noise to tell whether it's green. But if there's a walk signal, they don't know whether it's lit. So crosswalks with walk signals need pushbutton-operated beepers for handicapped access. More expense, more confusion, and more obstruction of the sidewalk.

The complexity has gotten so bad that FHWA can't even keep its rulebook straight. It required beepers for the blind in 2009, but did not authorize a sign that says what the button is for. Rule-bound engineers are now blanketing streets with signs that comply with the rulebook but misinform their readers.

These miscues are not happenstance. According to the branch of mathematics known as control theory, they are the inevitable consequence of too much complexity. Beyond a certain point, increasing the number of signals sent by an automatic controller creates more error than it prevents.

Alexander the Great is said to have cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. We need similar boldness to make our streets walkable. My next post suggests how that might be possible.

Pedestrians


Walk signals are bad for walking

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post second in a multi-part opinion series.

Conventional wisdom says that walk signals make crossing the street safer for people. But they actually make walking slower and more dangerous.


Photo by Adrian Black on Flickr.

Many pedestrians think the walk-don't walk light helps by letting them know when it's safe to cross the street. But its actual effect is to curtail the right to make that crossing.

When there's no walk signal, a green-yellow-red traffic signal sends drivers and pedestrians traveling in the same direction into an intersection during the same green light interval. What the walk signal does is to give traffic engineers the means to send them ahead at different times. In practice, those on foot invariably get less time than drivers—often only the recommended minimum of seven seconds.

Walk signals push pedestrians off the street in more subtle ways, too. Federal Highway Administration rules require new walk signals (except on very narrow streets) to have timers that show how many seconds are left before you must be off the roadway.

But the timer is useless for deciding when to cross. Under the rules, the countdown doesn't begin until the don't-walk sign begins to flash—at which point it is illegal to enter the roadway, even if there is enough time to get to the other side. What the timer does is to chase slow walkers back to where they started, supplanting long-established laws that let pedestrians keep going if they're part way across when the light changes.

One thing pedestrians do like about walk signals is their visibility. But they aren't needed for this purpose. Red-green lights on streetcorners would be just as visible.

Walk signals are a safety hazard

Not only do the signals make walking slower and less convenient, they make it less safe.

Since—as discussed in the first post of this seriespedestrians are the best judges of their own safety, restricting the right to cross the street is intrinsically dangerous. On top of that, restricting people's ability to enter the roadway on foot trains drivers not to look out for people walking.

A particular peril is the 7-second crossing interval, which comes just when the drivers' light turns red. The only time pedestrians are allowed to step into the street is when the cars that waited at the red light (to travel in the direction perpendicular to where the pedestrian wants to walk) begin to turn across their path.

Timers, too, create hazards. They change the behavior of drivers as well as those on foot. Whether the drivers speed up to beat the light or simply get distracted is not clear, but the effect is real. A recent study in Toronto found that countdown timers cause more collisions than they prevent.

Top-down control is the wrong approach

Dutch traffic engineers have found in some villages that removing all traffic signs and markings actually brings accident rates down. It is rarely feasible to go that far on busy American streets, but the underlying principle—that negotiating the use of shared space makes roads safer—still applies.

The philosophy of the walk signal is just the opposite. A central controller sends instructions separately to drivers and pedestrians. One road user doesn't know what the other is supposed to do—drivers, in particular, are not responsible for looking at walk signals and often can't see them—so everyone must rely on the controller.

Without shared information, the crosswalk becomes a legal no-man's-land. Motorists preparing to make turns don't know whether a person they see on the sidewalk will have the right of way to cross in front of them. When crashes occur, it's hard to prove the driver is at fault.

If drivers and pedestrians are unable to coordinate, the system operates properly only if each gets correct instructions and follows them reliably. But the reality of the highway is far different. Signals are mistimed, beg buttons (the buttons you sometimes have to push to get a walk signal) don't work, snow blocks sidewalks, and of course both motorists and pedestrians regularly ignore the law.

The basic flaw of the walk signal is its underlying concept of protecting pedestrians by separating them from vehicles. This leads inevitably to ever-greater restrictions on movement by foot. And it fails to make walking safe.

Pedestrians


Careful jaywalking saves lives

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the first of a multi-part opinion series.

Pedestrians put themselves in danger if they wait for a walk signal instead of crossing the street whenever and wherever it looks safest. There are no definitive studies, but that is what available evidence strongly suggests.


Photo by nydiscovery7 on Flickr.

Most research on traffic safety focuses on narrow questions posed by the highway agencies that fund it. Basic premises, like the idea that "jaywalking" is intrinsically unsafe, are rarely investigated.

In the absence of systematic studies, one must turn to indirect statistical evidence.

One useful data set was collected for New York's Vision Zero program. That city, where residents routinely ignore signals when they cross streets, can be thought of as a natural experiment. The majority of pedestrian deaths, and a far larger majority of non-fatal crashes, occur while crossing the street legally in a crosswalk.

Why might that be? Drivers hit pedestrians when turning more often than when they are driving straight ahead. At a red light, drivers who are about to turn wait alongside pedestrians. The changing signal sends both into the intersection at the same time—maximizing the opportunities for collisions.

Other researchers, working in places with less foot traffic and fewer striped crosswalks than New York, got results that point in a similar direction. They found that pedestrians crossing big highways are more likely to be struck at marked crosswalks than at unmarked ones. On smaller roads, they found little advantage either way.

The Federal Highway Administration took these findings to mean that putting stripes on highway pavement makes it more dangerous to cross there. It used them to justify a ban on new crosswalk markings, except at traffic lights, on wide high-speed roads. A far more likely explanation is that pedestrians are better judges of their own safety than are traffic engineers, whose first concern is usually to move cars fast.

The concept of jaywalking was invented in the 1920s by motoring lobbies to empty streets of other users. Drivers wanted to go faster and automakers sought to sell more cars. Safety, as Peter Norton has shown in his book Fighting Traffic, was no more than an afterthought.

Almost a century has now passed, and our traffic laws are still not geared to safety.

Pedestrians


Why long waits to cross the street might be good for humanity

We've often criticized "beg buttons," those buttons you have to push (and then wait) before being able to cross a street. But maybe civilization depends on them?


Photo by Dylan Passmore on Flickr.

Beg buttons, by their very nature, put people on foot at a lower level of priority than people driving. The drivers get a green light at set times whether they're there or not, but people walking don't.

Many force pedestrians to wait much longer than otherwise necessary, as Tony Goodman wrote about 10th Street and Maryland Avenue NE in DC:

If someone presses the button during a green light, they have to wait for the light to turn red and then green again to get a walk signal, despite the fact that the sensor will extend the green time if more cars show up during the cycle.

But now, Ben Hamilton-Baillie has uncovered some archaeological records that show that perhaps we should thank beg buttons for our very society:

So thanks for those long waits, for those traditionally-minded traffic engineers out there! Also, thanks to Ben Hamilton-Baillie for the revelations and for permission to repost this cartoon.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Pedestrians


Traffic engineers still rely on a flawed 1970s study to reject crosswalks

When St. Louis decided not to maintain colorful new crosswalks that residents had painted, the city's pedestrian coordinator cited federal guidance. A 2011 FHWA memo warns that colorful designs could "create a false sense of security" for pedestrians and motorists.


Shoddy, 50-year-old research is an obstacle to grassroots street safety efforts like this fleur-de-lis crosswalk in St. Louis. Photo from Rally St. Louis.

That may sound like unremarkable bureaucrat-speak, but the phrase "false sense of security" is actually a cornerstone of American engineering guidance on pedestrian safety.

You'll find the words "false sense of security" in Washington state DOT's crosswalk guidelines too. The city of Stockton, California, makes the same claim. The list goes on.

What gives? Well, you can trace this phrase—and the basis of some engineers' reluctance to stripe crosswalks—to one very influential but seriously flawed study from the 1970s.

In 1972, a researcher named Bruce Herms conducted a study of crosswalk safety in San Diego. He found that intersections with marked crosswalks had higher injury rates than ones with unmarked crosswalks. He concluded that marked crosswalks should only be installed where they are "warranted" because they can give pedestrians a "false sense of security," encouraging risky behavior.

But there were problems with the study. For one, Herms didn't actually study why people made certain decisions at crosswalks—that "false sense of security" was just speculation on his part.

Since the Herms study, other studies have refuted his conclusions, including work produced by the FHWA. Nevertheless, the influence of his research from more than 40 years ago persists. As backward as it seems, engineers still refuse to install crosswalks on the grounds that it would harm pedestrian safety. Just a few years ago, for instance, the "false sense of security" argument was deployed to shoot down requests for midblock crossings in Los Angeles.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineer with the Toole Design Group and member of the bike and pedestrian committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devises, is critical of the Herms study.

"When I first came into engineering, I heard a lot about this idea of pedestrians having a false sense of security when in marked crosswalks," he said. "And I just believed it."

But then Schultheiss ordered a print copy of the study to review it.

"I think it was biased," he said, like much of the older regulations. "I don't know, was it him or just the culture at the time."

"His conclusions were terrible."

For example, Herms found that of the pedestrians who were struck, most were hit in the middle or near the end of the crosswalk, not at the beginning. This is a pattern that suggests motorists are failing to yield to people who have already established themselves in the crosswalk, not that people are stepping off the curb inattentively.

"If you make it three quarters of the way across the street, you expect cars to stop," Schultheiss said. "That's the law."

Despite the absence of evidence to back it up, the idea that crosswalks encourage pedestrians to engage in risky behavior continues to enjoy credence in the engineering profession. Official memos like FHWA's 2011 guidance on crosswalk art repeat and endorse the idea, squashing grassroots street safety efforts.

Crossposted from Streetsblog USA.

Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

Pedestrians


Construction has made a busy Silver Spring street dangerous for pedestrians

In downtown Silver Spring, a busy Georgia Avenue sidewalk is closed for the construction of a new apartment building. The signed pedestrian detour is very inconvenient, and many people are choosing to walk in the travel lanes of the road instead.


A pedestrian walks in the right lane of northbound Georgia Avenue rather than using the inconvenient detour. All photos by the author.

A couple weeks ago, Foulger-Pratt, the general contractor working on the new building, closed the stretch of sidewalk in the 8600 block of Georgia Avenue to begin construction on the site.

The closure is just north of the crossroads at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, the heart of downtown Silver Spring. A quarter mile from the Silver Spring Metro Station and very close to a number of high rise commercial and residential buildings, the area sees a lot of foot traffic.

While there is a detour for people on foot, it requires them to cross Georgia Avenue twice, along with Fidler lane, resulting in three streets crossings where there were previously none.


A map of the current detour pedestrians must take to get around the construction. Image from Google Earth.


Pedestrians opt to walk in the road alongside moving vehicles rather than using the signed detour.

Closing the right lane could allow for a temporary sidewalk

There's a simple way for the Maryland State Highway Administration to solve this problem: close the northbound right lane of Georgia Avenue to create a temporary sidewalk that's separated from traffic by barricades.

In the right lane of northbound Georgia Avenue where the construction is, on-street parking during the week is allowed except from 3:30-7 PM. Since many drivers are already accustomed to this lane usually being a non-travel lane, it shouldn't be much of an issue for the SHA to close this lane to create a temporary sidewalk.


The closed sidewalk, looking south. Note the parked car in the right lane beyond the construction zone.

While closing the lane may cause some delay at rush hour, doing so could also save lives.

Pedestrians


Video: Crossing a city street should not be this dangerous

Crosswalks are supposed to make it safer to walk across a street, but they don't work if drivers don't stop or slow down. This video of my morning commute shows how scary walking can be, and why it's worth taking efforts to make crosswalks better.



Video of the walk across North Capitol at Pierce Street NE by the author. "Please pardon the Blair Witch Project-style framing," he says!.

Motorists in DC are required by law to stop when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, just as if there were a stop sign. But morning commuters on North Capitol Street don't seem to know or think much about this law.

Every day, the 80 and 96 buses let off passengers by a crosswalk on North Capitol at Pierce Street NE. There aren't any signs reminding drivers to yield, and trying to cross the street to get to NoMa is something people do at their own peril. Check out the video to see what I mean.


North Capitol and Pierce Street NE, where the author shot the video. Image from Google Maps.

I didn't set out to film this video. I was more focused on crossing the street alive than documenting the experience. But I had my camera out and it just occurred to me to hit record since nobody would otherwise believe what I face every morning trying to get to work.

As you can see, drivers don't stop regardless of whether a person is standing in the middle of the intersection long before they get there. And that's even when cars may have to stop after they get through the crosswalk.


Wildebeest migration across the Mara River. Photo by jeaneeeem on flickr

In my 14 years here, I've seen DDOT add more prominent street paint, signs, and bollards, all of which I have to assume is to remind motorists to stop and to make streets safer.

For the specific problem I'm talking about, perhaps WMATA could move the bus stop to coincide with a traffic light one block south of Pierce Street at L Street. DDOT could also make the light timing accommodate people crossing instead of just motorists turning left. Either way, leaving a crosswalk there and no protection for anyone using it is a recipe for disaster.

As an occasional motorist myself, I know it's not fun to stop every few blocks when you're trying to get somewhere. But if we can learn to yield to people in crosswalks, we won't need a dedicated light or stop sign and everyone can get where they are going safely.

Another crossing that's particularly dangerous because drivers rarely stop is where Rhode Island Avenue NW meets 7th Street, right by the Shaw library. Do you know of others? Let us know in the comments. Maybe DDOT will take note.

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