Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Crosswalks


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Check out Alexandria's efforts to make crossing a busy street on a bike safer

Sometimes called "bike crossings," intersection crossing markings that both tell cyclists where the safest place to cross a street and remind drivers to watch out for cyclists may be coming to Alexandria. Would what's planned for Alexandria make cyclists safer?

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Bike crossings are part of the plan for the Wilkes Street Neighborhood Bikeway, which Alexandria Transportation Planner Hillary Orr (formerly Hillary Poole) unveiled in final, ready-to-bid form at November's Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting.

(Orr actually called these "bicycle crosswalks," but that's not the standard name, as it implies that cyclists should dismount and walk through them, which is incorrect.)

A bike crossing looks like a crosswalk with separate walking and cycling lanes. At Wilkes and Columbus Street in Alexandria, the plan is to use bike crossings to take the east-west bikeway from a shared street (a street marked with sharrows) to an off-street path.

The plan for Wilkes Street and Columbus Street. Image from the City of Alexandria.

According to Orr, the bike crossing comes from the National Association of City Transportation Officials guide. But the closest thing I found in the on-line NACTO guide was an intersection treatment for bike lanes:

Bike crossing detail from NACTO guide.

What Alexandria has planned more closely resembles a South Korean bike crossing than anything I found in the NACTO guide:

A crossing in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Chris Rust.

Is it useful? Or just a distraction?

A street crossing that keeps people walking separate from those on bicycles would certainly be useful, if connecting similarly separated facilities, such as this off-street greenway:

Lane-separated greenway in Minneapolis. Photo by the author.

On Wilkes Street, however, bicycle riders are expected to move from a path people share for biking and walking on the west side of the intersection to street people share for biking and driving on the east, even though the bike crossing guides them towards the sidewalk.

At the BPAC meeting, people asked about the single bike crossing that's supposed to carry people over Wilkes Street's intersection with Route 1. Currently there is no bike crossing specifically for westbound traffic. This allows unimpeded flow of left-turning motor vehicles from eastbound Wilkes to northbound Route 1. The modified intersection will continue this practice.

The plan for Wilkes and Route 1. Image from the City of Alexandria.

When asked why a separate crossing was not added to facilitate westbound bicycling, Orr said it was "for safety."

In the new configuration, as in the present, westbound bicycle traffic is expected to cross to the southwest corner before either waiting for the northbound walk signal or proceeding west on the sidewalk. As in the current configuration, this design prioritizes car movement over cyclist safety. In previous discussions of this Bikeway, BPAC members specifically requested a direct connection to westbound Wilkes St for westbound bicycle traffic. Clearly, these requests were denied.

I left the meeting feeling that I was supposed to be impressed by the shiny new "bicycle crosswalk" but was instead disappointed with the second-class treatment of bicycling at the intersection with Route 1.


My godmother died where a new sidewalk design made her walk in traffic

A motorist killed my 95-year-old godmother while she was crossing the street near her Bethesda home last week. A recent traffic signal replacement makes people walk into a lane of traffic with a posted speed limit of 45 mph to get to the crosswalk she regularly used.

Map's base image from Google Maps, with labels by Ben Ross.

Marge Wydro frequently walked across River Road at its intersection with Springfield Drive, the residential two lane street where she lived. Here, River widens from a four lane divided highway into seven lanes. Her trip from her front door to the bowling alley at the Kenwood Country Club was about 300 feet.

In the past, Marge could walk (in the street) from her house on the first block of Springfield Drive to the corner with River Road. There, a curb ramp and sidewalk let her walk to the beg button (a button that must be pushed to get a walk signal) and the crosswalk across River.

River Road has sidewalks at the northern edge of the Westbard area, but they end about a quarter mile southeast of Marge's house. Farther out on River, the only sidewalks to be found are short connections between side streets and bus stops, like the ones at Springfield Drive.

But at the southeast corner of River and Springfield, the curb ramp and a piece of the sidewalk isn't there anymore. They went out as part of a project to replace the the traffic signal. In its place is a concrete curb with loose soil behind it. Frail walkers or people in wheelchairs are left no choice but to enter a traffic lane to reach the beg button and crosswalk. In the winter, when snow gets dumped on the corner, everyone's in that boat.

The sidewalk before and after reconstruction. The top image is from Google Streetview; the bottom image is by the author.

On the other side, after people have crossed seven lanes of River Road, they're met with more loose soil, weeds, a fire hydrant and utility poles. Here, a section of sidewalk skirts the crosswalk and the obstacles to connect the driveway entrance of the Kenwood Country Club to the bus stop a few feet southeast of the corner.

The Kenwood Country Club side of River Road. Image by the author.

Compounding the lack of safe access to the crosswalk and the fact that the crosswalk exposes pedestrians to seven lanes of traffic is the fragmented nature of the sidewalks on the side streets. The one short block of Springfield adjacent to River where my godmother lived is the street's only block without a sidewalk. On the other side of River Road, pedestrians like my godmother must share the driveway with cars to enter the country club. There's no direct paved connection from the sidewalk serving the bus stop to the closest country club building.

Marge Wydro. Photo by Bill Wydro.

The intersection poses an additional hazard to anyone not already familiar with it: the beg buttons are nearly impossible to see. On both sides of River Road, the buttons face south toward bus stops farther down the highway. With the new traffic signals, engineers have turned the buttons around to face the side streets. Now it's the bus rider's turn to miss the message that the traffic signals require a pedestrian to ask for permission to use the crosswalk.

We don't yet know the details of how Marge Wydro died, and it's possible we never will. But the engineering of this intersection subjected her to an entirely unnecessary safety hazard, which remains for anyone else who tries to cross here.

Tomorrow morning, County Councilmember Roger Berliner will join community members at the crash site to call for a redesign of this section of River Road.


Van Ness residents say their neighborhood isn't safe for walking

"My biggest concern at Van Ness is pedestrian safety. I feel my safety is constantly at risk," Benae Mosby said at a recent meeting of the Van Ness Main Streets board. As the communications and community relations manager at WAMU, whose headquarters are at Connecticut Avenue and Windom Place NW, Mosby walks this troubled intersection daily.

Connecticut Avenue at the Van Ness Metro station. All photos by the author.

It is an especially challenging time for Mosby and others on this stretch of Connecticut. On the east side, a one-block segment of the sidewalk is closed to accommodate the construction at Park Van Ness. On the west side, the entrance to the Metro has been closed since late June.

ANC 3F commissioners pushed DDOT to provide some relief to pedestrians, but to no avail. DDOT said it would add no second crosswalk on Connecticut at the south side on Windom (a few years after one of its own studies recommended one), and after adding a few more seconds to the crossing times at Veazey Terrace and Windom, DDOT said it would add no more.

With all this pressure on the intersections and pleas for changes falling on deaf ears at DDOT, a predictable outcome set in over the summer. The intersections became especially taxed in the morning rush hour, and pedestrians piled up and had a hard time getting through in a single cycle. Morning commuters, especially those traveling by bus to the Van Ness Metro stop, started taking more risks to avoid missing a walk cycle and potentially their train. Several could be seen crossing mid-block from the bus stop on the west side of Connecticut at Veazey Terrace to get to the Metro entrance on the east side.

As the problem grew, ANC 3F Commissioner Mary Beth Ray urged police action to deal with these hazardous crossings.

Police tried to make things safer

On Thursday, August 13th, MPD put up a yellow tape barricade to block mid-block access to the Van Ness Metro station. Officers were also handing out brochures and talking to pedestrians.

But by the next morning, the tape had been torn away. The next week, MPD tried another tack: Placing the tape where bus passengers are most tempted to cross.

These are short-term measures that do not address the real problem: The infrastructure is unfriendly to pedestrians, and right now it looks like DDOT would rather pedestrians bear the safety risk than accommodate pedestrian needs.

Metro escalator work has cut off what was a safer option

These hazards are what made the "secret" Metro passage under Connecticut Avenue, now lost to the escalator rehab project, so appealing.

"Metro has closed our 'secret' shortcut!" lamented Dorn McGrath, a long-time Forrest Hills resident who misses the safer underground route. "Pedestrians in the know wanting to cross Connecticut Avenue at Veazey Place could bypass the wait for a walk signal and the heavy traffic and cross in safety by using the Van Ness/UDC Metro tunnel. One could reach or depart from the Starbucks without having to rush across six lanes.

"Alas, the Metro entrance next to Starbucks is now closed and a pedestrian has no choice but to cross either through the heavy traffic or a block earlier."

To achieve Vision Zero, a lot has to change

Going back to Mosby's issue, even when the Metro entrance and Park Van Ness sidewalk reopens, the traffic and short crossing times will remain hazards to pedestrians at Windom and Veazey.

This will also continue to be the case at other Connecticut Avenue crossings, such as the one to the north on Albemarle Street. There, resident and seniors advocate Barbara Cline has seen car crashes, drivers running red lights,blocking intersections, speeding through an apartment building driveway from Connecticut to Albemarle.

Even with a new 25-year plan from DDOT that makes pedestrians the number one policy priority, the changes needed to make this a reality seem light years away. Photo enforcement can help, but the reality is that we live in a car culture, and pedestrians still need to push for changes to make room for us on the street.

Cross-posted at Forest Hills Connection.

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