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Pedestrians


8 ways to make it easier to walk around North Bethesda... or anywhere, really

The North Bethesda neighborhood of White Flint is in the midst of transition from car-oriented suburb to a vibrant, mixed-use community. But the area still has a ways to go. Here are eight ways to make walking around White Flint safer and easier to walk around that wouldn't require major investments.


Rockville Pike. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Around the Pike District, which is the area of White Flint near the Metro, there are a number of examples of how the built environment doesn't make it easy for people to get around on foot, which is increasingly common. There are six-lane roads with no crosswalks, places where people walk but there's no visible lighting, and crosswalk signals that simply don't turn on unless you hit a button.

These are some simple ways to make the Pike District more inviting to pedestrians:

1. Make it easier to see people who are walking

More lighting for sidewalks and crosswalks, clearly-visible crosswalks, and trimming trees and vegetation on drivers' sight lines would all make it easier for people driving and walking to see one another.

Drivers on Rockville Pike and on many of the major streets in the Pike District area aren't used to people walking alongside them. For decades, a pedestrian in that area was almost as rare as a really great $5 Bordeaux. For the cost of a bucket of paint, cool crosswalks would draw attention to the fact that people now walk in the Pike District. (They'd also add some much needed beauty and pizzazz.)


A decorative crosswalk in Los Angeles. Photo by NACTO on Flickr.

2. Make sure there are crosswalks on all sides at all intersections

When crosswalks are missing from one or more sides of an intersection, it forces people walking to go out of their way to cross in the existing crosswalks.

In reality, many people continue to use the most direct route to cross the intersection, only without the safety of a marked crosswalk and walk signal to alert drivers to their presence.


A missing crosswalk at MD-355 and Old Georgetown Road. Photo by Jay Corbalis.

Several intersections in the Pike District, where huge residential buildings have recently gone up, are missing crosswalks on one or more sides: Montrose Parkway and Towne (Hoya) Road, Nicholson Lane and MD-355, Grand Park Avenue at Old Georgetown Road, and MD-355 at Edson Lane.

3. Make pedestrian signals automatic

Beg buttons—so called because they require pedestrians to press them in order to receive a walk signal rather than providing one automatically with a green light—make walking more complicated and inconvenient.


Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

Except for the intersection of Marinelli Road and Rockville Pike, all major intersections within the Pike District feature beg buttons in at least one direction.

Rather than actually making it easier to walk places, these buttons often cause confusion among pedestrians. Not realizing they must press the button to receive a walk signal, pedestrians often tire of waiting and cross against the signal, making things less safe for everyone.

While there's a lot that goes into making sure traffic flows smoothly, it costs nothing to flip the switch to make pedestrian signals automatic like they are in nearly every urban area.

4. Add places for people to wait in the median

Rockville Pike is wide: between six and eight lanes throughout the Pike District. For many, this distance can be too far to cover on foot in one light cycle. When that happens, people are stranded on a narrow concrete island between fast moving traffic.


A pedestrian refuge in Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Pedestrian refuges provide a safe place for those who cannot cross the full distance in one turn. On Rockville Pike, they could be implemented in the short term by narrowing traffic lanes slightly at intersections and using that extra room to expand medians.


A tiny, insufficient pedestrian refuge at Marinelli Road and Rockville Pike. Photo by Jay Corbalis.

5. Make signs better

Improve signage so that drivers are more aware that pedestrians will be crossing the street and so that pedestrians know the safer places to cross. Wayfinding signs could be invaluable in directing people to cross where it's safest.

These following three projects are a bit more complicated and they be more expensive than the ones above, but they're doable if officials get started soon.

6. Eliminate slip lanes

Hot rights, or slip lanes, are dedicated right turn lanes at intersections that allow drivers to make the turn at higher speeds by reducing the angle of the turn versus a typical perpendicular intersection. It also allows cars to turn right without stopping, although they do need to yield to cars and pedestrians.


A slip lane at Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road. Photo by Jay Corbalis.

Slip lanes make intersections less safe by placing walkers directly in the path of fast-moving cars and increasing the distance they must travel to cross the road.

7. Add mid-block crossings on really long blocks

Mid-block crossings are dedicated pedestrian crosswalks between signalized intersections on very long blocks. A crosswalk at Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike by North Bethesda Market is just one place where a mid-block crosswalk would help.


A mid-block crossing in San Francisco. Photo by Eric Fredericks on Flickr.

8. Fill in missing sidewalks

Several areas of high-pedestrian traffic in the Pike District lack formal sidewalks, and instead have only well-worn dirt paths, or desire paths, that develop from foot traffic. Where there are desire paths, there should be real, paved sidewalks.


Desire path at SE corner of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road. Photo by Jay Corbalis.

Around the Pike District, members of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Friends of White Flint, who teamed up to create the Pike District Pedestrian Safety Campaign, recently put up signs that point out the existing conditions.


Photo by the author.

The signs also invite people who walk in the area to share their own suggestions for making the Pike District more pedestrian-friendly on social media with the hashtag #pikepeds or at pikedistrictpeds.org.

Pedestrians


National links: Ancient ruins that nobody visits

There are ancient ruins in the United States but people don't treat them as tourist destinations like they do ones in other countries. Also, not everyone gets to weigh in on how their city is planned, and Ford Motor Company is trying out a different transportation strategy. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.


Photo by John Fowler on Flickr.

Ancient ruins ignored: The US has a number of ancient cities, including Cahokia near St. Louis and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. But we don't visit the same way we do places like, say, Machu Picchu. Part of the reason may be that ancient ruins in the US don't exactly mesh with the narrative that this land was uninhibited, waiting for Westerners to simply come and put it to use. (Pricenomics)

Not so representative: Metropolitan planning agencies are notorious for overlooking the opinions of people who live in dense urban areas, especially people of color and women. According to researchers in Austin, Texas, while 63% of their regional population is white, white board members represent 90% of the technical advisory council and 85% of the transportation policy board of region's metropolitan planning organization. Women make up 33% and 30% of these same two boards even though they make up half of the total population. (Streetsblog USA)

Will Ford change urban transportation?: The Ford Motor company is making urban travel part of its business model. The company has bought Chariot, a transit-like company that shuttles people from home to work in large cities, and is paying to bring 7,000 bike share bikes to San Francisco by 2017 (there are 700 now). The company says its goal is to drive down the cost of mobility for everyone. (Medium)

Is "out" the only way forward?: Cities that spread outward have produced more housing than those which have curbed the sprawl, according to a Berkeley economist. More units in sprawling areas has meant lower prices, which means cities will face a hard decision going forward: contain development while production in the core lags and prices go up, or sprawl into the outer areas of the region, a solution that brings high transportation costs and environmental damage. (Wall Street Journal)

Crosswalk, redesigned: A series of crosswalks are being redesigned in San Francisco to promote safety, taking into account the fact that drivers hit three people each day. The idea is to make pedestrians easier to spot by using multiple zebra crossings and raised curbs, but also to make the crossings more park-like. (Curbed SF)

Our transportation habits are wasteful: When writing a book on garbage, Edward Humes noticed that we waste a lot of space and resources on transportation, so he wrote a new book called Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. The fact that vehicles designed for five people ferry around one person, for example, led him to think the car is a social, economic, and health problem that needs to be solved. (New York Times)

Quote of the Day

"If you look at legal requirements on levels of nitrogen dioxide in particular, Oxford Street gets in the first week of January what it should in an entire year. That's one of the reason why there's an urgency to air quality plans."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who himself has adult onset asthma, discussing the air quality problems London faces thanks to endless streams of diesel buses. (CNN)

Pedestrians


This may be DC's most ridiculous missing crosswalk

Walk through the heart of the GW campus, just a block from the Foggy Bottom Metro, and you might suddenly, bizarrely, run into an intersection where you aren't supposed to cross the street:


Photo by the author.

By DC law, any place where a street interrupts a sidewalk, there is a legal crosswalk. Even if there aren't any stripes marking it, there's still a crosswalk there. And the District Department of Transportation's official design manual requires marked crosswalks at all intersections. But that doesn't stop DDOT from sometimes designing intersections without crosswalks.

Often, the road's designers are putting the fast speed of traffic as their top priority and trading away the needs of people on foot. At Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, for instance, engineers wanted a double left turn lane, and that's incompatible with a crosswalk. Then-director Gabe Klein intervened to insist on a crosswalk. That example turned out well, but many intersections get built without all of their crosswalks.

It's not right to force people to cross three times just to keep going straight. It adds a lot of time to each walker's trip and sends a clear message that people on foot are second-class citizens. Most often, this happens in complex intersections or in areas with low numbers of people walking, though even there that's not right (it just perpetuates the situation).

Most often, this situation crops up where diagonal streets meet the grid, like at 15th Street and Florida Avenue NW or 4th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Here, though, this is a regular corner of two typical DC grid streets (22nd and I NW), and it's in a heavily-walked area on a college campus near Metro. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A chair Patrick Kennedy explained in a series of tweets:

This intersection was controlled by a 4-way stop until about ¾ years ago, when a light was installed to handle increased traffic relating to the new development at Square 54. All crossings were possible with the 4-way stop.

When the light was installed, DDOT updated the ADA ramps but determined that they couldn't them at this crossing because of the WMATA emergency access grates positioned at the curb on either side of the street. My suggestion was that they install a bulb-out here to extend the sidewalk into the curb lane and give them the additional space needed to add a ramp since there's no rush-hour lane here and no parking near the intersection.

As of yet, that suggestion has not been taken. Meanwhile, as you can probably imagine, people cross here all the time anyways.

Pedestrian Advisory Council member Eileen McCarthy said, "It's not the intent of the ADA to make crossings more difficult." She further argues that DDOT doesn't even have the legal authority to close this crosswalk.

DDOT Pedestrian Program Coordinator George Branyan said that DDOT is working internally and with WMATA to devise a solution. While that's great, DDOT should have either waited on the signal until the solution was ready or put in crosswalks anyway (as McCarthy suggests is legal) in the interim instead of putting up this sign banning walkers.

After all, DDOT's own manual says:

29.7 Pedestrian Crossings

Marked Crosswalks will be required at all signalized intersections, school areas, and high pedestrian areas.

That doesn't say "except if it will inconvenience drivers too much," though in practice, DDOT often abrogates this in the name of traffic flow, and then often without public notice or discussion.

In the ensuing Twitter discussion, people pointed out similar missing crosswalks at 9th and D NW and at the "Starburst" intersection where H Street NE meets Benning Road, Bladensburg Road, 15th Street, Florida Avenue, and Maryland Avenue.

What other missing crosswalks are near you?

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.

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