Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Signs

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.

Transit


Metro's new displays do a better job of sharing info

Metro has installed new passenger information displays at some of its stations. The new signs fix the long-standing problem of showing information about elevator outages at far away stations rather than when the next train will reach the platform.

Metro customers have spotted new passenger information displays at Arlington Cemetery, Ballston, Judiciary Square, and Takoma. Like the older ones the majority of stations still have, the new displays list real-time train arrival information in three lines.

The biggest upside to the new signs is that instead of using the entire screen to slowly cycle through elevator outages, they simply show the info in a scrolling feed across the bottom.

In addition to the stations listed above, Metro's latest Customer Accountability Report says the new displays will go in on the mezzanine level at Smithsonian, Tenleytown, and Ballston by May of this year.

Transit


Metro considers labeling trains as Northbound, Southbound, etc. as part of new sign concept

You might soon be catching a Southbound Green Line train to L'Enfant Plaza and transfer to an Eastbound Orange Line train, if Metro goes ahead with a concept to revamp signs and navigation in the rail system.

The agency took a fresh look at its wayfinding signs because of a number of problems, including accessibility for people with disabilities, really confusing designs, and more. Officials came up with a new concept, ran it by people internally, and last night shared it with the Riders' Advisory Council.

North, south, east, west

The biggest change would be to drop the system of identifying directions by the ends of the lines. Instead of taking a Green Line train toward Branch Avenue or Greenbelt, you'd take it northbound or southbound.


Left: Current pylon design. Right: New concept pylon design.

Certainly this direction system can be confusing for many people, especially new riders, for whom these ends of lines mean little. It's particularly easy to get mixed up with the Red Line, where trains can go to Glenmont, Shady Grove, Grosvenor, and Silver Spring. But the two "S" directions aren't on the same side, nor are the two 2-word directions.

On the other hand, the Red Line makes a U shape, so telling someone to get on the Westbound Red Line at Wheaton, when the tracks really head south and a bit east, might still leave some room for confusion. Riders from Franconia to Pentagon would have one track for both Eastbound Blue Line trains and Northbound Yellow Line trains. The Blue Line train also heads west before it heads east, though the trains do ultimately go east and north.

Matt Johnson examined this possibility in a post in 2010, but also noted the above issues. Other possibilities include "inbound/outbound," as Boston's T does, picking a spot (such as Metro Center) where the directions flip; or listing the next major stations, as Munich does.

The strip maps would also get simpler and just show stations you can reach with a one-seat ride from the current platform, like Matt recommended. There would be only a few different signs; and stations with the same lines would all have the same signs, with the current station marked with a white background.


Current strip map (for Rosslyn).


New strip maps (for Pentagon City)

More dots on the map?

Another part of the presentation shows tweaks to the system map. Metro officials spent months agonizing over how to show stations where multiple lines all stop, since the old system of one small circle in between two lines doesn't work for three lines.

The agency eventually settled on a scheme of using the same small circles but with little white "whiskers" linking it to the lines on each side. It seems they aren't happy with this in the Jackson Graham Building, because the new concept tosses this out and instead puts a separate circle on each line.


New concept system map.


The current system map.


Alternate "pill" option from 2013 redesign.

To me, this looks really busy and messy. What do you think? Another problem is that transfer stations still have a single small-ish circle, so it might even look like Silver and Blue trains don't stop at L'Enfant Plaza. Certainly the transfer stations are now much less prominent, which is the opposite of what should be.

In our 2011 map contest, someone actually did suggest something like this scheme: Matt Johnson, whose entry used pairs or triples of dots. However, he used bigger dots that link together, which I at least think looks much nicer than this. He made the transfer stations much larger, though the problem still exists on his version.


Matt Johnson's map contest entry.

The ends of each line now say "West Terminus" and so forth. It's a minor thing, but "terminus" seems like an unnecessarily technical word to use. There's also got to be a more elegant graphical way to include those labels.

What do you think about using north/south/east/west and the map concept?

Transit


The man who designed Metro's pylons (and much more) dies

Well-known and influential designer Massimo Vignelli died yesterday at age 83. Perhaps most known (at least in transit circles) for his 1972 diagrammatic New York Subway map, he also designed the iconic pylons that stand on Metro platforms today.


Pylon at Rosslyn. Photo by the author.

The pylons were Vignelli's solution to the unique wayfinding design problem that Metro faced.

Harry Weese, the architect responsible for designing Metro's soaring vaults, wanted nothing to mar them or obstruct the airy design. That ruled out overhead signs. It also ruled out signs mounted on the vault.

Vignelli's answer to this problem was the pylon. These columns were to be the primary wayfinding system within stations. Some pylons contained a vertically-oriented strip map or directions to particular exits. Others contained the name of the station, written sideways.

The plyons served two other functions as well. In underground stations with center platforms, lights in the pylon's crown shine on the vault, providing indirect lighting. At outdoor stations, the pylons carry four light globes at the top.

The other main function is air circulation at underground stations with center platforms. The pylons release air from their crowns (the return is beneath the granite benches).


Lights in the pylon crowns at U Street. Photo by the author.

I had the privilege to attend a talk by Vignelli at WMATA's Jackson Graham Building a few years ago. He talked about the design challenges and how the pylons were received early on. It didn't take Metro very long to install the horizontal station names on the vault walls, but Vignelli noted that it was much easier to read the signs on his pylons since the vertically-oriented text was easier to track with your eyes as the train arrived. The horizontal signs were simply a blur of text.

Vignelli's pylons were (and remain) an elegant solution to preserve the sanctity of the vault and help riders navigate. But Metro signage has continued to evolve, and at some stations, limited overhead signs are starting to appear.

And while the pylons remain an iconic symbol of Metro, the transit agency has already decided not to install them in future stations. They're absent in the stations opened in 2004 and won't be around in the new Silver Line stations.

Government


Cheh proposes hoverboard lanes and a Palisades stadium

DC may hire a dedicated person to help drivers read stop signs, build hoverboard lanes, and place the DC United stadium atop the Palisades Safeway, under budget recommendations from DC Councilmember and transportation chair Mary Cheh. As you might guess, these are a joke.


Photo by Debbie Goard on Flickr.

April Fool's Day was six weeks ago, but today is the day for joviality from Cheh and her staff, who put out an annual joke budget memo as council committees are making their serious budget recommendations.

The stop sign reader, the memo says, also will help people decipher parking signs:

Residents and tourists will be pleased to have a government employee stand next to them, read the sign, look back at the individual, look back at the sign, look at the location of the car in question, look back at the sign, shrug their shoulders, and exclaim, "hell if I know."
DC needs hoverboard lanes, Cheh says, because as we know from Back to the Future, Part II, hoverboards exist in 2015 and therefore they are going to be invented soon.
Hoverboard lanes will be placed between sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Opponents may argue that these lanes will only fuel the war on cars. This Committee stands by its position that there is no war on cars; however, as a
precautionary measure, an additional $175,000 will be allocated to the Department of Public Works to assist in the clean-up after D.C. Transit Judgment Day: the day when vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists engage in an all-out war to determine the District's policy going forward. Fortunately, some of us will have hoverboards to help us escape the battle.
Cheh has a great plan to get DC United a stadium without having to swap land for the Reeves Center: put it at the Palisades Safeway. For background, Safeway wants to build a new store with housing on top, and a lot of neighbors oppose housing for the usual reasons.

Cheh says this is a perfect solution:

Providing the Safeway with a grass roof will help the company obtain LEED certification. Moreover, residents will not need to be concerned about increased traffic or loud noise because—let's face it—who really goes to D.C. United games.
Instead of the proposed Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, Cheh wants to fund a zip line. She has great suggestions to deal with the school lottery: a Harry Potter-style "sorting hat," or alternately, a "Hunger Games" style fight at RFK stadium.

Read the whole thing.

Parking


With the streetcar, H Street will need clear signs

For streetcars to move through traffic, rail tracks have to be free of parked cars. To keep them that way, the rules of the road must be crystal clear for drivers.


Streetcar parking zone sign, Seattle. Photo by BeyondDC.

Last week DDOT used a truck for a test-run of the H Street streetcar route, and because of illegally parked cars, the going was slow. But other cities with similar streetcar layouts, like Seattle and Portland, have had a lot of success keeping their lanes clear. How do they do it?

With constant and clear communication to drivers, like the sign pictured here, and with strong enforcement.

Any time you take pavement away from cars, there's a learning curve. Drivers accustomed to doing as they please have to change behavior. That's to be expected, and it doesn't happen on the first day you run your first test truck. But most drivers do fall in line, once they understand what's changed. That's how streetcars have worked in other cities.

And if all else fails, ticketing cameras mounted on streetcars, like in San Francisco, would solve any remaining problem in a hurry.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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