Some Seattle crosswalk signals do not meet federal standard

Some of Seattle’s pedestrian crosswalk signals do not meet federal guidelines for how much time should be allowed to walk across an intersection safely after the don’t walk signal starts flashing.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) sets standards for municipalities to follow for traffic control devices, including crosswalks. SDOT uses this standard to set the amount of time pedestrians have to clear the intersection once the don’t walk signal starts flashing. This length of time before cross-traffic is allowed to move, called the pedestrian clearance time, should allow enough time for people to clear the intersection before the signal changes.

Pedestrian Intervals from MUTCD

Pedestrian Intervals from Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

Until 2009, the standard was based on a pedestrian foot speed 4 feet per second, which is what many intersections in Seattle are based on. The latest manual recommends enough time for a pedestrian traveling at 3.5 feet per second (fps) to clear the intersection (section 4E.06).

So, if an intersection takes 10 seconds to cross at 3.5 fps, the current recommendation would allow the flashing signal to start with 6 seconds remaining and then there would be 4 seconds where the don’t walk signal would be up before the cross signal turns green.

However, a survey of several downtown Seattle intersections found that some intersections do not even meat the older, looser standard, giving pedestrians an inadequate amount of time to cross. All crosswalks at 6th and Virginia were found to be significantly out of compliance – to meet the current federal standard, the flashing don’t walk signal at this intersection would need to last for five seconds longer.

Several other intersections are out of compliance with the stricter 2009 standard, including crosswalks across 4th at Stewart and Pine, as well as crosswalks across 5th and 6th along Pine. These intersections are commonly used by tourists, as well as families with children and the elderly, who may move at a slower pace than other pedestrians. In many cases SDOT set the standard pedestrian clearance time not a second more than the previous minimum.

While Washington has not yet adopted this revised standard, “SDOT does plan on using 3.5 fps wherever practical and is doing so with all signal timing changes currently underway,” according to spokesperson Rick Sheridan.

The Federal Highway Administration has set a target compliance date for all signals to be updated by the end of 2014. “At the current pace of signal timing changes, SDOT would not be able to modify all locations” in this timeframe. “This will be raised during the 2012 budget deliberations to determine if additional funds can be added to allow all modifications to be made by the end of 2014,” according to Sheridan.

There is flexibility in the federal standard for SDOT to set their signals at a higher level than the minimum recommended time, so it’s unfortunate that these intersection times are so short. This is a difficult thing to measure, as it’s based on intersection width, but if you find an intersection that you believe does not allow enough time for people to cross, you can report it via SDOT’s Street Maintenance Request Form or by e-mailing

A follow-up post has been posted: Should Signal Countdowns Exceed Standard?.


8 Responses to “Some Seattle crosswalk signals do not meet federal standard”

  • As the article notes, the 2009 version of the MUTCD has not been adopted by the State of Washington. Until that point, the official requirement for the city is four feet per second. However, SDOT is using 3.5 feet per second whenever practical even though it is “recommended” but not “required” in that 2009 MUTCD. Our signals staff is investigating the crossing times at Sixth and Virginia to ensure they comply with the 2003 MUTC currently in effect.

  • Good post, thanks for the link. Is the city also considering changing signals to read WALK without having to have a button pressed? Many intersections require this action as it stands today, which means pedestrians end up waiting two cycles to be able to cross. Not very pedestrian friendly for a city thinking about outstanding walkability as a goal.

    • Regarding the idea of automatic WALK signals, in situations where the vehicular cycle is always long enough to accommodate the ped cycle, I agree the ped cycle should be given automatically. But many signals outside of downtown Seattle (generally those that are traffic-activated, rather than always on timed cycles) have vehicular cycles that vary based on the amount of detected traffic, and they are often shorter than the minimum pedestrian cycle. At these intersections, automatically giving the WALK would make these signals needlessly long, impeding not just vehicular traffic but also pedestrian traffic.

      Take the intersection of a four-lane arterial with heavy traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian), and a minor two-lane cross-street with very light traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian). The arterial generally has the green until cross-traffic is detected. When the arterial traffic is (eventually) stopped to give cross-traffic the green, how long should that green last? If only one or two cars are detected, and no one’s pushed the ped actuator, no WALK is given and the green only lasts a few seconds—far shorter than the minimum ped cycle. And if you ask me, that’s how it should be: why stop arterial traffic (vehicular AND pedestrian) longer than necessary? Unless a pedestrian is actually present, no pedestrian signal should be given.

      Now, I certainly think cross traffic should at times be made to stop even when there’s no traffic present, e.g. as a means of preventing speeding at night or on straight-aways. Personally I’ve long felt we need many intersections to be all-red late at night, only giving a green to detected traffic after it has been made to stop for a second or two. But use of signals as traffic calming devices is a different issue from automatic WALK signals and even from signal length.

      Really, I just don’t understand my fellow pedestrians who don’t press the button every time. It’s not that hard to do, and it ensures you (and other peds behind you) have sufficient time to safely cross the street. Just push the damn button! And for Pete’s sake, just push it once!

  • Thank you for raising this issue!!! I have been paying attention to many crosswalks that, when the “Don’t Walk” begins to flash, someone has to almost run across to make it before the light turns red. A few weeks ago I actually tested this with a moderate walking pace (i.e. a “fit” elderly pace) and found myself in the middle of the street at two intersections when the light turned red. Regarding Rick@SDOT’s response — this isn’t about “meeting the standard.” Are we a pedestrian friendly city? If we are, let’s lead and prioritize pedestrian mobility.

    And I’ll second NickBob’s comment about the odd need to push the walk button. Pushing the walk button should provide for a quick change of the light in order to cross the street, but when a light turns green the “Walk” should flash on regardless of if someone pushed the button (as appropriate), to give the opportunity to cross the street quicker when one gets to the intersection after the appropriate light is already green.

    • To address one of your points – pedestrians don’t have to be out of the intersection before the light turns red. The federal recommendation is that pedestrians just have enough time to clear the intersection before cross-traffic gets the green.

      I agree with you though we’re trying to be a walkable city so we should be doing more than just the minimum. “What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?”

  • Ughhh, terrible. Why do standards claim they are improving walking conditions yet keep making it more of a hassle and time consuming? Notice the change involves shaving time off the walk signal and leaving the last 4 seconds of green light with a don’t walk signal; meaning if you are in a rush and want to jog across the street with the green, you are doing so illegally (I see a lot of this activity, cause who wants to wait at the corner of two busy streets in the rain for a two minute light cycle?). That means to be a good lawful pedestrian, you spend more time waiting for the go ahead to walk while cars traveling in your direction get more time to keep moving freely.

    I’ve noticed SDOT has already been implementing this type of system to allow for turning movements without pedestrians in the crosswalk. I’m sure it is done with good intentions, however, it always comes at the cost of the pedestrian.

    I propose to just make the countdown longer so those that need the extra time can judge if they should begin crossing. Those that can quickly cross can do so legally and with the knowledge of when the light is going to change on them. Please don’t assume we all have to walk at 3.5 feet per second just because the least common denominator does…

    Lastly, if SDOT also wants to allow more time for cars to turn without pedestrians in the crosswalk by making the last few seconds of the green light have a don’t walk signal, then give peds that time back at the front end of the light. Give us a few seconds of walk signal between light cycles with no green light in any direction. See 19th and Madison for a good example of how this works.

  • Tsk this is really so much of a hassle for pedestrians and more advantageous to those traveling by car. Needless to say, all laws have flaws and let’s just hope the flaws will get noticed and necessary changes be done.

  • Nice post. I really liked the info-graphic about the times when the lights are supposed to change. Where did you find that?

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