Tag Archive for 'signals'

Should signal countdowns exceed standard?

Our earlier post about some Seattle crosswalk signals not meeting the federal standard has raised an interesting question. The post points out that most Seattle intersections start the flashing “don’t walk” signal using the old design standard based on a pedestrian crossing at 4 feet per second (fps). SDOT will be changing these signals over the next several years to meet the new standard of 3.5 fps to extend the pedestrian clearance time for people to cross in the pedestrian clearance interval once the “don’t walk” signal starts flashing.

Pedestrian Intervals from MUTCD

Pedestrian Intervals from Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

However, a reader asked, is meeting the standard good enough? “This isn’t about ‘meeting the standard.’ Are we a pedestrian friendly city? If we are, let’s lead and prioritize pedestrian mobility.”

So, should signals in Seattle allow more time for pedestrians to cross once the don’t walk signal starts flashing by, for example, designing for a pedestrian traveling at 3 fps? The drawback to this would be that the walk signal (the only time during which a pedestrian can legally enter the intersection) would be shorter because the don’t walk signal would need to start flashing sooner. The good thing is that people who have started crossing would have even more time to get to the other side before cross-traffic starts moving. And, in reality, people would still cross the intersection after the don’t walk signal has started flashing and they would be given more time to get out of the intersection, though this change might increase the number of people who would be given a citation.

When should the "don't walk" signal start flashing?

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A better solution in my opinion would be for the countdown seconds to be displayed for the duration of the signal, so that even during the walk signal, people know how much time they have to get across. Unfortunately that is expressly against the MUTCD standard. Perhaps this is not recommended because it could give a conflicting message to people who are not used to seeing a walk signal with a countdown.

Anyway, what do you think?

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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 traffic.signals@seattle.gov.

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

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Pedestrians get the finger

A crosswalk signal in Spokane is giving pedestrians the finger instead of the don’t walk hand (via How We Drive)

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Ballard resident requests illuminated crosswalk

My Ballard reports on a resident’s request to add a pedestrian-activated crosswalk at the intersection of 24th Ave NW and NW 58th St. Kevin Tice has applied for this improvement to be included by the Ballard District Council on the list of projects that are sent to the city for funding by the Neighborhood Projects Fund.

In the application Tice writes, “The current crosswalk has an outdated overhanging crosswalk light that is barely noticeable by cars, especially during overcast weather. The crosswalk signs (one for each side) unfortunately do not deter the vehicles driving at speeds of 25-40 mph from stopping for many pedestrians. I have attached videos [see above] that I took recently of numerous cars passing waiting pedestrians, either because of their speed, or because they could not see them waiting due to parked cars near the intersection. In a span of 30 minutes, I recorded 10 such incidents. I personally have had to run across 24th avenue due to cars not stopping.”

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Overhead crosswalk sign added in West Seattle

West Seattle Blog reports that a flashing-light crosswalk sign has been installed at SW Findlay Street across California Ave. Previously there had been a hanging sign (without flashing lights). While California includes only two lanes of motorized traffic and a center turn lane, this project was requested by community leaders and funded through the Neighborhood Street Fund. According to one commenter, drivers rarely stop for pedestrians at this intersection, so hopefully the flashing lights will change that.


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Broken crosswalk button fixed quickly

Broken crosswalk push buttonA reader reports a photo of a broken push button at Lake City Way & NE 20th Ave.

This broken crosslite button on the Lake City Way crossing at NE 20th demonstrates why having any crosswalks defaulted to Don’t Walk is a bad idea for pedestrians. I’ll send word to the city via that handy link you recently posted, let’s see how long it takes to repair. I’d imagine a stoplight at that location would take no more than 24 hours. In the meantime, the next crosswalks in either direction is 5+ blocks away.

He was right, SDOT fixed the crosswalk button by the next day. SDOT deserves credit for the quick response, but it’s unfortunate that the signal broke to begin with. This type of issue would be less common if all crosswalk signals would be automatic in walkable areas.

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What’s on your pedestrian wishlist?

While it’s disappointing that the city council rejected proposed funding for the Pedestrian Master Plan, good infrastructure is only part of what makes for a walkable city. There are some things that can be done without millions of dollars for new sidewalks or crosswalk signals.

Here’s my low-budget pedestrian wishlist:

  • Reduce the number of sidewalks and crosswalks blocked for construction – Building construction has slowed and fewer sidewalks are blocked for private construction. Still, SDOT projects like McGraw Square and the Mercer Corridor project are inconveniencing pedestrians. Sidewalk and crosswalk closures negatively impact people on foot, who in some cases have to cross busy streets twice. In order to reduce the inconvenience to Seattle’s pedestrians, I’d like to see the city limit sidewalk and crosswalk closures.
  • No “push to cross” buttons anywhere with a WalkScore above 90 – Intersections where pedestrians have to push a button to cross are the default in suburban places like Puyallup. In walkable urban areas of Seattle, these buttons are out of place. While the buttons may make sense late at night or early on weekend mornings when signal cycles are short, the standard style of button gives no indication of whether it needs to be pushed to change the signal for pedestrians. During busy hours of the day people on foot shouldn’t be forced to wait minutes at an intersection because they didn’t push the button. Removing these buttons, or at least changing signals to automatically allow pedestrian movement, would be a powerful way to let pedestrians know that they are important and to improve pedestrian movement in Seattle’s most walkable areas.
  • No right on red anywhere with WalkScore above 90 – Drivers have to be aware of many things in order to turn right on red. Conflicts between walkers and drivers are inevitable in popular pedestrian areas. Disallowing right on red in Seattle’s most walkable areas would keep people on foot safer. Unfortunately, this would probably raise objections from drivers as it would reduce vehicle flow.
  • Issue citations to drivers who block crosswalks – There are some intersections where heavy vehicle traffic often blocks crosswalks (and cross-traffic). While I can empathize with drivers who proceed through the intersection not knowing that they’re going to get stuck, legal enforcement could help pedestrian movement (and vehicle movement too).
  • Recalibrate all countdown timers to allow for safe crossing – Some crosswalk signals start their “don’t walk” countdowns with only 6 seconds to go. Not all pedestrians can walk quickly enough to cross in the little warning time given. Some intersections in tourist-friendly areas (e.g. near Pike Place Market) already have very long countdowns. By adding more time to the crosswalk countdown in other parts of the city, slower-moving people will be able to cross intersections more comfortably and all pedestrians will have a better chance to make it through an intersection.
  • Re-direct loudspeakers at parking garages – Many downtown parking garages and alleys are equipped with loudspeakers directed at pedestrians that say “Warning: vehicle approaching”. Pedestrians have the right of way on the sidewalk, so shouldn’t drivers be warned that pedestrians are in the area instead of the other way around? Requiring garages to change their loudspeakers to ask drivers to watch for pedestrians would send the message that cars are not more important than people just because they are bigger.

We might see all of these wishes granted in a walkers’ wonderland, but in reality we won’t see any of these this year. And, in a car-oriented American city like Seattle, some of these measures would be controversial. Still, each of these wishes would help Seattle to reach its goal to become most walkable city in the nation.

So, what’s on your pedestrian wishlist?

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SDOT’s explanation for crosswalk closure worth examining

Earlier this week we pointed out that the crosswalk along Westlake at Mercer has been closed as part of the Mercer Corridor Project. We have an update, as SDOT has responded to confirm our assumptions:

You are correct that the eastern crosswalk at Mercer St. and Westlake Ave. N is closed due to the two left-hand turn lanes from southbound Westlake Ave. N onto eastbound Mercer St. The volume and timing of traffic turning left (traffic that crosses the eastern crosswalk) is too high to keep the crosswalk safely open. This traffic configuration is in place to accommodate high volumes of traffic now using Westlake Ave. N to access Mercer St. while construction is occurring on other streets, such as 9th Ave. N.

The eastern crosswalk at Mercer St. and Westlake Ave. N will likely be closed for the duration of the Mercer Corridor Project, through mid-2013.

(emphasis above is mine) The Mercer Corridor Project will significantly improve the pedestrian environment in this area, however, like the McGraw Square construction, this is another project where the impact to pedestrians is worth examining.


View Westlake @ Mercer Crosswalk Closure in a larger map

As with most things SDOT does, safety appears to be one of their foremost considerations. However, the current intersection signaling appears to pose safety risks to both drivers and pedestrians. The current light signals allow drivers on southbound Westlake Ave to turn left onto Mercer St after yielding to northbound traffic. Then the signal changes to a green arrow to allow a protected left turn. By allowing drivers to turn left on yield, the chances of a vehicle collision are increased, which is apparent upon observing rush hour traffic. Due to traffic back-ups, northbound vehicles sometimes have to stop on green before entering the intersection or stop in the intersection, making the unprotected left turn dangerous for vehicles during peak hours.

Vehicle navigating unprotected left turn

Vehicle navigating unprotected left turn

Furthermore, with the large “Crosswalk Closed” signs, and no visible crosswalk signal on the east side of the intersection, drivers will be less likely to scan for pedestrians inevitably crossing in this area. The crosswalk closure means that there may be fewer people on foot to be hit by turning cars, but with drivers focusing on navigating the unprotected left turn, the few pedestrians who do cross (albeit illegally) may be more likely to be hit.

Keeping traffic moving through the intersection may be a bigger reason for SDOT closing the crosswalk, but doing this doesn’t significantly increase how many cars can turn left onto Mercer during peak periods. During this evening’s commute, only around 2-5 cars were able to turn on the unprotected left arrow – a relatively small number compared to the high number of cars that turn left on the protected arrow. Re-opening the crosswalk may slow down the cars that are able to turn left on yield, but the number of pedestrians crossing here isn’t high enough to have much of an impact to left-turning traffic.

One of the goals of the Mercer Corridor Project is to support walking in the area – the project will create a street through a neighborhood (South Lake Union) where there is now basically an onramp to a freeway. So why shouldn’t this transformation start with the beginning of the construction project?

By closing this crosswalk, SDOT is expecting people on foot to cross Westlake twice to cross Mercer once, which can add over three minutes to a walk on foot – a long time to spend navigating a single intersection, especially in a city that aspires to be the most walkable city in the nation.

Pedestrians walking on closed crosswalk

Life-threatening jaywalking or civil disobedience?

As with most construction projects, some inconvenience is unavoidable. However, if SDOT were serious about improving safety at this intersection and upholding the objectives of the Mercer Corridor project, my opinion is that the unprotected left turn for vehicle traffic would be eliminated, at least at peak periods, and the crosswalk would be re-opened at all hours.

On the other hand, SDOT is correct that this is a high-traffic area, and reducing the number of cars able to turn by eliminating the unprotected left turn and by re-opening the crosswalk will have some impact on how quickly vehicles can drive through during rush hour. What do you think? How would you respond to these questions?:

  1. Does blacking out the crosswalk signal and putting up “crosswalk closed” signs make this intersection more or less safe than if the crosswalk were still open?
  2. To address the safety issue posed by jaywalking pedestrians, should SDOT install physical barricades (e.g. jersey barriers) or should there be a police presence to reduce the number of people on foot who cross illegally?
  3. If you were walking along the east side of Westlake and needed to remain on the east side of Westlake, would you cross here illegally where there has been a crosswalk in place, or cross Westlake twice to cross Mercer legally?
  4. Is SDOT striking the right balance between vehicle throughput and pedestrian accessibility?
  5. Is there another way this intersection could be configured during the construction period?

Should this crosswalk across Mercer be closed to pedestrians until 2013?

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Share your thoughts in the comments. Also, if you have a strong opinion or questions of your own, contact the construction project hotline at (206) 419-5818 or mercerinfo@seattle.gov.

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Crosswalk closed at Westlake and Mercer

Update: SDOT explains reasons for closure

As part of the Mercer Corridor Project, the east crosswalk at Westlake Ave is closed.

Closed sidewalk at Mercer and Westlake

While there is not currently any construction in this area, a few weeks ago, the crosswalk signals were covered and large “CROSSWALK CLOSED” signs were placed on each side of Mercer.

SDOT has not returned an email requesting comment on the closure.

Vehicle traffic has been rerouted as part of the construction project and now a high volume of traffic is turning left onto Mercer from southbound Westlake.

It’s not clear exactly why the crosswalk is closed or how long it will be in place.

Perhaps the crosswalk was closed to make it easier for vehicles to turn, as now there is more vehicular traffic passing through the intersection.

This closure probably has good intentions, however they are not apparent to people in the area. Safety is a key consideration for any traffic flow change, however closing this crosswalk may in fact be making the intersection more dangerous.

As with most sidewalk and crosswalk closures, a significant number of people are ignoring SDOT’s attempt to close the crosswalk and are crossing when traffic has the green light. It does not appear that SDOT has a plan to address the danger created for these pedestrians who choose to cross without a crosswalk signal.

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Improvements at 1st Ave S & S Massachusetts St

In preparation for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, SDOT is upgrading the intersection between 1st Ave S & S Massachusetts Street. This is near the Showbox SoDo where 5 pedestrians were struck last Thursday night.


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This work includes restoring the sidewalk and installing pedestrian signal poles. During construction, there will be some sidewalk closures and detours for walkers in the area. The project is expected to be substantially complete by November 15.

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