When I went down to walk around on the Viaduct Saturday, I encountered this extremely short walk signal at Alaskan Way and King St. This intersection connects the old waterfront trail with the newly-opened Alaskan Way Trail, so it is a fairly important signal.
According to my rudimentary measurements using Google Maps, this crosswalk is at least 70 feet long (roughly 80, but we’ll say 70 to account for inexact science). Using current standards, the Walk signal should display for a minimum of 7 seconds (which it does), followed by at least 20 seconds of countdown (3.5 feet per second). Instead, the signal counts down from 11, shaving a full 9 seconds off the recommended walking time.
That means the light is timed for people who walk 6.4 feet per second (4.4 miles per hour). The average person walks about 3 mph, while elderly and young people are often closer to 2 mph (see this Walking in Seattle post for more on pedestrian signal standards).
As you can see in the video, I started walking a good seven seconds before the flashing Don’t Walk countdown began, and I still didn’t make it across before the signal was over. Imagine if I had started walking at the end of the walk signal. Or imagine if I had trouble walking quickly. It would not be hard to imagine someone crossing completely legally and in accordance with the signal and still getting caught in the middle of the road when the cross traffic light turns green.
Clearly, this intersection is a bottleneck during Alaskan Way Viaduct construction. But our city should never sacrifice the safety of people walking in order to move a couple more cars per minute.
Nine seconds does not do much to clear car congestion, but it could be life or death for someone crossing the street on foot. And it hits our most vulnerable members of society the hardest. It also sends a clear message to people walking that they are not the city’s top priority, and it makes walking more stressful and less inviting.
As the city gears up for the first night of the Road Safety Summit (today, October 24, 6 p.m. at City Hall), we need to be thinking about even these small decisions our city makes that put people at undue risk. The safety of people’s lives should always be our top transportation priority, and it currently is not.
I have complained to SDOT and WADOT (SDOT will likely refer any comments about this area directly to WADOT – I’ve never received an explanation for this) about this intersection and how/why it’s so unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a huge car-centric intersection…all other users are placed second.
I broke my foot this past summer and for about a month I was getting around much more slowly than usual – for a couple weeks I used a knee roller, then I was able to hobble around using a clumsy stiff boot. I discovered that nearly ALL the walk signals were too short for me in my slowed-down condition. And compared to my 90-year-old mother-in-law, I was still moving really fast! Thanks for raising this issue, Tom.
I work on this corner and the whole thing is messed up. My biggest concern in my 25 mile commute is just getting the hell out of my place of employment. And now with the viaduct coming down, it’s ugly.
It’s hard to tell from your video, but I think this signal might actually meet MUTCD standards, at least as I understand them. The Walk signal starts at :05, the Don’t Walk starts flashing at :12, it goes steady at :23, the light turns red at :25, and when you last pan back to King Street traffic at :33, the only vehicles moving appear to be cars turning right, which would be legal on a red. If cross-traffic indeed still has a red at :33, this signal would meet the MUTCD standards, because the pedestrian clearance time actually includes the period from when the don’t-walk signal turning steady to the point at which cross-traffic is released by a green light.
A similarly timed signal can be seen at Olive & 9th by Convention Place Station. There, the Don’t Walk countdown is only 5 seconds long, which at first blush seems ridiculously short: 5 sec x 3.5 fps = 17.5 ft, and the road is definitely wider than that. I was ready to email SDOT about this intersection, but then I re-read the definition of clearance time and went out there again with a stop watch. Sure enough, unlike most Seattle intersections where at most a couple seconds pass between one direction getting a red light and the other getting a green, this signal was padded with something like 8 seconds. When that extra time was added to the 5-second countdown, the signal appeared to meet the MUTCD standard.
All that said, regardless of whether these signal timings meet MUTCD standards, I really don’t like ’em. I assume SDOT is doing this to give vehicles more time to clear intersections without having to worry about pedestrians, and that may well be a reasonable goal at busy downtown intersections like these. But they give peds the (probably correct) impression that SDOT thinks peds are less important than cars. Moreover, when cross-traffic doesn’t start going soon after the Don’t Walk turns steady, I’m always tempted to jaywalk, and I know other folks are too. And while I’m actually a huge fan of jaywalking, this is one of the most dangerous types, since cross-traffic could get the green at any moment. At intersections like this one, I’d prefer SDOT use other techniques like protected turn signals if they want to give cars more time, rather than short-changing pedestrians on the walk signal.
If this was about 2 paragraphs less, I might have actually read it.
Whoa there, Shakespeare. No need to use all them fancy words when “tl;dr” will do.
Another aspect to this intersection is s-bound, left turning drivers don’t have to worry about on-coming traffic . With this drivers are really pushing the light which often results in crosswalk users losing a second or two of “WALK” time.
WSDOT plans to adopt the 2009 MUTCD in December or January. The 2003 MUTCD still governs and recommends pedestrian clearance intervals be based on a minimum walking speed of 4.0 feet/sec. This would be 17.5 seconds for a 70-foot** crosswalk. However, the flashing red hand interval is not the only component of the pedestrian clearance interval; the vehicular yellow and red intervals can also be included. Assuming those total the typical 5.0 seconds, the recommended minimum flashing red hand (and numerical countdown) would be 12.5 seconds. This is a little greater than the interval provided.
The 2009 MUTCD recommends use of a 3.5-feet/sec pedestrian walking speed (and a 3.0-foot/sec walking speed, including the “WALK” or walking white man interval). This will increase the recommended minimum flashing red hand (assuming a 70-foot crosswalk and a 5-second yellow-plus-red interval) from 12.5 to 15 seconds. FHWA is delaying the compliance date to approximately December 2016, or whenever signal timing changes are made at this intersection before then.
Note these are just recommended minimum timings. An agency could determine in some cases that providing these times would have adverse effects, but that might not be defensible at this location.
(**I agree this crosswalk does appear longer than 70 feet, maybe 74 to 80 feet.)
SGK you are correct! When there’s heavy motor vehicle traffic, like this morning, drivers tend to block the crosswalk (two drivers blocking our green walk signal this morning and yesterday a large dump truck hauler turned right on his red while cutting off those people trying to cross on the “walk” signal) which nullifies the purely mathematical calculations above. I don’t give a crap about the “numbers” – look at how the intersection functions. I don’t want to be partway across due to a red-light running drivers stupidity and have the signal change to green for the drivers on the cross streets (note there is not a long “lag” between the light changes)…for those unfamiliar with this intersection, those cross streets are recessed fairly far back so the drivers, by the time they reach the crosswalk have a good amount of speed built up and are focusing on the road in front of them, not the crosswalk. The drivers in the video had a green light – the peds couldn’t all finish crossing. In addition, the size of the intersection hides pedestrians, especially in dark/rainy weather, the looming viaduct and pillars don’t help. We should give pedestrians and cyclists all the advantage in each and every intersection, not motor vehicles.
I believe that intersection has walk signal buttons, but the buttons don’t have indicators that they’ve been pressed.
In my experience, many intersections with buttons don’t enable the walk signal at all unless the buttons have been used. I believe that this improves auto traffic flow. It frustrates me how often I see pedestrians stand at a corner without pressing the button, or having arrived in time to see that someone else has pressed the button.
Note: It looks like those drivers had a red, but those cars are likely coming from the oblique SE street, not from King St. heading west. Drivers on that SE street (is it Railroad???) get the green light at an oblique angle – you can’t see the light from the video – they are mounted under the viaduct structure.
I think this article would have been improved had Mr. Fucoloro at least attempted to contact the city regarding this intersection (even, “We contacted the SDOT through their public comment service online but had not received a response by the time this was published.”). As it stands, is sounds like a complaint. Belly-aching. A legitimate complaint, but how about some follow-up?
Oh – and I meant to say thanks for taking the time to actually go out and investigate this too. If the 2009 MUTCD that Bruce Norman mentions in his comment are adopted, how long before lights start getting updated?
Fwiw, I contacted both wsdot and sdot before writing. I have yet to hear back from SDOT (wsdot just told me to ask sdot).
In Vancouver we have some intersection like these. They don’t only create challenges for pedestrians but for drivers as well.
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