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Walk signals are shorter in Rainier Valley, but the city will improve them this year

From the ITO map of traffic fatalities (2001-09)
From the ITO map of traffic fatalities (2001-09)

If you live in the Rainier Valley, many traffic signals in your neighborhood force you to walk faster than if you live in Ballard. Sometimes, you have to walk twice as fast to get across the street before traffic gets a green light.

A 2013 study by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and the UW School of Public Health found that, while the time given to cross Rainier Ave is essentially the same as intersections in Ballard, the distance required to get from curb-to-curb is significantly longer. This means people have to move faster if they are going to make it across before cars come barreling down on them.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that between 2001 and 2009, three out of the five people killed while walking on the street were in their 70s. People with mobility issues or who simply move slower than others are put at disproportionate risk when the walk signal is too short.

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The problem was illustrated well in a recent Seattle Times story:

For 68-year-old William Wingert, a man with self-described “bad legs,” making his way across Rainier Avenue South in Columbia City is a challenge.

Crossings at South Edmunds, South Hudson and South Ferdinand streets are problems for Wingert, who said they present two issues: It takes too long for the signal to turn for pedestrians, and the time given to cross is too short.

“As it is now, just about every time when I get across the street, especially if somebody is trying to turn left onto Rainier Avenue, I’m forced to either rush or stop and wait for them to get there and it’s hard to make the light,” Wingert said.

Rainier Ave also cuts through a part of Seattle where households are more likely to have lower incomes. This is injustice enforced by a City of Seattle traffic signal.

From the UW study
From the UW study

But the city has not ignored the study. SDOT is taking action this year with plans to retime 30 traffic signals on the street to both speed up transit and improve crossing times for people on foot, the Seattle Times reports.

“The signal retiming is balanced to have the shortest wait time for all users, while providing for the best traffic flow at the intersection,” SDOT Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang told the Times.

Howard Frumkin, Dean of the UW School of Public Health, lauded the city’s plan in a Letter to the Times saying, “we achieve health and safety not just in clinics, but in our environment — on our streets, in our homes and workplaces, in our air and water. This is public health.”

While many of the traffic signals on Rainer expect people to be able to walk 4 feet per second, the new national standard is 3.5. The city may set even lower speeds at some intersections.

But adding as much time to the walk signal as possible is only one way that the city can improve safety through retiming the lights. They can also change the signals to show a walk sign during every signal cycle rather than requiring people to push a “beg button” to trigger the sign.

I’m sure you have been in a situation where you arrive at an intersection on foot just as the light turns green. But the “Don’t Walk” is still red. You look around to see if there is a turn arrow or some other reason why you can’t walk before you figure out, “Oh, crap, it’s not going to give a walk sign because nobody pushed the button.”

Then you have to make a choice between waiting a whole signal cycle on the corner or making a dash for it. This does not need to happen. Lights that don’t give a walk signal unless someone pushed a beg button first are unacceptably dangerous and have no place in a city. The benefit for traffic flow is a couple seconds, but the added danger to people on foot is immense, especially those who move slowly.

If a push button triggers the walk sign sooner, that’s OK. But if it is required in order to get a walk sign at all, that’s not OK.

Another idea the city should make standard for traffic signals (especially in areas with many people on foot) is the “Leading Pedestrian Interval.” That wonky term simply means that the walk signal should be illuminated for a second or two before the light changes to green. This gives people a chance to get visibly and fully into the crosswalk before cars start turning. It’s a tiny change (again, a couple seconds) that makes a world of difference for both safety and comfort.

Seattle has a couple traffic signals that do this already. A good example is at 17th and Madison in front of the Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s (Melrose and Denny has an LPI as well, but that intersection is terrible for other reasons). Here’s a great StreetFilms video that explains how it works:

Traffic signal timing is a somewhat unsexy topic that has a huge effect on the safety and comfort of all users.

Here’s the full UW study:

Crossing Rainier Pedestrian Experience March 12 2013 FINAL by tfooq

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19 responses to “Walk signals are shorter in Rainier Valley, but the city will improve them this year”

  1. SashaBikes

    Good! I’m glad that signal timing is being looked at – and that it’s being considered in the south end. How nice it could be for Columbia City if they’re able to time it to slow down traffic going along Rainier through there.

    I hope the city will review their timing along most main arterials – it would be beneficial if they timed signals so that those going the posted speed limits have an easier flow of traffic. Though this is based on my observations/experience and may not be objective, along many arterials it seems that traffic lights reward those who speed with green lights, while those who obey the speed limit at times get stopped at most intersections (here’s looking at you, 85th!). Safer, friendlier streets are ones that help control the speed of traffic while allowing all users to get where they need to go.

    1. Josh

      There are systems being tested that actually trigger a red light when people are speeding — directly penalize speeders with delays.


      More useful on routes without synchronized signals — as long as the synchronized signals are done right, speeders catch up to a red soon enough.

      1. JAT

        Does it only “penalize” speeders, or, like a traffic engineering mid-ocean drift net, also delay those (admittedly rare) motorists traveling at or below the speed limit that the speeders are weaving around and passing?

        When Seattle’s roads were less crowded there were a lot of thoroughfares you could drive down at the speed limit and never see a red. NE 75th St, for instance, 2nd Ave Downtown (which you could also do on a bike since it’s downhill) – that seemed like pretty good traffic engineering.

  2. Josh

    That “new” standard of 3.5 feet per second isn’t exactly new, it’s in the 2009 MUTCD.
    Even the previous standard of 4 fps also noted that where crosswalk users routinely include slower pedestrians or wheelchair users, longer timing should be evaluated.

    Also, note that the 3.5 fps walking speed is from the *end* of the WALK signal to the start of the solid DON’T WALK signal — that is, the flashing DON’T WALK interval by itself should be long enough to cross the intersection at 3.5 fps.

    In other words, the UW study appears to understate the extent of noncompliance with MUTCD.

    Take Rainier & 66th as an example.

    Crosswalk length is 66 feet.
    Minimum flashing DON’T WALK time is 7 seconds. 66/7=9.4
    The pedestrian clearance phase is currently timed at up to 9.4 feet per second.

    MUTCD 4E.06 – Pedestrian Intervals and Signal Phases

    07 Except as provided in Paragraph 8, the pedestrian clearance time should be sufficient to allow a pedestrian crossing in the crosswalk who left the curb or shoulder at the end of the WALKING PERSON (symbolizing WALK) signal indication to travel at a walking speed of 3.5 feet per second to at least the far side of the traveled way or to a median of sufficient width for pedestrians to wait.

    1. Josh

      Slight correction, realized when adding numbers that I misread the table’s “total crossing time”.

      Total “pedestrian clearance time” per MUTCD also includes time with a solid DON’T WALK signal, but before cross traffic gets a green light.

      That would include the yellow phase of the traffic signal and the all-way-red clearance interval.

      The study doesn’t appear to track what those values are, but they could easily add 6 seconds to the pedestrian clearance time. So, taking the same example:

      Crosswalk = 66 feet

      Flashing DON’T WALK = 7 sec
      + Solid DON’T WALK before conflicting green = 6 sec
      = Pedestrian clearance interval = 13 sec

      66/13 = 5.0 seconds, still to short even for the old 4 fps standard, but not as bad as I’d originally stated.

  3. Josh

    One other thought, if you really want to accommodate slower pedestrians without making every pedestrian phase longer, there are more options approved an on the market. (Yes, they do cost more money than just re-timing existing controllers.)

    Extended Button-Press: if you hold down the pedestrian button instead of just pushing it, the controller gives an extended pedestrian phase.

    Passive Pedestrian Sensor: Passive pedestrian sensors can be used to track pedestrians’ actual progress in a crosswalk, and automatically extend the flashing DON’T WALK clearance interval so that a slower pedestrian can finish crossing the road.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’ve never heard of that pedestrian sensor system. That sounds amazing.

      1. Josh

        2008 FHWA report to Congress on pedestrian safety, with info on passive pedestrian sensors.

        They’re definitely a new technology, but quite promising for putting pedestrians on a more equal footing. Automated car detectors have been around for decades, nobody has to roll down their window and push a button to get a green light.

  4. Erik

    I can’t even go through most crosswalks with the expectation of cars coming to a full stop, instead rolling ever so slightly even though I am others are in the crosswalk so they can time their escape. People are so detached behind the wheel that they are surprised when you wait until they stop to go, instead getting impatient like it is your fault. People waste tons of time surfing the web only to rush and roll at pedestrians, etc. and save a second.

  5. Lysa

    But adding as much time to the walk signal as possible is only one way that the city can improve safety through retiming the lights. They can also change the signals to show a walk sign during every signal cycle rather than requiring people to push a “beg button” to trigger the sign.

    I think I love you. I hate those buttons!

    1. JAT

      I agree that there should be a walk signal with every light cycle; that pedestrians shouldn’t have to “beg”, and that no motorist having to wait to turn should ever feel their anger at pedestrians crossing without a “WALK” is somehow justified.

      But I do think there’s value in the buttons if they cause a light cycle to change sooner than it otherwise would (certainly that’s not their function on Bellevue Way NE…) c.f. the frustration for cyclists not triggering the inductive loop to advance the light cycle compared to their motorized brethren.

      1. lysa

        To me, that’s another thing altogether. Why, during the middle of the day, is any pedestrian signal only activated by pushing the button? Why can’t the pedestrian signal simply change to “green” every time the car signal changes to green? I can’t believe that the electronics are too complex. BTW, I don’t see any faster response from the signal when I push the button, but perhaps that is a function of when I’m out walking (seldom after 6 pm).

  6. jtb

    great idea…I think I wouldn’t have been hit (at 23rd & John, Capitol Hill) by the driver who couldn’t see, because the sun was in her eyes. I was lucky, just messed up a knee and got good rehab. Great, great idea!!!

  7. pat

    I’m glad that signal timing is being looked at,
    *Timing wouldn’t be so bad if the cars didn’t keep speeding through the cross walks. and walk signals. Waiting for them use up 1/2 the time.

    * Give more tickets for drivers and bikers who fail to yield. (example–1st and Lander)

    *The 4:30pm “coming home from work” cars come down Edmonds to California like bats out a h**l with a look on their face of, what are you doing there??!! ticket time.

    *The 5 corners at California and Erskine and Edmonds in West Seattle got re-timed so it is 2 runs of cars for every one run of pedes.
    * I love our all way walk at Calif/Alaska.

  8. […] Valley walk signals will get […]

  9. […] streets projects in Rainier Valley than in wealthier neighborhoods. People in Rainier Valley even get fewer seconds to cross the street than people in Ballard, a 2013 study of traffic signal timing by the UW School of Public Health and […]

  10. […] districts. People also cheered when Curtin said they will lengthen the crosswalk signal times. As we reported previously, a study found that traffic signals in Rainier Valley give people less time to cross the street […]

  11. […] districts. People also cheered when Curtin said they will lengthen the crosswalk signal times.As we reported previously, a study found that traffic signals in Rainier Valley give people less time to cross the street […]

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