People walk across street at crosswalk

Here’s a story that will seem like common sense to everyone who isn’t a traffic engineer. Almost nobody used to try to cross 15th Ave NW at NW 53rd Street in Ballard because 15th is wide and busy and there was no crosswalk there. But now that SDOT has added a signal and crosswalk, lots of people cross the street there.

This should be the most boring story possible: “People walk across street at crosswalk.” How is this news? Well, because this result is only obvious to people who have not been trained in the standards of American traffic engineering.

The national “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” — essentially a guidebook for traffic engineers — tells professionals that unless there are already a lot people trying to cross the street, a signal is not warranted. Neighbors across the nation run into this answer all the time when pressing their cities for crosswalks and signals: “There is not enough pedestrian activity to warrant a signal.” Signals stop cars, and stopping cars is a sign of failure if you are a traditional American traffic engineer.

But SDOT tried a different approach: Build the signal first, then count to see if the resulting pedestrian volumes ended up justifying the signal after all. And they did.

There are many great traffic engineers, but the field has some gross negligence baked into its core. The best traffic engineers I’ve met had to purposefully unlearn stuff they were taught, and their ideas — like installing a crosswalk signal even if people aren’t currently running across the six-lane roadway — are often still seen as radical. Just this year, the advisory board behind the MUTCD decided against an effort to make installing walk signals best practices when installing a new traffic signal.

There are two outrageous bits of information here. 1: That wasn’t already in the guidebook? 2: With people walking representing a rising portion of the traffic deaths, these leaders of their profession don’t see it as their ethical duty to require something as basic as a walk signal? Here they are voting no in case you want to know what that looks like:

We are lucky in Seattle to have many great engineers working for SDOT who go far beyond what the MUTCD suggests and truly do care about safety for everyone more than moving cars. It’s one reason why Seattle has some of the safest streets in the nation, and why the NW 53rd Street crosswalk caught the eye of Angie Schmitt at StreetsBlog:

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices states that before communities can add a signalized crosswalk — a crosswalk with a traffic light — there must be at least 93 pedestrians that cross at the location every hour. If pedestrian traffic is insufficient, the manual will also allow a signalized crosswalk only if five pedestrians were struck by drivers (think about that) at that location within a year.

In recent years, some progressive transportation engineers have challenged this rule, noting it subordinates pedestrian safety to the speedy flow of car traffic. (Indeed, as transportation planners sometimes joke, you can’t determine the need for a bridge by measuring how many people are swimming across the river.)

SDOT has a lot of work to do to better prioritize and deliver safety improvements. But the U.S. traffic engineering field needs a damn renaissance.

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8 Responses to People walk across street at crosswalk

  1. Gary Yngve says:

    Welcome news that SDOT is getting better about considering pedestrians in their designs. The current state of crosswalks (unmarked, or simple paint) around many of our urban villages and parks are a joke. Car drivers don’t stop when they are lawfully required to for a person crossing the road in a crosswalk. That has a chilling effect on peoples’ desire to walk, both from safety, and from adding time to their walk, whether waiting for a large gap in both directions or walking a half-mile detour to a traffic light. A few weeks ago, I saw some seniors getting out of church and looking to cross the street. One of them said, as if being hunted by a predator, “let’s gather up and walk together, safety in numbers.”

  2. bill says:

    Induced demand applied to pedestrians.

  3. asdf2 says:

    Here is an example of a pedestrian crossing in Bellevue where a trail meets a busy street. It doesn’t have anywhere near the 93 people/hour MUTCD threshold.

    I’m not a fan of beg buttons in places with high pedestrian volume, but for an intersection like this, with very low pedestrian volume, the combination of a beg button *and* having the signal change almost immediately when the button is pressed, feels like the best overall solution. Pedestrians don’t need to wait more than a few seconds to cross, and cars don’t need to stop when there are no pedestrians.

    here, on the other hand, is an awful example of traffic control. They took the trouble to build a traffic light for cars to get into our out of the P&R, but they didn’t bother to add in a pedestrian crossing for people in the apartments to walk to the bus stop across the street. Once, when I was in that area, I saw at least 3-4 people dash across the street in the 5 minutes or so I was waiting for the bus. How could they go through the trouble of building a transit facility, add a traffic light for cars to get in and out, and not bother to give one iota of consideration to people walking from their home on one side of the street and the bus stop on the other?

    • bill says:

      Beg button response time is *extremely* important. Having the signal bark, “Wait,” at you is only marginally better than wondering if anything at all is going to happen. Time lost at a signal is precious to pedestrians; at normal walking speed a person covers 250 feet a minute. Standing still for several minutes is extremely frustrating and leads to people crossing unsafely.

      The other day I arrived opposite my bus stop in plenty of time to catch the bus, except for the amount of time the signal took to respond (this was a ped-demand crossing). I watched my bus go by. At that point it was quicker to walk to a Car2Go and drive. So much for promoting transit use, SDOT!

      • Breadbaker says:

        I live across from Kent Station. The signal to cross Smith St. from where I live to the station not only requires a beg button, but is always secondary to the left hand turn signal for traffic leaving the Park and Ride. Here’s the problem: when there’s a train crossing, the left hand turns can’t go because the traffic is backed up from the crossing (it’s a couple hundred feet away) and the walk light won’t turn on until the left hand turning traffic has all cleared. So of course there’s always someone who makes a turn and blocks the crosswalk. You’d think someone would actually watch what happens and come up with a solution (e.g., pedestrians first, then left hand turns) but it’s exactly the same thing (minus the trains, but the backups are the same) at Dexter and Mercer in Seattle.

  4. asdf2 says:

    I have also had multiple moments where I’m across the street from my bus stop while the bus isn’t even in sight yet, but by the time the walk signal comes on to let me actually get to the bus stop, the bus has either come and gone, or I have to run and wave for the bus driver to hold up.

    The worst are the ones when the light is green in the direction of travel, but the signals still wants you to wait a full cycle before giving you the walk sign. Once, I actually found myself having to lunge for the beg button as the light for the cross traffic was turning yellow. The need to do this is completely ridiculous.

  5. NoSpin says:

    I have to take exception to the claim that “We are lucky in Seattle to have many great engineers working for SDOT who go far beyond what the MUTCD suggests and truly do care about safety for everyone more than moving cars.”

    No. SDOT priorities #1, 2 and 3 are the movement of single-occupancy vehicles. SDOT will do nothing for pedestrians at the expense of cars; SDOT will always sacrafice pedestrian mobility in favor of cars.

    Examples like the experiment 15th Ave NW at NW 53rd Street in Ballard are extremely radical exceptions to SDOTs canned respons to common-sense requests: ‘the manual doesn’t call for that’ and ‘ that’s not the standard.’

  6. Morgan Wick says:

    What’s really outrageous is that only a third of the membership could vote down a change in the MUTCD.

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