To improve walking, give pedestrians the green light

By Chris McCahill

Walking in many parts of the U.S. is notoriously difficult and increasingly dangerous, but there’s one simple way that transportation agencies can start tipping the balance in favor of those on foot: by adjusting signal controls. That’s according to research highlighted by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

This month’s ITE Journal explains:

[L]egacy signal timing policies at intersections have prioritized vehicular movements, leading to large and sometimes unnecessary delays for pedestrians. Because pedestrian trips are short, delays at signalized intersections can affect pedestrians disproportionately and are a key factor in pedestrian non-compliance.

San Francisco traffic engineers recently announced plans to increase crossing times at more than 1,200 signals across the city to address safety concerns. The ITE article, however, outlines a range of improvement options including leading pedestrian intervals, exclusive pedestrian phases (the Barnes Dance), shorter cycle lengths, and other ways of coordinating pedestrian and vehicle phases.

The article—based heavily on research from Portland State University and Northern Arizona University—concludes that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are important points to keep in mind. For example, the Barnes Dance generally causes the most delay to both pedestrians and vehicles, but it might be the safest option at busy intersections where the two modes are better off separated. Eliminating coordination among intersections (free operation) can be most beneficial to pedestrians but it can cause vehicle delay along major throughways. Shorter cycle lengths generally benefit everyone.

Chris McCahill is an Researcher at SSTI.