The “Greater Greater Washington” blog has a pair of posts arguing that walk signals are bad for pedestrians.
“Walk signals are bad for walking” raises an issue I like to point out. When the pedestrian countdown timer starts counting to say how long you have to cross, it is illegal to use that information. If you say “I can make it in 15 seconds” and step into the crosswalk, your legal status is “roadkill”.
Somebody in Washington insisted on appearing pedestrian friendly by forcing states to use countdown timers. Nobody insisted on forcing states to give those timers legal status. All they mean is “in 15 seconds this light will stop blinking.”
Suppose you were driving and a sign next to your red light said “you still have 3 seconds until cross traffic has a green light.” Could you go? No, because the light is red. Federal DOT policy prohibits giving that sort of advice to drivers, but requires giving that sort of advice to pedestrians.
Compounding the problem, in an effort to be even more pedestrian-friendly federal officials require walk signals to be timed for the slowest people.
The design policy for walk signals suffers from the same flaw as highway speed limits based on design speed. The average person correctly determines the rule is stupid, and learns to disrespect all similar rules.
Even if you prefer rolling around in an air conditioned shell to walking, this is a problem for you.
The prescriptive attitude — pedestrians must start crossing only during the seven seconds per cycle when the equations say they can cross — cuts capacity for all road users.
I remember pressing the button to cross a four lane street near a closed school. Apparently it was still timed for a pack of unruly first graders. I was already across before my light started flashing red, and was 100 feet away when traffic was finally free to move.
I felt bad for the drivers, but I didn’t have a choice. I also feel bad when I press the button near home.
A common reaction to pedestrian complaints is to regulate the road even more, giving more exclusive time for pedestrians and more exclusive time for cars. Adding a 5 second head start for pedestrians extends a 60 second cycle to 70 seconds. Adding an exclusive pedestrian phase makes cycle time 80 seconds.
But nobody gets any more time to go. Everybody gets more time to wait.
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