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FAQ's : Crossing the Street

Why don't we have enough time to cross? (Why does the WALK change to DON'T WALK before I finish crossing?)

Why don't we have more marked crosswalks to help us cross the street?

For pedestrian crossings which are uncontrolled (i.e. no traffic signal is present), is it safer to have a marked or unmarked crosswalk?

Why doesn't our city install more traffic signals to help us cross the street?

Why doesn't our city install more flashers to slow down traffic at pedestrian crossings?

What does the flashing DON'T WALK signal mean?

Why don't we have enough time to cross? (Why does the WALK change to DON'T WALK before I finish crossing?)

Many people do not understand the meaning of the WALK/DON'T WALK pedestrian signals (or WALKING PERSON/UPRAISED HAND). Many pedestrians want to see the WALK signal during the entire crossing. This is simply not possible in many cases, especially when crossing wide streets. The WALKING PERSON symbol or WALK signal really means it is OK to start crossing. There is a minimum amount of time that is required for a WALK interval of four (4) to seven (7) seconds. This is the time for people to start walking into the street. After a few steps into the street, pedestrians may see a flashing orange upraised hand or DON'T WALK signal. When this occurs, there should be enough time to complete crossing the street, but if you have not stepped into the street, you should stay on the curb and wait for the next walking man or WALK signal. The duration of the flashing DON'T WALK, which is similar to the yellow clearance interval for motor vehicles, should be long enough for a pedestrian to cross the entire street (or to a median or other place of safety) at a typical walking speed of 4 feet per second. If there is a high proportion of elderly pedestrians or mobility impaired walkers using the crossing, the signal should be timed for a slower walking speed of less than 4 feet per second. The solid orange UPRAISED HAND or DON'T WALK signal means that it is unsafe for the pedestrian to be in the street.

Some agencies install signs at the traffic signal explaining the meaning of the WALK, flashing DON'T WALK and steady DON'T WALK signal to help pedestrians understand the signal indications. Other agencies are testing countdown pedestrian signals to show pedestrians exactly how much time they have left to cross the street. While these countdown clocks give the pedestrians the best information available, some pedestrians may continue to start crossing on the DON'T WALK because they think that they will have adequate time to cross if they hurry. In addition, there are concerns that some motorists may use the countdown clock to speed up to 'make' the signal.

Traffic signals with pedestrian push buttons will often not display a WALKING PERSON or WALK signal unless the pedestrian pushes the button.

Lastly, when the signal displays the WALKING PERSON or WALK indication (or at an intersection with only a green traffic signal for motor vehicles moving parallel to pedestrians), pedestrians should continue to watch for turning vehicles and those motorists who may run the red light.

Why don't we have more marked crosswalks to help us cross the street?

A legal crosswalk exists at all crossings of streets public at intersections, regardless if it is marked or unmarked. A crosswalk can only exist at a midblock location if it is marked. Pedestrians often assume that it is safer to cross in a marked crosswalk than an unmarked crosswalk. Indeed, marked crosswalks should be used to direct pedestrians to cross at a safer location if there is a complex crossing location or to consolidate multiple crossing locations into the optimal crossing location. Crosswalks are also very useful in directing students to ideal crossing locations in school zones (e.g. where there are adult crossing guards) or encouraging pedestrians to cross at traffic signals. However, studies have shown that marked crosswalks by themselves are not necessarily safer than unmarked crosswalks, especially at uncontrolled crossings of busy multi-lane streets. At such multi-lane, high-volume streets, more substantial facilities may be needed to provide for safer crossings for pedestrians.

Marked crosswalks have been shown to be successful in encouraging pedestrians to cross at a specific location. However, marked crosswalks are often not successful in getting drivers to drive slower or safer, or to be more courteous to a pedestrian, especially on higher speed streets.

There are other measures that should be considered when a decision is made that it is beneficial to install a marked crosswalk on a multi-lane street at an uncontrolled location. These measures can include a raised median (pedestrian refuge) island, parking restrictions, advanced warning signs or pavement markings, brighter nighttime lighting, or other devices that can slow traffic down at the crossing or improve driver expectancy of the crossing.

At times a zebra, ladder, or continental crosswalk marking pattern that uses more marking material may be used to highlight a crosswalk. If used at all crosswalks, the extra markings will not have the added emphasis where it is needed most.

For pedestrian crossings which are uncontrolled (i.e. no traffic signal is present), is it safer to have a marked or unmarked crosswalk?

Pedestrians are legitimate users of the transportation system, and they should, therefore, be able to use this system safely. Pedestrian needs in crossing streets should be identified, and appropriate solutions should be selected to improve pedestrian safety and access. Deciding where to mark crosswalks is only one consideration in meeting that objective. A recent national study on this topic for the Federal Highway Administration involved analysis of 5 years of pedestrian crashes at 1,000 marked crosswalks and 1,000 matched unmarked comparison sites. All sites in this study had no traffic signal or stop sign on the approaches. Detailed data were collected on traffic volume, pedestrian exposure, number of lanes, median type, speed limit, and other site variables. Appropriate statistical analyses methods (Poisson and negative binomial regressive models) were used.

The study results revealed that on two-lane roads, the presence of a marked crosswalk alone at an uncontrolled location was associated with no difference in pedestrian crash rate, compared to an unmarked crosswalk. Further, on multi-lane roads with traffic volumes above about 12,000 vehicles per day, having a marked crosswalk alone (without other substantial improvements) was associated with a higher pedestrian crash rate (after controlling for other site factors) compared to an unmarked crosswalk. Raised medians provided significantly lower pedestrian crash rates on multi-lane roads, compared to roads with no raised median. Older pedestrians had crashes that were high relative to their crossing exposure.

More substantial improvements were recommended to provide for safer pedestrian crossings on certain roads, such as adding traffic signals with pedestrian signals when warranted, providing raised medians, speed-reducing measures, and others. Recommendations and guidelines are provided in the report on the placement of marked crosswalks and other crossing measures. The full study can be found here, on walkinginfo.org.

Why doesn't our city install more traffic signals to help us cross the street?

Traffic signals are an important means of traffic control. When used properly (and where warranted) they can help improve safety, move more cars, and make it easier to cross the street. Typically, when traffic signals are installed, the number of crashes at an intersection (particularly rear-end crashes) will increase. Sometimes, that is because there is often an increase in vehicles and pedestrians who travel through the intersection after the signal is installed. If the street is relatively narrow and traffic on the cross-street is moderate to low, the signal can result in more pedestrian delay while waiting for the WALK signal. Often times, pedestrians will cross against the light, resulting in crashes, and motorists may also run the light. Other potential pedestrian crashes may result from right-turn on green or left-turn on green vehicles (when motorists are supposed to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk). Improperly placed traffic signals can result in an even higher numbers of crashes, can waste fuel, and can create more traffic congestion and air quality problems. Traffic signals are expensive to build (costing $100,000 or more to build), operate, and maintain. However, where warranted, traffic signals (with pedestrian signals) can benefit pedestrians in certain situations.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), published by the Federal Highway Administration, provides conditions when the advantages of a traffic signal may outweigh the disadvantages of a signal. There are two warrants that specifically or partially apply to pedestrians; the Pedestrian Volume Warrant, and the School Crossing Warrant. In addition, the Crash Experience Warrant may include pedestrian considerations. Satisfying a warrant of a traffic signal warrant shall not in itself require the installation of a traffic signal. An important consideration in the use of a traffic signal is spacing. When signalized locations are too close together, they could create more congestion, and may create gridlock conditions. In the core of a downtown area, it may be common to have traffic signals spaced one block apart, and traffic progression may be maintained by having one-way streets. In outlying areas, traffic signals should generally be spaced further apart. Because of the high cost of traffic signals and possible negative safety implications, it may be best to evaluate other measures in lieu of a signal, including raised median islands, reducing the number of lanes, improved lighting, improved warning signs or pavement markings. In some cases, it may be wise to divert pedestrians to a nearby traffic signal or consider a grade-separated crossing.

Why doesn't our city install more flashers to slow down traffic at pedestrian crossings?

Flashing yellow warning beacons, commonly called flashers, are frequently requested in the belief that they will reduce vehicle speeds and improve safety. Flashing beacons generally can be helpful when they are used to alert a driver of an unexpected condition that is not readily apparent. These conditions can include obstructions in the roadway, narrow bridges or other unusual conditions hidden from the motorists' view. To be effective, flashers must command respect of the drivers.

Warning flashers can be mounted over the road or along the side of the road, and when used should be used in conjunction with advance warning signs. A relatively new in-pavement flasher for crosswalks (sometimes called 'flashing crosswalks') is also available for use. Flashing crosswalks are approved in the MUTCD for marked crosswalks that are not controlled by traffic signals, STOP signs or YIELD signs. If used, in-roadway warning lights shall be installed along both sides of the crosswalk and span the entire length of the crossing.

While less expensive than traffic signals, flashers can be very costly ($30,000 to $50,000 to install plus ongoing operation and maintenance costs). Studies in urban areas show that flashers typically result in little if any reduction in driver speeds. Even studies of flashers as speed limit sign beacons (used to alert drivers of a lower speed limit when the flashing beacon is in operation) has only resulted in about a three mph speed reduction. This is despite a regulatory speed limit sign requiring a 15-mph to 20-mph reduction when flashing at school zone locations.

When flashers are used improperly or are overused, they soon loose much of their effectiveness. They cease to command the respect of the drivers if the driver does not consistently see the need for their use. If flashers are used, they should only flash during the times when crossings occur (e.g., such as during school crossing periods). This can be done with a time clock, pedestrian push button to activate the flasher, or through automatic pedestrian detection devices. If used at many locations in a community, the effectiveness of each flasher may be diminished as it becomes part of the normal driving environment and is ignored by drivers. Often, the request for a flasher can be a symptom of a need for a traffic safety education, training, or police enforcement in the community. Other types of traffic improvements, such as a 'Safe Route to School' plan, raised medians, advance warning signs or pavement markings, or parking removal should also be explored before installing a flashing warning beacon or 'flashing crosswalk'.

What does the flashing DON'T WALK signal mean?

Oftentimes pedestrians are confused because the flashing DON'T WALK display appears before they finish crossing the street. Usually, there is nothing wrong with the traffic signal timing, there is just a misunderstanding of what the pedestrian signal means. The WALKING PERSON symbol or 'WALK' signal really means that it is the pedestrians' turn to to start crossing. However, pedestrians should always be on the lookout for motorists who are turning right or left across their crosswalk, or who may run the red light. The flashing orange UPRAISED HAND symbol or DON'T WALK signal, really means "Don't Start", and if your have stepped into the street during the WALK interval, there should be enough time to finish your crossing before the steady DON'T WALK appears and the signal turns green for the cross traffic. When the steady DON'T WALK you should not be in the street.

Agencies typically provide enough flashing DON'T WALK time for a person to cross the street at a walking pace of four feet per second. Elderly or mobility-impaired people may require more time, and a slower walking speed of 3.5 feet per second or 3.0 feet per second may be more appropriate. If this is still not enough time, it may be advisable to study the location to determine the actual walking rate. In some cases it may be best for pedestrians to wait for a 'fresh' green light and WALK signal before crossing.

The MUTCD provides guidance that at least seven seconds of WALK time should be provided so that pedestrians will have adequate opportunity to leave the curb before the clearance interval begins. The flashing orange UPRAISED HAND/DON'T WALK interval is the pedestrian clearance interval. It is similar in concept to the yellow light clearance interval for motor vehicles. Pedestrians should be provided sufficient time to cross the street without being rushed.