City staff installed the crosswalk with a non-functioning button and a long delay for pedestrians.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 08, 2014
For years, residents had been asking for a crosswalk at the uncontrolled intersection of Herkimer Street and Caroline Street South. Caroline is a busy north-south walking corridor and there is a drug store and a convenience store on the southeast corner.
A proposed button-activated crosswalk was included in the 2013 Ward 2 Participatory Budget, which gave ward residents the option to vote for a package of projects to be funded through $1 million in area rating money. Last fall, the Public Works Department installed the crosswalk in September at a cost of $150,000.
Button-activated crosswalk at Herkimer and Caroline
There was just one problem: the button didn't actually do anything.
Instead, the traffic lights were programmed to be on a green-red cycle, set to provide a minimum service level for pedestrians. During peak driving periods, the light was on a 90-second cycle with 24 seconds for pedestrians to cross, dropping to 70 seconds during off-peak hours.
Other pedestrian-activated traffic lights have been programmed with a minimum service level for pedestrians on the argument that the light needs to be coordinated with adjacent traffic lights, but the light at Caroline was not synchronized with the light at Bay Street.
It was the worst possible outcome for drivers and pedestrians alike: a misleading button that didn't do anything, delays of over a minute for pedestrians to cross, regular red lights for drivers whether someone was crossing or not, and a cycle not synchronized with other intersections in the same road network.
The plan was for the traffic lights to be button-activated - in other words, to remain green for drivers on Herkimer unless a pedestrian wanted to cross, at which time they would turn red and provide a cross signal. However, somewhere between approval and installation the design was changed.
Ward 2 Residents raised the issue to Councillor Jason Farr, who was surprised that the light didn't work as proposed and quickly began to work with staff to try and get the matter addressed.
By late November, Public Works staff agreed to reprogram the light so the button would actually work as advertised, and the change was made by early December.
Happy ending, right? But why wasn't the light just programmed properly in the first place? And who in Public Works took it upon themselves to arbitrarily change the way the crosswalk worked to make it less usable (and in the case of the button entirely non-usable) to pedestrians?
This is very similar to the situation on Aberdeen Avenue at Kent Street, where a button-activated crosswalk that was approved over the objections of the Traffic Department was also programmed to provide "minimum service level" to pedestrians, with delays of up to nearly two minutes after pushing the cross button.
In both cases, it took residents months of follow-up with staff and the direct involvement of the respective councillors to do something that should have been done in the first place.
Everyone had to waste time and effort: the residents, the councillors and even the staff, who had to go back out and re-do the work they had already done.
I hope Public Works will take this into consideration the next time a pedestrian-activated crosswalk is installed: save everyone the hassle and just do it right the first time.
This may not seem like a big deal, but the responsiveness of pedestrian infrastructure has a big impact on walkability. The evidence indicates that when crosswalks don't work or take too long to work, pedestrians are more likely to cross against the light or simply to become discouraged from walking at all.
A short response time to pedestrian button pushing is important because if pedestrians push the button and do not get a fast response, they may cross at the first ample gap (depending on traffic levels). Then, when the signal turns red for drivers, no pedestrians will be crossing, possibly encouraging driver disrespect for the signal in the future.
— John L. Campbell, Human Factors Guildelines for Road Systems, Second Edition. NCHRP Report 600, Transportation Research Board of the national Academies. p. 15-5
This is also why the City of Portland's Pedestrian Design Guide [PDF] notes that the variable delay in pedestrian-activated crosswalk "causes pedestrian confusion" and that "Uncertainty about the length of delay is one factor in the perception that push buttons are pedestrian-unfriendly."
Walkability infrastructure works. After the crosswalk was installed at Aberdeen and Kent (and then fixed so it actually worked), pedestrian crossings at the intersection more than tripled.
The Public Works Department claims to be trying to change a culture that for decades has prioritized fast automobile traffic flow over every other objective. Its conduct in installing new pedestrian-activated crosswalks is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that culture change instead of digging in with passive-aggressive installations that undermine the infrastructure they're putting in place.
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