NYC vs. DC: Pedestrian Showdown

Do pedestrians have more time to cross the street in DC than in NYC? It depends. Both cities have rapidly implemented “countdown” pedestrian signals to give pedestrians a better estimate of how much time they have to cross. This is particularly useful for those who may walk a bit slower than the “average” pedestrian, such as the elderly and disabled.

Countdown Pedestrian Signals in DC display the full cycle length

Countdown Pedestrian Signals in DC display the full cycle length. Source: Eric Fischer, Creative Commons / Flickr

At first glance, it may seem like pedestrians have longer to cross in DC, but here’s the secret: in the District, pedestrians are given the countdown of the full cycle length, whereas NYC pedestrians are only given the countdown for time just before the “don’t walk” phase (the blinking red light or the “clearance phase”).

Countdown Pedestrian Signals in NYC follow the MUTCD and only display "clearance times."

Countdown Pedestrian Signals in NYC follow the MUTCD and only display “clearance times.” Source: Eric Fischer, Creative Commons/Flickr

Why does this difference exist? According to the signal bible, the Manual on Uniform Control Devices (MUTCD) published by the Federal Highway Administration, pedestrian signals should look like the ones in NYC. But wouldn’t you want to know how much time you have total? Not just the “clearance time”?

Are government officials in DC a bunch of rule breakers? Actually, DC was a trial city for implementation of full countdown clocks, but the results of this “test” have yet to be released.

In general, the length of signals for pedestrians depends on volumes of people and traffic on the street. DC usually uses 100-second signal cycles (for all intersection movements) during peak hours, and 80-second signal cycles on nights and weekends. NYC varies much more, with cycle lengths between 45 and 120 seconds.

Sources: Sam Zimbabwe and George Branyan, DDOT; NYCDOT website

How to Go 100 Million Miles in a Day

The combined distance traveled by all New Yorkers on a typical day exceeds 100 million miles–a distance slightly greater than that of the earth to the sun.  Only 53% of New York residents report having access to a car (ACS 2011), this leaves nearly half the population to depend on other means to navigate the city.

This chart shows seven modes of transportation which contribute substantially to New York’s transportation needs; the list is not exhaustive but attempts to include the most important modes.  Many statistics on transportation provide the number of ‘trips’ made per day to indicate the rate of use.  This chart instead shows the total ‘person-miles’ traveled per day.  This method provides a different picture of transportation in New York City.  For example private cars only account for roughly 35% of trips in NYC; however, this mode also provides the longest trips (8.9 miles on average).  A breakout of person-miles shows that private cars actually account for 59 million miles per day of travel, more than the other six modes combined.

New York City is likely the most transit rich city in North America, but NYC as a whole is still very much auto-dependent.  This may be troubling to those who point to NYC as providing a post automobile lifestyle.  However, it can also serve as an encouragement to those who see value in expanding other modes of transportation; there is still a huge space available to create a city that drives less and uses public and sustainable modes much more.

* Data Notes:

  • Pedestrian data only records trips to and from work (note the briefcase), if all walking trips were included this figure would be higher.

  • Sources:

    • Private Vehicle, (National Household Travel Survey)
    • Subway, (MTA)
    • Bus, (MTA and APTA)
    • Pedestrian, (Municipal Arts Society 2011 Livability Survey)
    • Taxi, (Schaller Consulting, 2006)
    • Bicycle, (Estimated from NYC Health and Mental Hygiene Survey)
    • Ferry, (NYC DOT and public information from private NYC ferry companies)