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

Pedestrians vs. Left Turn Signals

Despite the new signs, pedestrians cross illegally between Broadway medians at 96th Street.

Last week I traveled to my homeland on the Upper West Side. As a recent transplant to Brooklyn, I had forgotten the nightmare that is the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway.

In 2010, a new median station entrance opened for the 1/2/3 IRT Line 96th Street station. The entrances had previously been located on the sidewalks. While the new station is beautiful and makes sense for circulation of subway users, it has created a hazard on the street by forcing pedestrians to the median.

Existing Conditions

Diagram 1: Existing Pedestrian Movements at 96th Street and Broadway

To rationalize traffic movements, NYCDOT installed left turn lanes on Broadway, creating new signal phasing. This change has created a lot of confusion and caused dangerous situations and conflicts between cars and pedestrians.

To mitigate these challenges, NYCDOT has placed signs such as “Wait for Walk Signal” and “No Ped. Crossing Use Crosswalk” (pictured above) to encourage better pedestrian behavior. However, in New York, pedestrians walk wherever and whenever they please. So, if they don’t see cars moving, they go, often putting their lives at risk. This not only occurs at 96th and Broadway, but many other busy intersections throughout the city with left turn signal phases.

At this intersection, after the east-west traffic stops and before the left-turn signal phase begins, people begin to cross north-south on the western and eastern crosswalks in the intersection, despite the red light and eventual on-coming traffic.  In addition to the potential crashes this creates, pedestrians act outraged, as do the drivers. This prevents cars from moving through the signal with sufficient time, and creates congestion for the following phase as well. Congestion and danger is furthered by people illegally crossing between medians (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 2: Potential Solution: The Pedestrian Scramble ("Barnes Dance")

It is true that better enforcement and ticketing by the NYPD might change pedestrian behavior, but I believe the DOT should explore more creative solutions for this intersection. One possible solution (Diagram 2) could be a variation on the “Pedestrian Scramble” or “Barnes Dance,” which would stop all traffic and allow pedestrians to cross in one movement. This would decrease the amount of separate pedestrian movements and perhaps cause less confusion, while allowing pedestrians to take direct routes. This approach could reduce conflicts between pedestrians and cars, improving safety, health, and convenience for all intersection users.