Cars vs. Pedestrians
People in Matt Yglesias‘ neighborhood have petitioned to increase the amount of time pedestrians get to cross New York Avenue at 5th St. NW from 20 to 45 seconds and they’ve been rejected. The rationale:
DDOT is concerned that changing the walk time at this intersection may negatively impact pedestrian safety at this intersection further, in addition to negatively affecting traffic flow. We would like to share these two impacts with you.
Signal and pedestrian timing at this intersection is set as a standardized actuated signal, which is in agreement with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Further, this standard is consistent with the requirements of Americans with Disabilities Act. The MUTCD is the national standard for traffic signals and other infrastructure matters. In following these standards, the signal is designed to display visible countdown time only during the “do not walk” flashing time. Therefore, the viewable walk time on this signal is only 20 seconds. The total time for pedestrians to cross however, is 30 seconds. The breakdown for the signal’s walk time is as follows:
5 seconds of walk time as background time (not seen)
3 seconds of yellow as background time (not seen)
2 seconds of all red signal as background time (not seen)
20 seconds visible walk time (viewable)
Although ten seconds are unseen, 20 seconds are still present for pedestrians to cross. Thirty full seconds are documented as walk time in this signal.
If the signal is changed, even in a small increment, the total cycle signal length of the entire intersection will be altered and the allowable green time for traffic will be reduced. This could result in additional traffic delays further along New York Avenue. An overflow of traffic may adversely affect pedestrian safety as gridlocked traffic could occur through the intersections and crosswalks.
Matt summarizes: “beneath all the verbiage in their reply, what they’re saying comes down to the basic point that if you gave pedestrians more time to cross New York Avenue, that would slow New York Avenue traffic.” Readers can decide for themselves whether that’s a fair reading.
This, though, strikes me as odd:
Management of a city involves hundreds—if not thousands—of these little decisions. Do we do what’s best for people on foot, or what’s best for people in cars? Since tilting policy on behalf of pedestrians rather than drivers is distributively progressive—the poor are less likely than the rich to own cars, especially in a place like DC—and environmentally beneficially and good for public health, I don’t see it as a very difficult choice. But not only did DDOT not make the pro-pedestrian choice, they don’t even really seem to see it as a choice. They just take it for granted that their job is to maximize the flow of vehicle traffic along New York Avenue. The rest of us just live in the neighborhood.
First, people are people regardless of whether they’re in a car or walking at any given moment. So, the question is “what’s best for people,” period.
Yes, there are tradeoffs here but they’re more complicated than who has to wait longer at the intersection. DDOT is right that making cars wait longer results in backups, which create ripple effects. Further, 30 seconds is more than long enough to cross the street.
Most of us who are driving are doing so because we’re going a long way — usually between DC and its suburbs but sometimes between far-flung parts of the District — not because we’re too lazy to walk. Driving in DC is sufficiently inconvenient as it is that most of us will walk for many blocks rather than attempt to drive.
Because cars tend to move faster than pedestrians — although not always given DC traffic — there’s more likely to be a number of cars ready to go through an intersection at a given time than there is to be a queue of people waiting to cross. Cars stopped at a light have to wait for the cars in front of them, one by one, to move through a light before they can do so themselves; this is known as the “accordion effect.” Contrariwise, a gaggle of pedestrians waiting at a light can travel as a pack across the road in smart fashion, clearing the pent-up demand within the 30 seconds allotted without problem. Indeed, I’ve never not made it across the street in one iteration of the light in pedestrian mode whereas I frequently have to wait through multiple iterations as a driver.
It’s worth noting, too, that the cultures of driving and walking are different. I frequently drive into DC. Once there, I become a pedestrian. When I’m driving, I invariably stop for red lights and stay stopped for the duration of said lights. When I’m walking, I stop at Don’t Walk signs and promptly cross as soon as I deem it safe to do so. The vast majority of drivers and walkers act in this manner. That means that longer lights are a far greater nuisance to drivers than pedestrians.
Finally, if one’s desire is to reduce the environmental impact of automobiles, creating longer periods of idling time is decidedly not the solution.
Photo by Flickr user Sara Richards under Creative Commons license.