Crossing Streets Safely In The Big City

September 3, 2021

Posted by Able News

Article by Carol Moog

Crossing the street can be a daunting task for many people in big cities and surrounding suburbs. Solutions are available to make it easier and safer.

The standard pedestrian interval is the time when pedestrians can cross safely. It is indicated by the “walk” signal at light-controlled intersections. The walk signal comes on at the same time the traffic light for the street next to the pedestrian (parallel) turns green. People cross at the same time that the traffic on the parallel street is moving.  

A problem with the standard pedestrian interval is that cars or bicycles from the parallel street can turn onto the street where pedestrians are crossing potentially creating a dangerous situation, especially for people with certain disabilities. 

Part of the solution to maximize pedestrian safety is to install a leading pedestrian interval (LPI) at high-volume intersections. With LPIs, the walk signal comes on for pedestrians before the traffic light turns green for the parallel street traffic to flow. In fact, both streets are stopped for an interval of 3 to 6 seconds, allowing pedestrians to cross with no moving traffic. 

With a LPI, pedestrians get a head start to cross before cars are allowed to move from any direction. In this scenario, pedestrians not only establish a right of way, but they are also more visible to turning cars. Traffic engineers have analyzed intersections that would benefit from LPIs, usually those with a high volume of potentially hazardous traffic for pedestrians. 

At intersections with LPIs installed between 2003 and 2011, there was a 37 percent decrease in severe pedestrian/bicyclist injuries and deaths.  

Vision Zero, a multi-national program dedicated to achieving zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries, is leading an initiative to replace the standard pedestrian interval with LPIs in New York City, making streets safer for pedestrians.  

But what if a person can’t see the walk signal?  

People who are visually im-paired or blind use the sound of the surging traffic on the parallel street to initiate their crossings. In a standard light-controlled intersection, this surge coincides with the pedestrian crossing cy-
cle. At intersections with LPIs, cars on the parallel street are waiting for the green light as pedestrians have the walk signal.  

This lack of synchronization can make it difficult for people with vision impairments. Since they can’t see the walk signal and the cars on the parallel street are still waiting for a green light, they are losing 3 to 6 seconds of the crossing cycle. Often, the pedestrian light is already starting to flash “don’t walk” when the parallel traffic starts to move. There may not be enough time to complete the crossing safely.  

What is considered a safety improvement for sighted pedestrians becomes a more dangerous situation for pedestrians who cannot see the crosswalk light.  

There is, however, a simple solution that would maintain the safety benefits for sighted pedestrians while also increasing safety for those who are visually impaired – installing an audible pedestrian signal at every intersection with an LPI.  

The audible pedestrian signal can be heard when the visual pedestrian signal changes to “walk,” before the parallel street traffic starts.  

To make challenging intersections safer for all visually-impaired or blind pedestrians, and in fact for all pedestrians, the answer is clear. Audible pedestrian signals must be added to every intersection that has an LPI.

Carol Moog is Senior Mobility Instructor at Lighthouse Guild. 

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