Engineers to Pedestrians: No ‘Walk’ Signs for You!

Photo: Michael Smith
Photo: Michael Smith

Pedestrians won’t get “Walk” signals at thousands of intersections thanks to a decision by a powerful group of engineers in Washington on Thursday.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — which establishes rules for road signs, signals and markings — opted to not require the “signal heads” for pedestrians — signs that display the “walk” or “don’t walk” signal — at every intersection, despite pressure from an insurgent group of progressive engineers.

“Engineers may continue to not install pedestrian signal heads … this is our transportation profession,” engineering consultant Bill Schultheiss, one of the insurgents, tweeted after the ruling.

Some of the engineers on the committee were worried about the cost, Schultheiss said, which range from $5,000 to $50,000, if the rule change made transportation agencies feel they needed to install crosswalks, sidewalks and curb ramps as well. In some cases, the signal heads may have required a little bit of utility work as well.

Opponents said they were concerned about requiring those things in rural areas where there weren’t many pedestrians.

As we recently reported, based on research in suburban Rockford, Ill., intersections in rural and suburban areas need more protection. And even a few pedestrians per day adds up to repeated exposure that results in needlessly lost lives.

The NCUTCD’s decision comes at a time when pedestrian deaths are on the rise. About 6,000 people were killed while walking last year, a nearly 50-percent increase over the last five years.

“The committee not passing requirement to provide pedestrian signal when installing new traffic signal is very disappointing,” Dongho Chang, Seattle’s lead traffic engineer and one of the engineers who pushed for the change, told Streetsblog in an email. “We’ll continue to work with members that have concerns to change their perspectives.”

If the changes would have been approved they would have become part of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is used as a guideline on every road project in America. NCUTCD said it is not sure when the next edition of the manual will be published.

19 thoughts on Engineers to Pedestrians: No ‘Walk’ Signs for You!

  1. As long as traffic signals have long enough signal change times and pedestrian crossing distances are short, the absence of pedestrian signals doesn’t seem to be a safety issue to me – primary “benefit” of adding them would be longer green time for vehicles …

  2. actually a longer green is a deficit. The nearest to my house only puts up walk signals after the “beg” button cheating me of crossing until a second cycle if I don’t arrive in time to trigger. Not only should the walk signals be mandatory, but they should also display without having to use the beg button.

  3. As long as vehicle operators see Walk Don’t Walk signs as the equivalent of traffic control devices for vehicles, they will not do us much good. The attitude that pedestrians are the same as machines is the problem.

  4. I remember (about 1982) telling a group of professors at the University of Tennessee that I liked Munich because they had separate signals for cars, pedestrians and bikes. I opined that it would improve things in Knoxville. Later one of them (a Civil Engineering professor, no less) told me that after I left, they laughed at me and called me a hippy.

    The good news is that nearly forty years later, Knoxville has taken some impressive steps to fix some of the messes they made. But it’s a long row to how.

  5. Carmel, IN solved this problem by getting rid of traffic lights. Make every intersection a traffic circle/roundabout. No signals required — power outages aren’t a problem.

  6. I often don’t use beg buttons. I’m not waiting a whole cycle to cross. Not to mention that beg buttons can be located a few feet away from the sidewalk, in the middle of grass. Not walking through mud to press that button. They’re also sometimes used on bike trails. Beg buttons can be awkward to press when you’re on a bike.

  7. This sounds looks like a molehill in search of a mountain. If the light is green use the crosswalk. Peds shouldn’t want or need or have to wait for a special signal.

  8. Honestly, safe pedestrians pay little attention to crosswalk signals and way more attention to the attentiveness of the drivers approaching the intersection and the red light. The real issues facing pedestrians are sidewalks with no real protection from speeding vehicles (think parking lanes, large planters, partial grade separation) too many lanes, and long sightlines that encourage speeding. Speed and lack of attentiveness are the real killers. Increasing the perceived danger of a road by reducing sightlines causes drivers to both reduce speed and pay more attention. As with many things in Urban Science, the solutions are often counter-intuitive, but make perfect sense once you consider them for a moment. The money for these signals is better spent improving other pedestrian infrastructure.

  9. I’m sorta disappointed with the comments on this story. Engineers pushed for this because it DOES matter. But maybe I should have added that these signal heads show people how long they have to cross with the countdown and that’s important especially for elderly people who are disproportionately killed.

  10. If you’re at a small street trying to cross a wide busy street and those lights are only triggered by a vehicle on the small street, you might be waiting a long time to get a green signal and not have nearly enough time to cross when you do.

    And as you noted, a countdown lets you know if you have enough time to cross. If it goes from green, to yellow, to red in a few seconds, that may not leave nearly enough time to make it all the way across the street.

  11. The NCUTCD is on the wrong track in LOTS of ways, including refusals to require the safest and fairest speed limits and yellow intervals on the traffic lights.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  12. Unfortunately, the countdown feature acts as an enabler for clueless or inconsiderate pedestrians who enter the crosswalk after the walk signal has expired.

  13. At least they waited until you left the room. Southern politeness? About that same time, I told a group of traffic engineers, planners, citizen members of an appointed Transportation Solutions Board for Broward County, Fl. (I forget their exact title, but it was to get “consensus” on building more, wider roads, with a bone tossed towards transit) that they could never pave their way out of congestion. I also might have said something about motor vehicles going the way of dinosaurs. There was a stunned silence before they went on about their business, more asphalt.

  14. The majority of engineers think it is necessary for these accommodations be provided for pedestrians, just not enough of the majority. That’s asinine. This isn’t the U.S. government where checks and balances are in play, it is professional engineers providing their engineering judgement. If more times than not it makes sense to do something then that’s the choice you go with. If 51% of professional engineers feel a way about an policy you should follow that.

  15. Correct. A huge problem: ILLEGAL over-darkening of car windows, especially driver and passenger side windows, is INCREASING. Thus, a pedestrian or bicyclist CANNOT tell whether or not the driver sees him. On more than one occasion, being unable to see the driver, I have come to a complete stop on my bicycle, EVEN THOUGH I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY. This is completely ridiculous!

  16. If you have to walk through the mud to get to a button, it’s an ADA violation. It should never be more than a 10 inch reach from a level landing.

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