Seattle Tosses Out Rulebook to Protect Pedestrians

Photo: Michael Smith
Photo: Michael Smith

Seattle will begin adding safe crosswalks without first assessing if high numbers of pedestrians are going to use them — a direct contradiction of the nation’s road design Bible.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices states that before communities can add a signalized crosswalk — a crosswalk with a traffic light — there must be at least 93 pedestrians that cross at the location every hour. If pedestrian traffic is insufficient, the manual will also allow a signalized crosswalk only if five pedestrians were struck by drivers (think about that) at that location within a year.

In recent years, some progressive transportation engineers have challenged this rule, noting it subordinates pedestrian safety to the speedy flow of car traffic. (Indeed, as transportation planners sometimes joke, you can’t determine the need for a bridge by measuring how many people are swimming across the river.)

In Seattle, the city’s lead engineer, Dongho Chang, announced that the city was “piloting a new approach” to crossings on its greenway system. The city will add the crosswalk and the signal and then count how many pedestrians cross and see if it reaches the threshold that the MUTCD recommends.

According to Chang, the first experiment — at Ballard Avenue — was successful.

Eventually, some engineers hope, Seattle’s experiment will push other cities to try a new approach and, eventually, encourage action by the national committee responsible for updating the MUTCD. It’s especially important given the sharp increase pedestrian fatalities in recent years.

48 thoughts on Seattle Tosses Out Rulebook to Protect Pedestrians

  1. Motorists should never have to stop or slow to allow pedestrians to safely cross. Crosswalks only exist to unfairly burden motorists with delays.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. Once again Angie demonstrates her complete lack of knowledge about the MUTCD and misrepresents myriad facts about its application. The whole lead-in to the article is riddled with errors. The MUTCD provides guidance and standards on evaluation of needs. It doesn’t preclude installation as is stated. In fact, it actually requires consideration of adding signals when conditions arise. Agencies are free to proactively install signals based on their best judgment or in conjunction with other infrastructure (e.g. construction of a new greenway with a crossing of a major roadway).

    When installing costly signals (and expending limited resources), it behooves any agency to gather data and asses conditions to make decisions as to where to allocate scarce resources ($25-40k for RRFBs, $100k for HAWKs, $250k for signalized intersection as ballparks). The crash history assessment is related to ALL crashes that may be mitigated by the addition of a signal, not just pedestrians, and it doesn’t set a threshold that must be met before action is taken. It says a signal must be considered if those conditions are present. In other words, it requires action, but it doesn’t say it must get to that point before action can be taken.

  3. in my experience working in local government, MUTCD is treated as god’s word, and crosswalks don’t go in if they don’t meet the requirements. so from my perspective, the way this is written is pretty accurate to my lived experience working with engineers. sure, they COULD think in a more creative and proactive way… but they don’t generally have the support/capacity to do so within the politics of their organization.

  4. While MUTCD only *officially* sets minimum standards and provides guidance, anyone who has tried to convince a city to even slightly exceed MUTCD minimums has run into the use of MUTCD as a defense — if X doesn’t hit the warrants that make it mandatory, it’s not going to happen. Thanks to tight budgets and defensive lawyering, in many jurisdictions, “shall” is mandatory, “should” is optional but discouraged, and “may” is frivolous, speculative, and open to risk.

  5. Are you kidding me? Most DOT’s love to go above and beyond the minimum required and spend more money when it comes to bike/ped projects.

    It’s the highways and massive interchanges where they really scrimp.

  6. All too often, cities, counties and even state DOT personnel follow the MUTCD minimums because it allows them to provide the politicians the cheapest out. Frequently, these government transportation staff do not want to stick their neck out in front of politicians advocating spending money – even when it often only requires some paint stripes and signs. Kudos to Dongho and the City of Seattle for using their heads rather than hide behind their pocket books, and 1970’s street design philosophy.

  7. That was how my city operated for quite a while. If the MUTCD didn’t require a change then nothing was done; not even safe, cheap, simple informative signage. It took surrounding cities to exceed the minimums to create convenient, local examples to convince city leaders that there are good solutions outside of the MUTCD box.

    Part of the motivation for this inertia (oxymoron?) was that if a change encouraged more walkers and bicyclists (hey, that’s the point, right?) and somebody got hurt then the city would be exposed to a lawsuit that hinged on not complying exactly to standard practices.

  8. The MUTCD rules are insane and dangerous. Only where pedestrians engage in dangerous, lawless conduct will we build infrastructure for them?

  9. “Indeed, as transportation planners sometimes joke, you can’t determine the need for a bridge by measuring how many people are swimming across the river”.

    But you could determine the need for a bridge by measuring how many people are riding a ferry across a river, or you could just build a bridge and hope to sell real estate on the other side, as has been done more than once in America including recently too.

  10. Lots of pedestrian overpasses have been built in major US urban areas but all too often pedestrians would rather take their chances running across 6 or 8 lanes of heavy traffic than take the time and waste the energy to use an available pedestrian overpass.

  11. Got some personal experience with this a couple years back, when I complained to the city about an intersection where a separated bike path merges into on-road bike lanes. They were kind enough to send an engineer out to meet with me and see the problem in person, but the almost immediate response was 1) that intersection was the state’s responsibility and 2) they’ll never change it because it’s built to the standard.

  12. The MUTCD is practically written by the auto industry.
    The goal of the auto industry is for car sales.
    You get more car sales by faster flowing traffic.

  13. Again, explain why pedestrians need to stay out of the way of cars? Is it too much to ask for car drivers to obey crosswalks?

  14. Well, consider that even today, we can’t figure out how to make a crosswalk automatically detect a pedestrian without a beg button, and even then, without that button interrupting cross cycle, or even simpler. If cars already have a green light in your direction, provide a walk signal and extend it. Basic user experience…

  15. When was the MUTCD created? 1980’s? That was an era of very BAD planning, based on what we know now. Sometimes, waking up is a slow process.

  16. Despite their name, pedestrian over crossings are built mainly for the benefit of motorists. Most pedestrians would prefer to cross at grade than expend the effort to walk up and down a 20′ high bridge. Add to that many POCs also include a mandatory lateral detour, increasing travel time and inconvenience.

  17. If a city determines that it wants a safer crossing for pedestrians and/or bicyclists, it should be able to put in a signal if that is determined (using engineering judgment, which the MUTCD discusses) to be a reasonable solution and they are willing to devote the financial and staff resources to do it, period. The MUTCD warrants for signals in this regard are ridiculous.

  18. How do you suggest an automatic system determine which direction the pedestrian intends to cross? Also, giving a full walk and flashing don’t walk on every approach, every cycle often results in longer delays for pedestrians due to longer cycles. Unless there is consistent high pedestrian demand at a location, actuation makes much more sense.

  19. The MUTCD only discourages indiscriminate marking of crosswalks. Most states legally give the pedestrian the right of way at every intersection, controlled or not. The problem is we need a change in driver behavior to consider the pedestrian a legitimate road user instead of a hindrance.

  20. This is great news. Getting new crosswalks and signals is half the battle. The other half is signal timing. There seems to be blind loyalty to signal timing models in the engineering profession. These models often disregard how pedestrians actually use the street.

    I recently hosted a technical advisory committee meeting for a ped/bike stress study. One of the most common issues we heard from members was poor signal timing that made intersections *more* dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians vs. crossing mid block. This includes long total cycle lengths (150 seconds+), illogical missing “walk” signals when cross traffic is stopped, very long activation delays on actuated mid-block ped signals, and left/right vehicle turn conflicts during “walk” signals.

    When you hear, “I never cross at that intersection because of the signal. I’d rather cross mid-block”, something is seriously wrong with the way we program signals. Many of these timing issues are under county and state control (at least here in Florida), and navigating their bureaucracies and educating their engineers on better timing schemes is another battle all together.

  21. In-pavement traffic sensors don’t detect motorcycles unless they and their riders are fairly heavy. Most often major roads have signals set in a cycle to attempt to move as much traffic as possible. Still about 85% of all trips and 99% of all trip mileage is by motor vehicles so that is why they get the majority of scarce funding.

    How would you design a sensor to detect pedestrians so that they don’t have to hit the button to trip the pedestrian signal, keeping in-mind that traffic signals on arteries are timed to move as much traffic as possible, and also keeping in-mind that snow or even heavy rain might set-off any in-sidewalk sensor if it is sensitive enough to detect a child trying to cross the street.

    Where would the necessary funding come from too?

  22. In Denver the majority of pedestrian and vehicle accidents occur when pedestrians are jaywalking, either not at marked crosswalks, or at crosswalks against the signal, often at dawn or dusk with the sun at a low angle, or in the early evening hours when there is still a fair amount of car traffic. Here we have tried both pedestrian overpasses and underpasses but a fair percentage of people would rather take their chances running across 6 or 8 lanes of heavy moving traffic instead of crossing at marked crosswalks or waiting 45-60 seconds for the walk light to come on.

  23. It appears from your answer that you don’t place any economic value on moving traffic, when in-fact the average economic value of every vehicle on the highway is close to $50/hour.

  24. Both the author and many traffic engineers misinterpret the MUTCD’s minimums to mean recommended best practices. A more nuanced understanding of this problem is needed by all. We see inadequate implementations all the time with pedestrian and bicyclist controls (lack of adequate crossing opportunities, door zone bike lanes, curbside sharrows in narrow lanes) because traffic engineers are unwilling to exceed the bare minimum required for peds and cyclists in MUTCD. I think we must improve the MUTCD minimums AND train engineers to implement better practices that exceed such minimums.

  25. Good! Anything that both slow car traffic and protects ped/cyclist lives cannot possibly be a bad thing. A quote “Well, now, rules are alright when there’s someone left to play the game.” Nick Gravenites, 1964

  26. Traffic sensors are not based on weight. It’s an induction loop set off by a wide, metal rectangular object.

    You simply don’t require a sensor and have the light change in cycle. How many times have you come walked up to an intersection where cars next to you have a green light, you press the button, and the system makes you wait a whole cycle before giving you a green light vs just extending the current cycle?

  27. Sounds like victim blaming. Has anyone in Denver done a taproot analysis to determine why pedestrians are committing all those heinous crimes that put them in harm’s way?

  28. The latest edition was released in 2009, but offhand I don’t know when the last time the pedestrian signal warrant was updated.

  29. The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices tends to be conservative. They want to see good statistical evidence that a change will work before approving it. This is a good thing, but it leads to slow progress.

    Maybe they should put out lists on research they want. Could demographics and land use patterns be used to develop a crosswalk signal warrant? If you have sources of pedestrians on one side of the street, and places to walk to on the other, a signal may be warranted.

    There’s probably a grad student somewhere in need of a thesis topic that would be interested.

  30. The living example of numerous overpasses (and underpasses) can be found in ex-Soviet countries (and to a smaller extent in Eastern Europe in general)

    People are trying to avoid them and cross streets on foot therefore causing a lot of pedestrian fatalities. MUCH higher rate than in Western Europe where such things were practically eliminated in the cities . (Highways and railway crossings is a different sotry)

    Russia is particularly bad, they are building fences along most of the streets. Pedestrians are getting caged.

  31. The 80’s were kind of the heyday of developing “exurbs;” the Lake Oswego to Wilsonville area in Oregon is a great example and Mr. Chang has a whole ring of shit like that surrounding his city–wide streets with gentle curves and office/industrial parks as far as the eye can see. The old saying “pretty poison” comes to mind.

  32. The slow progress isn’t good, but would you rather have ineffective or worse, dangerous traffic controls in the manual?

  33. Are those really the only criteria…?! What about if there’s a old folks’ home across the street from a grocery store, and it doesn’t meet the threshold? Do the oldsters just have to take their chances?

  34. How about nuking the insane US law on “jaywalking” inside this area?
    That would be a really good start ….

  35. You selfish little s**t – you express EXACTLY what’s wrong with your country’s traffic regulations

  36. This is satire. The real James C. Walker’s user name is “jcwconsult.”

    Sadly, this is close enough to what he’d say that people are falling for it. I’m a bit surprised the real James C. Walker hasn’t commented on this thread.

  37. I had more than 30 years of experience driving and owning 18-wheel trucks in my career. With gross freight rates around $3.00 per-mile today and an average speed of just 35 mph that is an economic value of $105/hour plus the spin-off, as trucks use fuel, and tires, and need maintenance work, and a full 42-quart oil change every 10,000 miles, plus depreciation and replacement cost, etc. Figure the economic value of the spinoff is likely double to 250% greater than just the economic value of moving freight.

    What is your median household income today? Here in Metro-Denver it is $73,000, and our median home price is only $540K. Figure 2000 hours of work (50 weeks x 40 hours) that median household income pays $36.50/hour, plus the spinoff. Now according to the US Census ACS, in all but out most-expensive urban areas, such as NYC and San Francisco, wealthy Americans do not as a rule ride public transit at nearly the same rate as do those in the bottom 40% of annual income.

    If you want National Bureau of Economic Research economic studies on economic spinoff might I suggest extensive work on the subject from former Dean of Economics at San Diego State, Stanford-educated Dr. Valarie Ramey? Her 2012 piece “Government Spending and Private Activity” is a good primer on economic spinoff. She has written dozens of other studies on the same subject.

    CURRICULUM VITAE: Valerie A. Ramey, February 2017:

    “Government Spending and Private Activity”

    US Census ACS 1-year data shows the median family income for Seattle was $100,630 in 2017.

    Figure 2000 hours and that level of income pays $50.315/hour, plus the spinoff, an additional 200 to 250%.

    It might be that I grossly underestimated the economic value of moving traffic in Seattle as with the economic spin-off, the value of the average vehicle on the highway in Seattle is likely in the range of $100 to $125/hour, considering that public transit ridership is heavily of lower-income that can’t afford to drive.

  38. That depends on the median income per-pedestrian. In Dayton, OH where median household income is under $30K, 2000 hours worked annually is under $15/hour. and at median household income in Dayton, it is still possible to rent or buy a house and own and drive a car.

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