Building a Safer Mid-Block Crossing

Photo:  NACTO
Photo: NACTO

Pedestrians deserve a safe places to cross the street. But a mid-block crossing with just some paint isn’t going to cut it.

Various studies have found compliance rates between 16 and 32 percent for drivers yielding to pedestrians — as required by law — at crosswalks that don’t have a traffic light or stop sign. In a word: terrible.

We’re in the midst of a pedestrian safety crisis, with deaths soaring to more than 6,000 a year. It’s time to rethink and improve the mid-block crossing. After all, almost three in four pedestrians who are killed were crossing at mid-block.

Fortunately, there are some good, low-cost innovations cities can use to make that safer. Below, we’ve highlighted some cheap, effective upgrades for mid-block crossings, listed in order from lowest-cost to most substantial.

Signs within a crosswalk

Photo: Greg Voltz
Photo: Greg Voltz

Those little yellow “State Law Stop for Pedestrian” signs that sit right in the middle of the street are technically called R1-6 signs. They’re cheap and easy. But they shouldn’t be underestimated. They work.

A research team at the University of Minnesota tested these last year at a handful of unsignalized intersections in St. Paul — and yielding increased significantly. Such signs work even better if multiples are installed, both in the center of the lane and on the outside, researcher Nichole Morris found. This is called a “gateway treatment.”

These start at around $65 on the internet. But they are prone to damage and require a small budget to replace them every now and then. But that’s a small price to pay to protect people from getting killed.

Cities should be installing these everywhere. Some of the most progressive cities are already doing so. Brookline, Massachusetts, for example, has installed 50.

Rapid Flashing Beacon

Photo: FHWA

That is a fancy word for flashing lights that warn drivers a pedestrian is trying to cross the street. They require pedestrians to press a button when they are waiting to cross.

My anecdotal experience with this has been surprisingly good.

Scientific data that supports their wider use as well. The Federal Highway Administration reports this treatment been shown to reduce pedestrian-car crashes 47 percent, A St. Petersburg, Florida, study cited by the local ABC affiliate found they improved driver yielding by an astounding 85 percent.

Unfortunately, the federal government has only issued “interim approval” to these devices for frustrating reasons. The group in charge of signals and signs is slow to change, even in the face of mounting safety problems.

But cities can still install these helpful treatments, it just requires a little extra paperwork.

They can be especially helpful where bike trails cross roads or by schools. The median cost to install, according to FHWA was about $14,000.

Raised Crosswalks

Photo: Safe Routes to School
Photo: Safe Routes to School

One of the best ways to make a mid-block crosswalk safer is simply lift it off the ground. Raised crosswalks are perfect for making pedestrians safer because they literally force drivers to slow down.

According to the Institute for Transportation Engineers [PDF], speed humps slow vehicles to about 20 mph, just the right speed for mixing with pedestrians.

A 2008 study by the Federal Highway Administration found these reduced vehicle-pedestrian crashes by 46 percent.

Raised crosswalk are elevated three to 3.5 inches off the ground and they plateau at the top for about 10 feet.

Some cities — *cough cough,* Cleveland — complain they don’t work well with snow plows. But this is a bad excuse for just leaving pedestrians to get killed or injured in the street. New York City has tens of thousands of intersection. It has started a minuscule program that has resulted in about a dozen raised crossings.

Refuge islands

Photo: NACTO
Photo: NACTO

A great way to upgrade a mid-block crossing is to pour some concrete right in the middle and make pedestrians a refuge from traffic.

Pedestrian refuge islands make crossing “easier and safer” for pedestrians, according to the National Association for City Transportation Officials, “because they reduce the exposure time experienced by a pedestrian in the intersection.”

They can also be landscaped to look beautiful and they encourage drivers to slow down because they create an obstacle in the middle of the road.

Hawk Signals

Photo: Mike Cynecki via FHWA
Photo: Mike Cynecki via FHWA

Some places, particularly Arizona, have begun installing HAWK — or Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons — signals. These operate like traffic lights, but they are used mid block specifically for pedestrian protection.

HAWK signs are activated by a button.

There’s good support for their safety benefits. The Federal Highway Administration says these have been shown to reduce pedestrian crashes 69 percent and overall crashes 19 percent.

The federal government has some perverse rules about this, requiring a pretty enormous amount of pedestrian traffic before one is “warranted” by engineering manuals. And they can also be expensive.

But on wider, higher-speed roads where a mid-block crossing is important, they can be really effective.

National Editor Angie Schmitt is working on a book about the startling rise in pedestrian deaths nationwide. The still-untitled Island Press book is expected out next year.

22 thoughts on Building a Safer Mid-Block Crossing

  1. I’ve seen HAWK-style signals that are flashing yellow lights too. Those are good. Visible and the light is next to the sign indicating what the light is about.

    The worst I’ve seen is flashing lights embedded in the pavement. They’re really visible during the day, and in my anecdotal experience coming across them while driving, even knowing what they are, it can take a couple of seconds to remember what they’re telling me. Low-visibility and not next to the “pedestrian crossing” sign is a good combo for making sure drivers don’t see/understand them and thus don’t comply.

  2. In Fresno peach ave crosses paths with the McKenzie Trail. There’s a mud block there, but you can only use it once 50mph cars go by. Clearly, we need a hawk signal.

  3. My neighborhood’s little seven block business district contains three mid block crosswalks. They are marked with the first two techniques: middle-of-the-road signs and flashing lights. Compliance is fairly good: only about 10% of drivers fail to yield. Part of the reason might be the high concentration of crosswalks (both mid and corner block) and a lot of pedestrians signal drivers to slow down and watch for people crossing.

  4. While flashing beacon lights work well on lightly traveled roads with just 2 lanes, they’re completely ineffective when there’s any traffic or on 4 lane roads. Two pedestrians were killed at the steps of SF City hall, which had flashing becon lights embedded in the crosswalk with signs on both sides of the road on a wide crosswalk that was clearly marked. Since then, they’ve replaced those useless pedestrian becons with a regular traffic signal, which most drivers pay attention to.

  5. Would there be a problem adding a sign within crosswalk between each traffic lane, and even between bike and vehicle lane?

    Bikes might have to single file through that small section, but it’s only a short segment and a boon for safety.

  6. SF City Hall’s flashing beacons were visible for 3-4 blocks, and a distraction the whole while approaching them; then I’d end up watching the lights not the pedestrians. Who would just walk out whenever – one, two, now another two, now safe to drive…another one! Difficult to drive safely there. Bad at dusk too. Safer to have a proper walk light so everyone gets a turn, with the City’s usual short wait.

  7. A key item is missing – lighting. NHTSA data shows a high percentage of pedestrian fatalities occur at night or other low light situations, so lighting mid-block crosswalk is critical. The pedestrian demand buttons for flashing lights work very well and should be used wherever mid-block crosswalks have a significant amount of use. Another key item is missing, any efforts by the pedestrians to be visible, particularly at night, by wearing or carrying something light colored to reduce their own chances of being a fatality. NOTE: this is not victim blaming, it is a common sense action for someone’s own safety – just like wearing a seat belt in a vehicle is for the occupants’ own safety.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  8. Metro Boston was the first place I saw where the pedestrian signs on the center/crown of the road were widespread, and that was in the late 2000s. I’m not sure if they intrinsically worked, but they seemed to signal to motorists that there could be real enforcement. And there clearly was. If the drivers know they will face consequences akin to running a red light, they learn quickly. Is it possible that a sign combined with detection cameras that ticket drivers for violations could work? I suppose it would need to be elaborate–drivers would only get penalized if there are clearly pedestrians present who are seeking to cross–but it wouldn’t require considerably greater technology than the usual camera-based speed and red light enforcement.

  9. @James C. Walker: Saying “note” doesn’t make victim-blaming transform into something else. A pedestrian killed by someone using a car isn’t less a victim of another’s decision to travel via a deadly vehicle if they failed to wear a reflective vest. Get a more ethical hobby than shilling for an extremist group.

  10. Yes, Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (aka HAWKs) are the only truly effective crossing treatment (aside from a regular traffic signal) on multi-lane, high-speed roadways (i.e. to cross most state roads and arterials). Multi-lane would generally mean 4 or more travel lanes. High-speed would generally mean roads on which 85% of the cars travel at or over 35 mph. RRFB beacons do not, in most cases, work well on such roads. Double-threat crashes (Google it) can result from installing RRFBs on large, multi-lane, high-speed roadways at non-signalized crossing locations.

  11. @sincerely If a pedestrian darts out into traffic at night, not at a crosswalk, in dark clothing, and becomes a fatality – that pedestrian contributed substantially to their own fatality. This is identical in principle to someone becoming a fatality in a vehicle because they failed to fasten their seat belt. Safety is a shared responsibility and pedestrians are often as much at fault as the vehicle drivers when pedestrians are killed.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  12. That this is even being discussed is beyond nonsense. Mid-block crossings for what? Cross at the d**n corner!
    60% of pedestrians deaths are the pedestrian’s own fault. These topics are intended to demonize drivers and automobiles in the drive to get them off the road entirely (except for the elites, of course).
    Tom McCarey Member, National Motorists Association

  13. When I started calling for the centerline flag signs in Iowa City the MPO head told me that “people just ignore those.” I didn’t believe him then and now that we finally have a few in Iowa City (surprisingly resistant to pedestrian protections considering our college town status) I can vouch for how effective they are. We have to do better!

  14. Raised crosswalks are also called speed tables, with the crosswalk on the table top. These might be the most effective and affordable choice to reduce pedestrian fatalities, as the motor vehicle will probably have slowed down, even if the driver hits the crosswalker. The snowplow argument is valid, but commercially available rubber ramps and and crosswalks can be removed during snow season. These can also be used for special events as they are modular.

  15. Why no mention of a stop sign? If it merits a crosswalk, why not make it a safe place to cross for a child or an older person, for example. Thoughts?

  16. @TomMccarey Mid-block crossings are necessary where there is a large distance between traffic lights. It could take the pedestrian several minutes out of the way to go all the way to a corner crossing. Compare this to a driver waiting a few seconds while they wait for a pedestrian and I think it’s clear what the better strategy is. A pedestrian’s time is no less important than a driver’s time yet we always seem to judge traffic safety measures in terms of how it slightly inconveniences drivers.

  17. @TomMccarey This applies just as much to most crosswalks at corners, since often they are not signalized. I live in an area where the main road is 35 mph but the perpendicular streets meet as t-intersections so they only have a stop sign (main road has right of way through). If I want to cross the main road AT A CORNER, Id still need a Rapid Flashing Beacon or a HAWK to cross safely. Id have to walk about 6 blocks to get to the nearest signalized crossing otherwise, which is just not at all practical.

  18. I agree that RRFBs give the illusion of safety and often confuse drivers. They should only be installed on low volume 2 lane roads. 4+ lanes should require a HAWK for mid-block crossings due to the risk of multiple threat crashes.

  19. There’s another option, which I saw years ago in Salt Lake City. On each side of a wide thoroughfare, there’s a kind of basket attached to the streetlight pole, and in it are brightly colored banners on sticks. When pedestrians want to cross, they pick up one of these banners and hold it aloft, as they cross, then deposit it on the other side.

  20. James C. Walker is a auto industry shill and consistently blames pedestrians for their own deaths. He is a disgusting excuse for a human being and I wish I had aborted him.

  21. The missing concept is to engineer crossings where people will actually cross not where some engineer wants them to cross. How many times have you seen dirt paths from sidewalks that they keep trying to repair or hedge block? Pave it, it is where the pedestrian customer has expressed preference. Put the crossings where people will actually cross.

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