“It’s a two-way street, pardon the pun,” said George Branyan, pedestrian program coordinator with the District’s Department of Transportation.
I’d called George to talk about my recent column on downtown’s crosswalks and how — just maybe — pedestrians shouldn’t cross against the flashing red hand. That way, vehicles waiting to turn left or right would have a chance to do so, reducing backups, limiting pollution, saving the ice caps and reversing global warming.
Many readers went ballistic at my proposal. To them, anything that “privileges” the driver over the walker is suspect.
So, what’s the law, anyway, George?
“If the [red “Don’t Walk”] signal is flashing, you’re not supposed to start crossing,” he said. “If it’s solid, opposing vehicles have a green light so you sure as hell shouldn’t start.”
So, I was right. But I’m not here to gloat about that. And I certainly don’t endorse mowing down pedestrians, one of whom I regularly am. I’m here to ponder the pedestrian-motorist nexus.
George is a planner, not a traffic engineer, but he’s studied the issue enough to know a few things. One is that it is easier to control a car than it is to control a pair of feet.
“Engineers are used to dealing with car traffic,” he said. “Because of that, they are dealing more in tools that are generally obeyed by the mode that they’re designing for.”
When an engineer puts up a traffic light, 99 percent of drivers won’t drive through it when it’s red, even if it is physically possible to do so. Pedestrians, however, aren’t so easily constrained.
“When things get inconvenient, they just go,” George said. “That is a reality. Unless you take an approach like Seattle did in the 1980s, which is to give half a million jaywalking tickets to try to control pedestrian behavior, if you delay pedestrians too long, they will just go.”
The District’s police could issue tickets — the violation is a T-575 — but they have bigger fish to try.
So George and his colleagues try to balance the needs of everyone, multimodally speaking. They hope pedestrians will follow the crosswalk lights, which (to reiterate) are meant to be interpreted this way: When the white, lighted figure is displayed, start crossing. When the red hand starts flashing, finish crossing, but don’t start. When the solid red hand comes up, don’t cross.
There are some who believe the countdown clock — showing how many seconds until the light is red — actually confuses things. Said George, “The countdowns have given people the information that if they pick up the pace they can get across the street, or almost across the street, before there’s any conflicting traffic.”
There’s another wrinkle: In accordance with new Americans With Disabilities Act rules, engineers have changed how long the “Don’t Walk” sign flashes. The previous standard called for the light to flash for as long as it took a person traveling four feet per second to completely cross the street. That has changed to a slower 31 / 2 feet per second.
That means that the red hand — don’t start crossing — now flashes longer, making people think they have plenty of time. And the reality is, often they do, but cars waiting to turn can get backed up as pedestrians nip across.
DDOT has programmed hundreds of traffic lights with a leading pedestrian interval. That’s when pedestrians are given a walk signal three seconds before cars get their green light.
“That has helped,” George said. “Turning vehicles can’t start until the green. By that time, pedestrians are established in the crosswalk and turning vehicles can’t jump [in front of] them.”
Some readers think the “scramble” or “Barnes dance” is the answer. That’s where there are three phases to every traffic light cycle: one for cars traveling north and south (for example); one for cars going east and west; and one for pedestrians only, who may cross diagonally.
The problem is that a scramble reduces by one-third the total amount of time each driver or walker has to cross. And, as noted above, when pedestrians feel inconvenienced, we just go.
“We should disabuse people of the idea that this is some magic bullet,” George said.
The scramble works best at intersections where there are more pedestrians than vehicles, as at Seventh and H streets NW, where DDOT is experimenting with it, although that is not a proper scramble, as vehicles aren’t allowed to make turns.
DDOT is about to embark on a project to fine-tune 700 intersections downtown. It will be interesting to see if things improve.
Oh, and drivers: Don’t block the box.
The District’s Susie Hillenbrand was among readers irritated that I had honked my horn at pedestrians who stepped in front of me.
“Horns aren’t meant to give motorists an outlet for their frustration!” she wrote. “I personally have often thought that every car owner should be provided — and be required to maintain — a limited amount of ‘honk’ to be used when really necessary. Those who use up their ‘honk’ would have to purchase more, at a rate high enough to make them think twice before using it carelessly. I have no idea about the mechanics of such a system, but if we can send a man to the moon . . . ”
To read previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.