Like most of Baltimore, Fells Point pedestrians had grown accustomed to ignoring “Push Button to Cross” buttons that didn’t do anything or were often just missing. Then about a month ago, the city Department of Transportation fixed or replaced them. And now a group of Fells Point parents want the city to pretty much put it all back the way it was.
They say the way the city has reset pedestrian crossing signals and traffic light cycling is causing a hazard and high anxiety, especially for parents with infants in strollers and their older siblings in tow as they attempt to cross busy Eastern Ave. and Fleet St.
Cars whooshing through the neighborhood on those east-west streets are being favored over people trying to cross them at the intersections with Ann, Wolfe and Washington streets, these critics say.
“It seemed to change about a month ago,” said Miranda Wulff Altschuler. “You’d get halfway across the street and realize it was turning red.”
“It’s nerve-wracking, especially when you have kids,” said Altschuler, who has a two-year-old daughter and a six-year-old stepson. “My family walks a lot. I’d say I cross Fleet and Eastern at least twice a day. This is really affecting my quality of life.”
Pressing those buttons is an act of faith all over the city. Pedestrians always wonder whether they do anything to help make the light change sooner or give them more time. Many often don’t hang around to find out, deciding after a suitable wait to jaywalk instead. Many others, the chronic jaywalkers, have lost the faith and don’t bother paying attention to the signals at all, especially since so many drivers don’t either.
But the set-up at these Eastern Ave. and Fleet St. intersections, flawed though the City thinks it was, worked, these critics say. They knew there would be a chance to cross and that the pedestrian signal would tell them it was okay. Now, they’re saying, there’s no “Walk” signal, it’s hard to make the walk signal appear by pressing the button and the time they get to cross has, by some accounts, shortened to as little as 10 seconds.
“They don’t even give you a walk signal at all anymore, unless you press a button,” said Rebecca Gershenson Smith, whose children are four, eight and eight-months-old.
The new settings are causing confusion and irregular cycling, which results in more cars running red lights and more pedestrians jaywalking, they argue. This blog post by aMuse Toys owner Claudia Towles, lays out their complaint and proposed remedy.
They are also asking for “count-down” lights, the kind that let pedestrians know how much time they have left to cross.
Kendrick Defends Walk Lights
City Department of Transportation deputy director Jamie Kendrick acknowledged there’s been a change – “we repaired the pedestrian push buttons and vehicle detectors” — but says it’s for the better.
“Pedestrians again, as before, now have to push the button to get the walk indications,” Kendrick wrote, in an email to The Brew.
“While the signals were in a state of disrepair the pedestrian indications and side street green came up automatically even when no pedestrians or vehicles were present,” he said.
Kendrick said the change “has NOTHING to do with traffic moving more quickly,” and that “the timing of the lights with regard to speed has not changed. The net effect here is that side streets [presumably meaning Fells Point residents, rather than through traffic] are better served.”
It’s pretty much what he wrote to the Fells Point parents and they’re not buying it. They have scheduled a meeting on Thursday afternoon with Kendrick, City Councilman James B. Kraft and a traffic engineer to hash it out, right there on the street.
“What other possible reason could there be for having such a short walk signal [and drive signal for cross traffic] if not to ensure that traffic on Eastern and Fleet flow without back-ups?” Smith said. “Perhaps that is a reasonable goal, but they have substantially overcompensated by changing things much too significantly in one direction and completely leaving the walking experience out of the equation.”
Twelve Seconds to Cross?
I wanted to see this for myself and so I went over there with a stopwatch. (Well, a stopwatch phone app.)
I stood at the northwest corner of the intersection of Wolf and Fleet and tried to cross Fleet. The light stopped Fleet St. traffic for me for 12 seconds, at most. Several times when I measured, it seemed to be about 10 seconds.
When the lights allowed the Fleet St. traffic to resume, it continued for well over a minute. Then came another 10- to 12-second turn for Wolfe St. cars, or pedestrians. Grace periods seemed to be just a few seconds.
Before the city’s changes, crossers at this and the other intersections had much more time before the city’s changes, residents say.
“They were twice as long, before, easily twice,” said Towles, who walks the area with her family and to get to-and-from her Thames St. store.
The pedestrian crossing signal pattern was indeed strange. During the time when the light was green for Wolfe St. and I was supposed to be able to cross, the white “walk” signal never came on. I watched for it, but it stayed red.
During several cycles (here and at nearby intersections) I saw people waiting for it to come on and, not seeing it, hesitating and missing several cycles. Then when they did walk, they were often caught in the middle of the street when east-west traffic resumed.
I tried pressing the button. The light eventually came on after a full cycle. The amount of time it gave pedestrians to walk didn’t seem to be any longer to me.
The whole thing seemed to take a really long time.
I asked several passersby if they noticed a change or a problem and childless people all gave me a blank look, while parents with kids immediately knew what I was asking about.
“I definitely noticed it at Wolfe and Fleet streets,” said Crista Taylor, who lives on Wolfe St. and has six-year-old twins. “It’s really hard to get two kids across. Someone’s going to get hurt. It’s too short now.”
We’re looking forward to a fuller explanation from the city on Thursday and perhaps some precise measurements, but in the meantime, Brew writer Gerald Neily, a former city transportation planner, visited the intersections and has some thoughts about what’s going on. The section that follows is all from him.
Neily Breaks it Down
Pedestrian buttons in urban grids to actuate walk/don’t walk signals are almost always a bad idea. From the standpoint of traffic flow, push buttons randomize the signal progression from one intersection to the next, as pedestrians either press them or not, making it almost impossible to optimize the traffic signal timing for a safe traffic flow speed.
For pedestrians, the biggest problem with push buttons is that after they push them, they have to wait until the traffic signal cycles around to the time when the “walk” phase would be inserted. So if the traffic signal cycle is 110 seconds (the total time for a signal to go through its green, yellow and red phases), then unless the pedestrian is very lucky and presses the button exactly when it would have displayed “walk” anyway, he or she will have to wait through almost the entire 110-second green-yellow-red sequence. That’s a long wait. And 110-second cycle times are nearly standard at peak periods in Baltimore’s interconnected signal network.
Off-peak cycle times in Baltimore are generally reduced to 80 seconds, but in cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, signal cycles are as short as 60 seconds or less. Shorter cycle lengths mean shorter waits for both pedestrians and vehicles, shorter backups, less idling, and tighter bands of green signal time from intersection to intersection so that traffic speeds can be regulated. Shorter cycles give everyone less incentive to jaywalk, run red lights and “block the box” at intersections.
Another problem with pedestrian push buttons is that they are sometimes poorly located and labeled. Here (see photo) is a button at the intersection of Eastern Ave. and Washington St. which does not indicate which crosswalk it controls. It is located next to the Washington St. crosswalk, but it controls the Eastern Ave. crosswalk.
In basic urban grids, fixed-time traffic signals are the most foolproof and least prone to malfunctions. The city should determine which intersections are most critical, and allocate green, yellow, “walk”, and flashing “don’t walk” time accordingly. Only one of the six intersections cited here was identified in the city’s January 2008 “Southeast Baltimore Transportation Action Plan” traffic report as having capacity issues – Fleet at Wolfe St.
If that is the bottleneck intersection, the city needs to determine its best allocation of signal time, and then time the other intersections to complement it. Putting push buttons at a whole series of intersections ignores the question of which intersections might actually need them, and which do not.
That would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of Baltimore’s traffic signals, so that both motorists and pedestrians will actually learn to respect them.
Timing is everything
Poorly-timed traffic signals are a perennial problem in Baltimore. Here’s a Fox 45 video about it from last summer. Are the changes the city made in Fells Point part of the overhaul promised in this clever report?