Friday, February 11, 2022

Boulder flashback 1999: Traffic signals curb risks

     I have an affinity for fire hydrants, traffic signals, street lamps and stop signs. So it made sense that I would notice a new kind of WALK sign that is now ubiquitous but I first noticed on a trip to the People's Republic of Boulder.

BOULDER, COL.— How you cross the street says a lot about who you are.
     Young bucks, for example, clad in the false immunity of youth, saunter into the intersection whether or not they have a WALK sign, laughing and talking among themselves.
     They never notice the cars jamming on the brakes, allowing them to live. Or, if they do, they toss an indifferent "Hey, kill me" shrug.
     On the other hand, we older people tend to respect the crossing signs. We perch patiently on the curb, holding our coats tight at the collar, waiting for the signal.
     There is safety in the cautious approach, though it does hold its own kind of danger—an emotional rather than physical danger. It's humiliating to stand planted like a palm, respectfully gazing with Pavlovian obedience at the DON'T WALK sign while assorted passersby—old ladies and 8-year-old boys and such—brush past, crossing in that yawning period of time after the WALK signal goes off but before the light changes.
     I thought this was a problem with attitude, perhaps a lack of courage. But an invention I spied while visiting Boulder, Colo., not only suggested it is a mere technological matter but also presented a clever solution.
     Boulder has a downtown pedestrian mall, the way Oak Park used to, only this one succeeded and is popular with mobs of shoppers, jugglers, funny hat salesmen and grubby youth hanging out, waiting for Jerry Garcia to rise from the grave.
     At the mall's main intersections, surging crowds tended to fill the intersection the moment traffic stopped and not leave until the cars actually began rolling forward, shooing them to the curb.
     To address this problem, Boulder installed a WALK/DON'T WALK sign unlike any I have ever seen: the moment the little pedestrian is displayed, signaling it is OK to walk, a red big numeral next to it begins counting down the seconds until the street light will change and traffic will start up again.
     "We call them the Countdown Pedestrian Heads," said Joe Paulson, signal operations engineer for the city's transportation division, explaining that the city put them in last year at two high-traffic locations.
     We talked a long time about pedestrian signals. I never thought about it before, but the reason you have trouble at crosswalks is because, when the system was designed, they tried to economize and squeezed the information conveyed by traffic lights with three signals—red, amber and green—into just two signals: WALK and DON'T WALK.
     "It's an unfortunate nomenclature," Paulson said. "What we really mean to say is, start crossing and if you haven't started, don't start now."
     Paulson said the countdown indicator, which begins when the WALK signal is flashed and ends when the light changes (with four seconds of grace for daredevils) is a great success.
     "People notice them, they intuitively understand them and, generally, they like them."
     We don't have anything like that in Chicago, and given the system's lone drawback—at $ 550 a pop, it costs more than twice what the standard signals cost—we aren't likely to get one soon.
     But at least it's good to know that the problem is solved somewhere and that it's not our fault.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 25, 1999


  1. Ontario, Canada, had the walk/don't walk signals in the 50s when I went to high school in Niagara Falls. Of course, at the first sight of "don't walk," a card among immediately rejoined, "Yeah, don't" Well, I found it funny.


  2. If you still have the listed affinities, consider reading A Walk Around the Block by Spike Carlen. Chapters on various infrastructures, paving methods, bike lanes, roadkill, and other visible phenomena.

  3. I believe we did in fact have countdown crosswalk signals in the mid-1990s in Arlington Heights, as my wife actually phoned City Hall to complain that the new crosswalks outside Northwest Community Hospital weren't giving her anywhere near enough time to get a baby stroller across the street without sprinting, and to my amazement, they promptly sent a guy out to make adjustments.

    At about that same time, maybe a bit later, countdown signals appeared at some locations in the Loop (I remember noticing them near the train stations, and outside our office at Washington and Wacker), which you would agree is a really good idea if you've ever ventured out across Wacker on foot and suddenly noticed the lights changing way too soon. Unfortunately, in Chicago's case, they seemed to have a major Quality Control problem, with many if not most of the timer displays either going slightly bonkers or not lighting up at all after only a short time in service. For a long time the city seemed to give up on repairing them, though I assume they have found a better supplier by now. (The Washington corridor from the train stations east seemed to be a kind of test bed for street lighting, with the Washington St. bridge sporting about three different styles of streetlight at one time.)

    Incidentally, I should not have lumped in yesterday's comment about crosswalk strobes with the other "petty annoyances" I was listing. I agree that they boost safety when crossing a busy street. I was reminded of this when I noticed an older but very Boulder-like approach to crossing safety on Ridge Road in Wilmette yesterday: mounted on the crosswalk signs on each side of the road was a small bucket containing a number of little orange flags, with reflective Xs on them for nighttime use. You pick out one or two flags to wave at traffic as you cross, depositing them in the bucket on the other side when you get there. I wonder how long those flags would survive at a Chicago crosswalk.

    1. "how long those flags would survive" Probably not even as long as the signs in the middle of the street advising drivers to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk do before getting mowed down and flattened to the street...

    2. Didn't they have those same buckets and little orange flags at a crosswalk on Sheridan Road, where it passed through the Northwestern campus? Or was that somewhere else in Evanston? Maybe it never got past the discussion stage.

  4. I always took the flashing red walker in the sign to mean "hurry up" not "don't start now." Much the same way that many view a yellow traffic light as a goad to speed up rather than an admonition of caution. I'm an able practitioner of the urban sport of adjusting my walking speed according to the amount of time it seems that I have left to safely arrive on the other side.

    I think I appreciate the countdown timers as much as a driver as I do as a pedestrian. Particularly at a light with a speed camera, knowing how many seconds I have before the light is going to turn yellow is quite helpful.

    1. Except that the numbers displayed aren't quite full seconds. If it's down to 2 or 3, I simply slow down and stop, leading to the inevitable: the car behind me swings around my car and throttles through the intersection on full red. Occasionally, I decide that the following car isn't going to stop no matter what I do and I cruise through on yellow...hopefully.


  5. Sweet memory. I can't wait to get back to places like Boulder again.


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