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