Signal Priorities Should Signal Priorities


Signal timing makes all the difference. (Img fm PiPress.)

Signal timing makes a huge difference. As the Green Line planners are just discovering in Saint Paul, how we prioritize different modes at intersections can make the trip between downtowns last over an hour, or we can cut that time in half by prioritizing trains at busy corners. It’s a matter of priorities.

Similar problems arise with pedestrian crossings. Here are some questions for you: How long should walkers have to wait at a light to cross the street? How many seconds should the walk phase be? Should you have to press a button? Should pedestrians get a head start (a.k.a. “leading pedestrian interval)?

In a way, how we answer these questions sends social signals about our priorities. Minneapolis, Saint Paul and most suburbs all list laudable goals in their city plans, where they officially prioritize transit, walking, and biking. Meanwhile, our traffic signals and street designs are dominated by the needs of turning and speeding car traffic. We’re sending mixed signals.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as we can speed up the train, we can make it easy for people to walk around our cities. The trick is knowing the difference between accommodating and prioritizing people on foot. That means shifting our priorities at signals, and in street design.


8-to-80 Cities are a Great Guide


Gil Peñalosa talking at the StP Transportation Summit

One key problem is that our streets seem designed only for the young and healthy. Last week, noted urban designer Gil Peñalosa was in town as part of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation’s placemaking residency. He’s the thinker behind the Cyclovia and BRT reforms in Bogota, Colombia, and has since become an urban design consultant based out of Toronto. His key concept is that we should design city streets so that young people and the elderly can walk around; he calls it the “8-to-80” cities movement.

The best speech I saw him give was at the Saint Paul Transportation Summit, co-sponsored by Saint Paul Smart Trips and the Chamber of Commerce. As he described it:

It’s about creating cities for all… What is 8 and 80 cities? It’s not just about walking and cycling. These are the means not the ends. The end is how we can contribute to building vibrant cities with healthy communities where the citizens are going to be happier enjoying parks and public places.

You don’t have to be a transportation engineer.Three simple steps.

Step #1 think of a child about 8 years old that you love, your daughter or sister or grandchild. Once you have this boy or girl in mind, then go to step #2. Think about an older adult that you also love, and when you have the child and the older adult in mind, go to step #3. Would you send this child and the older adult across that intersection? Would you send them walking or cycling to the store or to the school or to take public transit? …

What if everything that we did in the Twin Cities had to be fantastic for the 8 and for the 80?

Peñalosa’s argues that cities should prioritize walking, biking and transit over cars. When designing a street, we need to think about children and older people. If we have crosswalks timed so that only athletic people can make it across the eight lanes of traffic, old people won’t keep walking, and our kids won’t play outside. Is that what we want?

Walkable Stoplights

beg button franklin ave

Example of how NOT to prioritize walking

Let’s return to our questions. How long should walkers have to wait at a light to cross the street? How many seconds should the walk phase be? Should you have to press a button? Should pedestrians get a head start?

Once you keep Peñalosa’s rules in mind, the answers are pretty simple. Traffic signals in walkable areas should have short phases. If you’re walking through downtown Saint Paul or Minneapolis, there’s no bigger annoyance than having to wait at a stoplight while cars speed around corners. Decreasing the phase length prioritizes people on foot, reduces jaywalking, and allows people to safely get where they’re going. No turn on red rules are another.

Second, walk phases should be longer to allow slower moving people the time to be safe crossing the street. Older folks should be able to walk around our cities, too. And no, they shouldn’t have to press a button just to cross the street, particularly in a walkable area.

Finally, a few second head start for people on foot is an easy change that signals that pedestrians are the most vulnerable users of the street and should come first. This should be true, literally and figuratively.

These changes are easy, but the difference is huge. All we need is a shift in mindset, and a greater willingness to prioritize between users. A beg button accommodates pedestrians, but an LPI, quick phases, and a longer crosswalk timing reflect actual priorities. It’s easy to talk about how we want our streets to be walkable and vibrant. It’s time we actually walked the walk, too.

19 thoughts on “Signal Priorities Should Signal Priorities

  1. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Great post Bill. The Green Line situation is frustrating to me in its prioritization of auto traffic at every signalized intersection along the way. Technology allowing the trains to communicate with the signals is being installed, but the traffic engineering plan is to only allow trains to extend a green light they already have a few seconds to clear intersections.

    Trains will not be able to preempt signals by changing them as they approach and will have to wait out many full signal cycles along the way. Uncharacteristically for me these days, I spent most of my day yesterday commenting on Bob Collins’ Green Line travel time blog post about this. Bob gets it too:

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Yep. If you want Minnesotans to take transit, you have to make it the faster choice. None of our Public Works or Transportation departments are willing to do that yet. Hopefully that changes!

  2. Janne Flisrand

    The light by my house — Hennepin S and 22nd — has always had a long, long cycle. For 18 years, I’ve been jogging to catch it because waiting is just unpleasant and eternal. Magically, a couple months ago, it got speeded up (by a factor of 2, maybe?). Suddenly, I felt relief when from a block away I saw it turn green and realized that I didn’t have to run, I could just wait for the next cycle. I wasn’t tempted to cross against the light, because I had no reason to.

    It was liberating.

    I figured a couple of things.
    1) I assumed it was a mistake, so I didn’t want to tell or thank anyone ’cause they might put it back “the way it’s supposed to be.”
    2) I assumed no one else noticed. Then, two of my renters started talking about how great it was. One of them is an observant pedestrian attuned to this sort of thing, but the other is an equally unobservant bus rider. They both RAVED about how great it was.

    Several weeks later, things went back to how they’d always been. I assume someone “fixed” it.* I’m back to running to catch the light, able-bodied person that I am. I’m also timing the speeding cars to see if I can sneak across without having to wait.

    That “mistake” reminded me just how much this simple, cheap fix would improve the city.

    *I haven’t verified it was a mistake that got fixed. Call it an educated guess.

      1. Rosa

        THANK YOU. That link is awesome to know.

        I should call 311 again about the broken beg button at Cedar and 34th. There is no way they’d leave a broken car traffic signal for even a few days, and the beg button has been out (visibly, wires hanging out) for at least a week.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      It’s amazing how big a difference it can make. This is one the kinds of things that “pedestrian LOS” might address. Basically, unless you actually walk around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, you’ll never realize how undignified poor signal timing can make you feel. The fact that most of our decision makers rarely walk is one key reason we don’t prioritize people on foot.

  3. Monte

    There are microwave pedestrian sensors available so there are other options than choosing between causing unnecessary delays for cars, or making pedestrians or suffer the extreme indignity of pushing a button (I admit there a PITA on a bicycle). You could also aim a second sensor into the street so it would extend the pedestrian clearance interval if there was an unusually slow walker.

    Saw a picture of an interesting signal concept for right turn lanes, it was a four section with green arrow, an indication that alternatively flashed a yellow arrow and a pedestrian icon, a yellow arrow, and a red arrow (so no turn on red). A few agencies have used a flashing yellow right arrow to reenforce the need to yield to pedestrians so this is an interesting evolution.

  4. John

    I think the push buttons get a bad rap. They serve two good functions. First, they make the intersection ADA compliant and second they allow a pedestrian to notify the signal that a pedestrian is present in a lower volume pedestrian areas. However, I don’t understand why they don’t automatically give the walk signal when the light is green. That seems like an obvious fix

    1. Monte

      Giving a walk every time there’s a green could probably be done most places in the city (and usually is), but out in the suburbs it’s a different story. Typical intersection of a strip mall entrance and a wide suburban street, the side street green time could be as short as 10 seconds if there’s just a single car that wants to go. The minimum walk plus pedestrian clearance (flashing don’t walk) time could be in the range of 30 seconds, so just giving a walk whether or not a pedestrian is present could waste 20 seconds of a dozen or so drivers time and fossil fuel. Maybe you say “big deal”, but it adds up over all the intersections every time a useless Walk comes on.

      Additional reasons are you’d still need a button if a pedestrian wants to go if there’s not a car there, and turning on a light without the button might breed confusion about whether the button works (although buttons are now required even for lights that do have pedestrian recall enabled thanks to ADA), and practice in this area is to not to shorten a pedestrian clearance if there’s an emergency vehicle going the other way (although this is allowed by federal standards).

    2. Keith Morris

      Umm, hello did you forget that thing called “winter”? Are we really expecting people in wheelchairs to roll up three feet of an icy mound to reach those buttons? Elderly people to climb them with their walkers? Even an able-bodied young-ish man in my 30s found some of these buttons just impossible to reach or just way too much effort. Had to just jaywalk in the crossing or further down the street instead. And that’s if they even work. They’re better off installing sensors that can be tripped by a person standing on either end of the crosswalk.

    3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      The main question I have: How do city staff determine where is a “low volume” ped area where you should have an automatic walk stage?

      One way is to count peds, but that’s taxing and also ignores the “induced demand” dynamics of a high quality pedestrian environment. If you decide to make most intersection walk stages button-activated because there aren’t enough pedestrians to justify it, then you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ve made walking so unpleasant that nobody will do it, and then saying “nobody walks” to justify the poor quality in the first place.

      Instead, city staff should program automatic walk phases and improved signal priorities at any place where there COULD BE a moderate- to high-density of people walking. This includes residential and commercial areas in the urban core, (e.g. near the U campus, urban arterials). There are two benefits: it encourages walking, and slows down car traffic that shouldn’t be speeding through these potentially walkable neighborhoods in the first place.

      The suburbs, OTOH, are a different story. Very few neighborhoods are potentially walkable, and I don’t have strong opinions about beg buttons v. prioritizing walking on most suburban streets. Maybe it’s worth doing, but not without some significant changes in the street design and land use patterns.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        One example: I was biking through Saint Paul the other night and was trying to turn left at the corner of Cleveland and Summit (from NB Cleveland to EB Summit). There was a lot of traffic speeding up Cleveland Avenue and I didn’t want to get into the left lane to make the turn so I waited for the light to turn red (making a two-point turn, essentially).

        The light never did turn red. Summit Ave doesn’t get a phase late at night unless a car or ped is there, even though it’s directly next to a college campus with (presumably) many people walking around at all hours of the day. Instead, car traffic speeds 40+ mph past this potentially walkable area.

        That seems dumb. It’s an example of what I’m talking about. There are many other places, too. Mounds Boulevard and E 3rd Street, Washington Avenue in Stadium Village, Dale and Thomas, S Hennepin Avenue, etc.

      2. Monte

        Having pedestrian pushbuttons makes walking so unpleasant that people won’t do it? Sometimes I wonder if there’s a disconnect between the ideology of hardcore urbanists and what the average citizen cares about. Before I got a car I used to walk around my neighborhood and never thought pedestrian pushbuttons (or taking a few steps to the side for a right turn lane) was degrading or such an onerous burden. But then again I’m just a traffic signal collector from the suburbs so what do I know…

  5. Pingback: Recommendations for Minneapolis’ 36th Street Bikeway |

  6. Pingback: Washington Avenue SE revisited |

  7. Pingback: Saint Paul’s Downtown Renaissance Begins on the Sidewalk |

  8. Liz

    To belatedly jump on this discussion – can I say how frustrating it is for major street crossings on the Green Line (specifically, at University & Raymond) to require beg buttons to trigger a pedestrian crossing signal?

    After all:
    a. This is a neighborhood we’ve just invested a LOT of resources in to make a place for people to walk/ride a train. We ought to expect that a lot of pedestrians will be there, most of the time.
    b. Crossing at this spot without a pedestrian signal means almost certain death given the wide street, active train tracks in the middle, and fast light cycle — but waiting for a pedestrian signal takes a full cycle and it’s quite tempting to cross on green without it.

    The combination of traffic calming/lane reduction/parking lane and a default pedestrian signal would really go a long way to make this street more pleasant and safer, and create some nice street-level retail activity as well, I hope.

    The ONLY reason we might legitimately fail to give a pedestrian signal without begging is to prioritize the LRT over car traffic. But my impression is that it’s the opposite.

Comments are closed.