Near Side Signals: Thinking Outside the Pedestrian Box

How often do you think about stoplights? Not just to acknowledge that the light is green or red or how many times the “Don’t Walk” hand on the pedestrian crosswalk counter has flashed so you know how long you have to cross, but the design and placement of that signal. (The red hand flashes 17 times at the freeway exit intersection on the Lowry Hill Greenway on Lyndale Avenue, for reference.) I will grant, the readership of this fine blog is more likely to have thought about this than most.

I have had a growing irritation with placement of signals over the past few years, particularly after my most recent trip to visit a former host family in Austria, where I lived off and on for almost three years. Like many others who have commented on differences between European and American street design, I was struck by how much safer I feel as a pedestrian there. A part of that was because the crosswalk was significantly less blocked than the average U.S. intersection. That could relate to cultural norms, more driving training (getting a license in Austria is both time consuming and expensive) or a stronger restriction on right turns on red (generally not allowed anywhere), but another aspect was simply where signals are placed at intersections. Most often, they are on the near side of the intersection. If there is a signal in the middle or on the far side of the intersection, it is supplemental, not primary.

What does that mean for user safety? Vehicles see the light sooner before reaching the intersection, which makes it less likely that cars run red lights. Importantly, though, vehicles need to stop farther back to see the signal, meaning that the crosswalk is kept clear for pedestrian use. In Austria and Switzerland, a stop bar serves as an extra indicator of where cars should stay, but the signal placement itself is doing most of the work. This intentional design choice makes it safer for multiple road users to interact in the same space. Pedestrians have less fear of cars inching forward and encroaching on the crosswalk, and cars are less likely to run red lights because they can see the signal sooner. Keeping cars farther back also allows for a tighter turning radius for a vehicle coming from a perpendicular road, allowing intersections to be smaller, use fewer materials and have shorter crossing distances for pedestrians.

The signal is placed on the near side of the intersection at the beginning of the crosswalk. There is also still a stop bar set back several feet, which keeps vehicles back far enough to see the light and protects turning radii for vehicles coming from other directions and for larger vehicles. Source: Google Earth in Innsbruck, Austria; photo up top by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash
More of a cross view showing the signal behind the crosswalk, with a stop bar behind. Source: Google Earth in Innsbruck, Austria
Traffic signal placed on the near side of the intersection, followed by the pedestrian crosswalk and then the bike lane. Source: Google Earth in Innsbruck, Austria

Now let’s look at some infrastructure in Zurich, Switzerland.

Switzerland adds different colors to further differentiate infrastructure types, with crosswalks in yellow, bike lanes painted fully red with yellow symbols and car infrastructure in white. Signals are still on the near side of the intersection. Author photo
Photo showing multiple user types at an intersection. Bikers are allowed to be slightly farther forward from cars to promote visibility. Both bikes and cars are kept behind the crosswalk by signal placement and stop bars. Author photo

Compare the pictures above with the ones below from Lyndale and Hennepin avenues (and insert your own mental images from pretty much any intersection in the United States).

Cars regularly pull into the crosswalk, particularly when trying to turn on red. Pedestrians are forced to go around and hope that the driver is watching and doesn’t accelerate. Author photo
Stop bars do little on their own to prevent cars from creeping forward at intersections. Author photo
Pedestrians often have to navigate six lanes to cross an intersection. Cars blocking their space makes this all the more daunting. Author photo

Notice how much the Lyndale and Hennepin examples are oriented around making it easier for cars to move around at the detriment of any other user. The crosswalk and stop bar paint are faded, and enough cars ignore them to make these crossings dangerous anyway.

The United States has a road traffic death rate (per 100,000) roughly five times higher than that of Austria and Switzerland. Again, many factors could contribute to this, but at least some of it has to do with the intentional design of roads and signals. Other elements could include:

  • Narrower roads leading to slower speeds,
  • Smaller average vehicle sizes,
  • Higher barriers to getting a license,
  • Traffic camera enforcement, and
  • A prohibition on right turns on red.

All of these things could be done here! I couldn’t find any Austrian or Swiss data on pedestrians in a quick search, but the United States is killing more than 6,000 pedestrians annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a rate that has increased more than 50 percent since 2010 and now represents 17 percent of all traffic deaths — the highest rate in over 35 years.

Source: World Health Organization

I also find it telling that the NHTSA reports that intersections are a major driver of accidents and fatalities, advocates that engineering could help change this, and then focuses solely on enforcement and education campaigns. Why not look at the engineering of the intersection? Similarly, the GHSA report points to increased vehicle size with the growth in SUV sales and increased driver distraction from cell phones as major drivers of pedestrian accidents, and then still focuses on pedestrian education opportunities as the main solution being pursued.

An important, albeit obvious, note is that vehicles themselves are becoming much safer for vehicle-vehicle accidents, but pedestrians don’t benefit from those improvements because a pedestrian can’t get improved airbags or better crumple zones. As the height and size of vehicles increases, pedestrians become less visible, even if an onboard camera might help drivers who aren’t distracted by everything else going on within the modern car cabin. Whereas a pedestrian being hit might have been able to roll on top of a vehicle before, now that same pedestrian more likely is getting pushed underneath the vehicle by unnecessary bull bars.

We know that cities in Minnesota aren’t in a position to enforce traffic rules with signal cameras (state preemption plus a bigger equity discussion). But if we aren’t going to enforce traffic rules via camera or street patrols, and pedestrian injuries and deaths are on the rise, how do we change the street design to disincentivize certain dangerous behaviors? How do we implement designs that change the risk/reward metrics for drivers to help them avoid endangering other users? When do cars stop being the focal point in street design?

Train crossings have cross arms come down to physically block cars from obstructing the tracks. So, why do we distrust cars when it comes to trains but we do trust them when it comes to pedestrians? A train-car collision certainly will favor the train, but a car will also certainly win against a pedestrian or cyclist. Maybe we do need a campaign like Montreal’s to demonstrate where crosswalks are. A potentially easier step, though, would be to work on our street design.

Whether removing right turns on red; adding chicanes (a curve in a road) or diverters such as islands; keeping cars away from pedestrians by using stop lines that are farther back; adding more bump outs or designing roads with near-side intersections: A multitude of options could help improve pedestrian safety. Let’s hope that more of them start becoming the norm in our country one day soon.

Peter Schmitt

About Peter Schmitt

Peter Schmitt lives in the Lowry Hill East ("Wedge") neighborhood with his wife in the attic unit of an 1893 triplex that they own. Together, they are working to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, including building a net zero energy passive house behind the triplex. Peter is a year round biker and pedestrian. Professionally, Peter works around the country as a solar developer.

8 thoughts on “Near Side Signals: Thinking Outside the Pedestrian Box

  1. Eric Ecklund

    Excellent piece that shows one of many flaws with our road infrastructure that prioritizes drivers over everyone else. Unfortunately as long as traffic planners care more about motorists and traffic flow, they won’t accept any changes that only benefit bikers and walkers, though an argument can be made that these changes benefit drivers by having safer roads for all users.

    On a personal note, near-side traffic signals and prohibiting right turn on red would’ve saved me from getting clipped by a car while I was biking across the westbound 494 exit ramp at Bush Lake Road in Bloomington. Luckily I wasn’t injured and the car only got my back tire, but since that experience I’ve realized how terrible that intersection is for bikers and walkers. The city and/or county built a wide sidewalk when they rebuilt the overpass in the early 2000s, but there was absolutely no attention to details like the blindspots for people at the crosswalk trying to see if a car is zooming up the exit ramp, and the fact that drivers are most likely going to roll through the red light and only look to their left when turning right.

    Another personal example is the northbound 35W exit ramp at 98th Street in Bloomington. The sidewalk is narrow, but even if it were widened it wouldn’t help at all preventing motorists from stopping in the middle of the crosswalk. A few weeks ago I was waiting to cross there on my bike, a motorist coming up the exit ramp was trying to beat the red light, but wasn’t going to make it so they slammed on the brakes and slid into the crosswalk. A few seconds before they hit the brakes I had a clear signal to proceed through the crosswalk, and had I started going right when the signal turned it’s very likely I would’ve been hit pretty bad.

  2. Brian

    Realistically, how many drivers are running red lights because they didn’t see the red light? The majority of red light runners are completely intentional. Heck, every month or two I see a driver stop at a red light and then just decide they can’t wait any longer and they drive on through.

    1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

      I agree that there will always be drivers that simply ignore traffic rules. There is potentially an argument to make that running red lights with near side signals becomes less prevalent because the risk measurement changes for drivers. With a far side signal, it is easier to be in the intersection before the light changes, giving the driver a few extra seconds. Choosing to run a red light with a near side signal puts a driver at more danger because they have farther to go after the red light. There will still definitely be drivers who run it anyway, but maybe that risk change is a deterrent for some. Either way, for those drivers who do abide by the light, it still keeps them farther back, leaving the crosswalk clear for pedestrians.

  3. Alexander

    I think Wisconsin has near-side traffic lights (at least some parts?). My partner’s parents always complain about missing them when they visit.

    1. Monte Castleman

      The old Wisconsin standard was one on a short pole on the left on the far side, one mounted horizontally on the far side on a “trombone arm” overhead mast , and one on a short pole on the near side. Typical old Wisconsin setup. The new standard is more like the surrounding states with all vertical signals and and a thicker, single piece mast with one signal per lane, and one on the left. They don’t include a far side right signal like Minnesota does and I believe the near side right signal is optional, but usually included. As a bit of trivia, the “flashing yellow arrow doghouse” configuration that Minnesota invented was first used outside the state on some new Wisconsin standard signals in the Eau Claire area.

  4. Ian R BuckModerator  

    Is this kind of light placement currently allowed under the MUTCD? Because if not, this should definitely be something that we get lots of people to write in comments about, since the MUTCD is currently being revised!

    1. Monte Castleman

      No. Sections 4D.11-17 regulate where and how signal faces must be installed. The absolute minimum (shall) is two faces (which must be 12″ if the posted speed is 35 mph or more) on the far corners of the intersection. There’s the strong suggestions (should) that overhead masts be used instead of in addition ton the two posts as it’s found it reduces red light violations. Diagonal span wires are also discouraged for the same reason- more red light violations than far side masts.

      Early on the US had all sorts of configurations. With the attempt to get more standardization for traffic control devices nationwide the MUTCD picked the near side only option to eliminate because there were somewhat more far side and center installations. The famous “Crouse Hinds” “smiley face” lenses were an attempt to direct more light angled down from center mounted signals to make it easier for motorists at the stop line and pedestrians to see.

      1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

        This is some great history on the MUTCD and near side signals – I have a very introductory article that I am working on about the MUTCD that should be published late this week/early next that I hope you engage with! Filing for alternative designs is certainly a hassle, but I still argue that it is worthwhile to get better data on ideas that at least seem to have better safety outcomes for pedestrians. I know that near side signals in the MUTCD can be used as a supplement under certain circumstances. Maybe that is a compromise interim option that would be more palatable for designers.

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