Ah, the joys of the pedestrian signal button. Joe the pedestrian approaches an intersection. The traffic light is red in his direction. Just has he approaches the crosswalk, the traffic light turns green. Oh, too late! Joe presses the button, but the red hand remains lit. Joe must wait for the traffic light to turn red and then green again before the walk signal will beckon him to cross. At some intersections, this can amount to several minutes.
Traffic lights without automatic pedestrian signal phasing are inherently biased against people on foot. Cars don’t have to press a button to cross the street, so why should pedestrians? If a car approaches the intersection just as the light turns green, it just sails on through. The pedestrian? They must press a button and wait, essentially begging to legally cross and unnecessarily lengthening the time it takes to get to wherever they are going.
Denver has set goals to get people to take more multi-modal trips. In order to accomplish this, substantial investments will need to be made in our walking, biking, and transit infrastructure; and land use changes are needed to bring more destinations within walking distance of more people. Accomplishing all of this is expensive and politically difficult. Automatic pedestrian signals, on the other hand, are low-hanging fruit. No capital investment or new infrastructure is necessary and changing this particular status quo would be uncontroversial. A reprogramming of traffic lights is all that is needed.
Making intersections more pedestrian friendly doesn’t just further Denver’s sustainability goals. It also furthers our city’s Vision Zero goals, a global movement to eliminate all traffic fatalities. Every day, countless pedestrians, frustrated by unfriendly signals, cross the street against the light. This is illegal and dangerous, but nearly all of us have done it. Why? Because it is the logical course of action. Walking is already the slowest mode of travel. Not many of us are willing to add several minutes to our trip time by waiting at an intersection for the traffic light to go through another full cycle. For most urban residents, the delay is intolerable and as soon as they see an opening in traffic, they cross. Creating fair and equitable conditions at our intersections for both motorists and pedestrians will make them safer and bring Denver closer to achieving Vision Zero.
When asked for the city’s policy on pedestrian beg buttons, Denver Public Works provided this statement:
Denver provides automatic pedestrian walk cycles in locations where we have more pedestrian activity and where we see the greatest demand from pedestrians to cross. At other crossings, people can activate the walk cycle by pushing the button and, by doing so, are given more time to cross than they would if they did not push the button. In places where we don’t see a lot of pedestrian activity, we don’t automatically provide pedestrian crossing time as it unnecessarily adds to vehicle idling time and increases air pollution.
How does the city measure pedestrian activity at an intersection? What is the quantitative threshold for “more pedestrian activity” to qualify for automatic pedestrian walk cycles? How frequently is an intersection evaluated to see if it meets the threshold? How does the city reconcile this policy with Mobility Policy #3 from the newly adopted Blueprint Denver that states: “On all streets, prioritize people walking and rolling over other modes of transportation”?
Following are examples of two intersections in neighborhoods where I have lived that I think are no-brainers for reform:
Colfax and Downing is a heavily trafficked intersection in the heart of the city. It is surrounded by the most dense and walkable neighborhoods in the entire metro area and is adjacent to the bus stops of the 15 and 15L, the busiest of all of RTD’s transit routes. This area is teeming with pedestrians and yet, despite the policy statement above from Denver Public Works, this intersection does not have an automatic pedestrian phase to cross Colfax, which is ridiculous. It is probable that every intersection on central Colfax has significant pedestrian through traffic and deserves a pedestrian phase.
Another example is the intersection of University and Buchtel. On one side of this intersection is the University of Denver campus and a light rail station. On the other side are over one thousand apartment units and a parking lot for Richie Center events. There are a tremendous number of people who cross University Boulevard every day in this neighborhood but, contrary to the city’s policies, there are beg buttons at both Buchtel and Asbury. Consequently, many people jaywalk across University because of the inconvenience of crossing these intersections.
There are many similar intersections all over Denver that pedestrians cross on a frequent basis. If Denver truly wants to become a safer and less car-dependent city, it should reprogram these signals as quickly as possible. There is no good reason for the city to drag its feet on this cheap fix.