Across American cities, pedestrian safety and mobility is moving to the forefront of transportation conversations. Cities are adopting Vision Zero or Towards Zero campaigns and seeking to combat rises in pedestrian fatalities (which have increased 45% from 2010 to 2019). While these campaigns are vital in urban areas, the epidemic of pedestrian fatalities is just as problematic in non-urban contexts. In fact, pedestrian fatalities occur at approximately the same rate in rural areas when controlling for population, according to the latest report from Smart Growth America.
Prioritizing the needs of pedestrians when designing traffic signals may feel unnecessary for jurisdictions with few pedestrians using their traffic signals. However, a current lack of pedestrians may not indicate a lack of demand, especially if the pedestrian conditions feel unsafe. Additionally, minimal pedestrian use should not deprioritize their safety; after all, they are at a significant disadvantage in any motor vehicle interaction.
So, how can rural and suburban jurisdictions design signalized intersections around pedestrians? I have previously discussed using pedestrian recall for minor street movements in urban contexts, which also enhances pedestrian safety outside city limits. However, if your jurisdiction does not have enough pedestrian crossings per hour to justify placing the minor street movement on recall, here are some other treatments that can still prioritize pedestrians.
Maximize the walk time for the mainline pedestrian movements
Traffic controllers have several settings that can maximize the Walk time for crosswalks running parallel to the major street. By using “Rest in Walk,” the crosswalk will sit in the Walk interval until a conflicting vehicle or pedestrian places a call. Engineers can also flag the mainline crosswalks with recall, serving them every cycle. This in particular should be a default setting for jurisdictions! Pedestrians walking parallel to the major roadway should not have to beg for a crossing. High delays tell pedestrians their crossings are not important and encourage crossing against the signal.
Implement Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) for side-street pedestrian movements
LPIs are often considered a tool for high volume pedestrian crossings. However, LPIs can be just as effective at low-volume, actuated crosswalks. At such locations, the crosswalk is not served every cycle, and drivers may not be expecting pedestrians. By giving the pedestrians a head start, these users establish themselves in the crosswalk and alert vehicles to their presence. This treatment also has minimal impacts to vehicular operations since the LPI is only served if a pedestrian is present.
Implement context-sensitive pedestrian clearance intervals
Even though pedestrian usage might be low, pedestrian clearance intervals can and should be set according to the nearby context or land use. For example, near schools or senior centers, engineers can implement extended Flashing Don’t Walk intervals to provide more clearance time for populations with slower walking speeds. This helps all pedestrians safely complete their crossing before the light changes. Like LPIs, extended crossings can be implemented at actuated locations with minimal impact to vehicular operations.
Employ lower cycle lengths during non-peak periods
While lower cycle lengths across the day are preferred for pedestrian mobility, jurisdictions may struggle to internally justify reducing peak-period cycle lengths. In that case, consider reducing cycle lengths during off-peak hours, especially during midday and weekend periods when many pedestrians, including caretakers with young children, will be running errands. Also consider reducing the duration that peak-period cycle lengths run to minimize their impact to pedestrian delay.
Convert two-stage crossings to single-stage crossings
Many long crosswalks with medians are timed so that pedestrians are forced to stop and wait to continue crossing, typically to reduce mainline vehicle delay. While this does not violate most design standards, it can be frustrating to pedestrians and creates an unwelcoming environment for them. These crossings can be timed for single stage crossings by 1) increasing the Flashing Don’t Walk to cover the entire crossing; or 2) increasing the programmed Walk to allow a pedestrian to cross to the median.
With pedestrian fatalities trending upward across the US, jurisdictions must prioritize road safety for its most vulnerable users. The treatments above can help engineers and city transportation officials working in non-urban contexts focus their systems on pedestrians. Such a shift shows pedestrians that their crossings, while less frequent than in urban areas, are important.