Bostonians are well known for their flagrant jaywalking. Walk down any street or stand at any intersection and you will witness people darting into traffic with little regard to anyone else around them. It’s easy to call them rude, selfish, or simply ignorant, but it would be unfair to put the blame on them alone. (Certainly pedestrians are not the only ones to misbehave. I will leave bicyclists and motorists for future posts.)
A brief history
In America, the term “jaywalking” only came about in the early 20th century, as cars became introduced onto our streets and those same streets became more car-oriented in their design. Historically, streets were shared between pedestrians, horses, bicycles, and trolleys, all of which moved at relatively slow speeds compared to cars. The rule of thumb for many years was “all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.” People would often walk or play in the street, and would cross wherever they saw the need. Over time, as more and more cars filled the streets, pedestrians became relegated to the sidewalks and designed crossings. Those who didn’t follow the rules were labeled “jays” (slang for an inexperienced person).
Why we do it
Given this history and where we’ve come since then (not very far unfortunately), it’s not at all surprising that we still jaywalk today. In the Boston area, there are really three main reasons why we jaywalk:
- Our streets encourage us to do it
- Our culture accepts it
- There is no punishment for doing it
We are fortunate that many of our streets and neighborhoods were originally created before the age of the automobile. Because of this, they naturally are pedestrian-friendly in many ways, especially compared with other post-automobile US cities which have wide, fast, straight roads with few cross streets. However, over time, our streets were transformed to be more and more car-oriented, usually to the detriment of pedestrians (and bicyclists).
There are two main ways that our streets encourage jaywalking: missing or poorly located crosswalks, and signal timing that is inconvenient and unfair to pedestrians.
Pedestrians will naturally look for the most direct route between the origin and destination. If crosswalks are located conveniently and don’t require pedestrians to travel too far out of their desired path, they will use them. However, if they are missing from legs of an intersection, or are not located frequently enough along a street, pedestrians will not use them and will instead cross wherever they see fit.
As important as locating crosswalks well is ensuring that the traffic signals are timed in a way that is convenient and perceived as fair to pedestrians. Most intersections in Massachusetts require pedestrians to press a button, wait up to a full signal cycle (which could be up to 2 or 3 minutes in some cases), and then once all traffic has been given a red light, given about 15 seconds to cross the street. With signals so clearly skewed towards accommodating cars, it’s no wonder pedestrians often don’t wait for the Walk sign.
A particularly good example of an unfair signal for pedestrians is the intersection of Park St and Tremont St in Boston (adjacent to Park Street Station). At this intersection, the total signal length is 100 seconds. (This is the time is takes a signal to cycle through all of the phases, including cars/bikes and pedestrians.) Out of these 100 seconds, the walk phase (solid white pedestrian) is 7 seconds, which is the time during which a pedestrian can safely step off the curb and be sure they have enough time to fully cross the street. There is then a 15 second flashing walk phase (flashing red hand), which is the time that pedestrians who have already begun to cross are expected to complete their crossing. What does this mean?
- Pedestrians get 22% of the total signal time
- The maximum wait time for a pedestrian to cross is 78 seconds (1 min, 18 secs)
- There is a 7% chance that a pedestrian will have a Walk signal when approaching the intersection (and conversely a 93% chance they will have to wait!)
The fact that this signal is so unfair to pedestrians is quite surprising given the large numbers of pedestrians going to and from Park Street Station and Boston Common. It just goes to show how even on our most pedestrian-heavy streets, cars are often still given priority.
In addition to the physical design of our streets, people in Boston tend to jaywalk because it’s seen as a socially acceptable thing and because there is essentially no legal enforcement against it. Just as most motorists commonly drive up to 10 mph over the speed limit and many bicyclists run red lights, pedestrians often jaywalk because they can. Even though pedestrians legally must wait for Walk signals, they know that motorists are also legally required to not hit them if they can physically prevent themselves from doing so. Pedestrians use this to their advantage with the knowledge that there will be little or no risk for doing so. In some other U.S. cities, such as Seattle and San Diego just to name two, it’s culturally frowned upon to cross when a signal says Don’t Walk. Pedestrians are accustomed to following the signals, and those who don’t are often scolded by their fellow pedestrians. In addition, police often ticket jaywalkers with fines of $50 or more.
What we can do about it: Engineering
From an engineering perspective, we have a few options for creating an environment that encourages pedestrians to follow the rules. One somewhat dramatic way to make a street more pedestrian friendly is to make it a shared street (also called a woonerf in Dutch). This involves removing all curbs, signs, and traffic signals. Although pedestrian areas at the street edges may be designed, pedestrians have priority over bicycles and cars over the entire street. (And bicycles have priority over cars.) Intersections are uncontrolled (they have no traffic signals) and may or may not be roundabouts instead of traditional 4-way intersections. This type of street is not very common in the United States, although we do have some small examples of this in the Boston area, specifically Palmer St and Winthrop St in Cambridge.
Since curbs, signs, and traffic signals are unlikely to go away anytime soon on most of our streets, there are practical ways that these more traditional streets can be made easier and more convenient to cross for pedestrians. The first is looking at pedestrian desire lines and adding crosswalks (either at intersections themselves or mid-block between intersections). The second is to modify the traffic signal timing to better favor pedestrians. A few steps can be done to improve signal timing for pedestrians, each of which adds another level of convenience and reduces the amount of jaywalking:
1. Make the pedestrian phases automatic, with no pushbuttons
Most signals require pedestrians to push a button in order to receive a Walk sign at the designated phase of the traffic signal. (This is also known as pushbutton-actuation.) This essentially means that as you arrive at an intersection, unless someone else has arrived and pressed the button before you, there is a 0% chance that you will get a Walk signal without having to wait. To many drivers, this sounds reasonable (“If there are no pedestrians there why should I have to wait for a walk signal?”). But imagine if motorists had the same experience as pedestrians. What would their response be if every intersection was always red in all directions until they pulled up to it, stopped, and waited?
Taking this comparison further, instead of green waves for cars like we typically have (where cars can travel down a street at 25 mph, for example, and receive consecutive green lights) why don't we have green waves for pedestrians?
To give pedestrians a fairer chance of receiving a Walk signal without having to wait, traffic signals should have automatic pedestrian phases that come up during each cycle, at all times of the day. Pushbuttons should not even be provided.
2. Use concurrent instead of exclusive timing, with leading pedestrian intervals
As explained earlier, many signals have one phase for pedestrians where all other traffic is stopped. This is called an exclusive pedestrian phase, and while it is technically the safest for pedestrians, in reality many pedestrians will not wait the time required to get to that phase, and therefore risk crossing against the Don’t Walk signal. However, there is a way to both increase the amount of time pedestrians can cross and increase the efficiency of the intersection for bicyclists and motorists.
Concurrent signal timing gives pedestrians a Walk sign at the same time as parallel traffic has a green light. This means that in general pedestrians and vehicles are always flowing through an intersection. For a typical 4-way intersection with concurrent timing, as you approach the intersection as a pedestrian, there is almost a 50% chance that you will already have a Walk signal, without pressing a button or waiting! At more complex intersections, there are times when pedestrians cannot cross in any direction (for example during exclusive left or right turn phases for vehicles), but these usually only last a few seconds.
With concurrent timing, since turning traffic usually conflicts with pedestrians crossing, a leading pedestrian interval can be added to increase pedestrian safety. A leading pedestrian interval gives pedestrians a 3 to 5 second “head-start” over traffic by illuminating the Walk signal before the parallel green light for vehicles. The main benefit of this is that turning traffic is much more likely to yield to pedestrians already in a crosswalk. Furthermore, in areas of high pedestrian volumes, an exclusive pedestrian phase (sometimes known as a Barnes Dance) can be included along with concurrent pedestrian crossing phases. This provides maximum convenience and safety to pedestrians.
3. Add countdown timers to pedestrian signals
Traditionally, pedestrian signals only have Walk and Don’t Walk signs. These give very crude information about whether or not it is safe to cross. With these signs alone, a pedestrian does not actually know how much time they have remaining to cross a street, only whether or not the engineer who programmed it thinks they do. Since people walk at different speeds, providing countdown timers displaying how much time is remaining can allow pedestrians arriving at an intersection to accurately decide whether or not they can safely cross during the current Walk phase or whether they need to wait for an additional cycle.
In some countries, they also have countdown signals communicating the amount of time until a Walk signal will appear. This helps to reduce jaywalking even further since pedestrians actually know how long they will have to wait. Unfortunately, this type of signal has not yet been introduced into the US.
4. Set the maximum signal cycle length to no more than 90 seconds
Studies have shown that pedestrians will wait 30 seconds before they will consider jaywalking. Even when signals are concurrent, if each phase is long, there may still be a significant wait for pedestrian until their Walk phase appears. To reduce this potential delay, WalkBoston, a Boston-based pedestrian advocacy group, recommends setting the total cycle length (the amount of time for a signal to cycle through all of its phases) to no more than 90 seconds.
Signal timing: Where we get it right
Since signal timing is such a key element to reducing jaywalking and increasing convenience for pedestrians, let’s look at the signal timing that is out on our streets right now.
In the Boston area, Cambridge certainly has the most pedestrian-friendly traffic signal timing. Cambridge’s policy is to not provide pedestrian pushbuttons, to provide automatic pedestrian signal phases, concurrent timing with leading pedestrian intervals, and countdown timers. There are some intersections where exclusive pedestrian phasing is needed due to high turning traffic volumes, but even in those cases the pedestrian phase is automatic. While some intersections still have pushbutton-actuated pedestrian phases, these are largely older signals that have not yet been upgraded.
Signal timing in Boston proper is a mixed bag and largely leaves pedestrians confused. Boston is increasingly using concurrent pedestrian signal timing, and has begun adding leading pedestrian intervals at some key locations. It also widely uses pedestrian countdown signals throughout the City. However, there is still much work to be done. Depending on the leg of the intersection you wish to cross, the day of week, and time of day, you may or may not automatically get a Walk sign. Boston unfortunately provides pedestrian pushbuttons on most signals, even ones that have automatic pedestrian phases. In much of the city (for example the downtown District, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, etc), pedestrian signals are automatic, but only on weekdays between the hours of 7 am and 7 pm. Outside these times, pedestrians must press a button, but only if that particular leg of the intersection does not have a concurrent pedestrian phase. And even this policy is not consistently implemented. For example, at the intersection of Boylston St and Charles St, at all times of the day, three of the seven crosswalks have automatic concurrent pedestrian phases, while the other four have pushbutton-actuated exclusive pedestrian phases. With signal timing like this, it’s no wonder pedestrians jaywalk!
Brookline is also a bit of a mixed bag, but improving. It’s a combination of automatic and pushbutton-actuated pedestrian phases. Many are exclusively phased but concurrent phasing is becoming more common, for example at Harvard St and Babcock St. Unfortunately, the City made some big mistakes when Beacon Street was reconstructed a few years ago. At Harvard Ave and Beacon St, the heart of Coolidge Corner and a very heavy pedestrian area, they replaced automatic concurrent signals that also had countdown timers with ones that are pushbutton-actuated, do not have countdown timers, and don’t always give pedestrians enough time to fully cross Beacon Street. Also, all of the other Beacon Street signals that were installed are pushbutton-actuated and concurrent. This is the worst of both worlds. When you arrive at an intersection when parallel traffic has a green light, not only do you not have a Walk sign even though you should, you have to press the button and wait an entire light cycle to finally receive one. This results in the delay of exclusive phasing without the benefits of a protected crossing!
Somerville has the most progress to make in terms of pedestrian-friendly timing. However, unlike Boston, it is at least consistent. The vast majority of intersections have pushbutton, exclusive pedestrian phases. Pedestrians do not even receive automatic Walk signs when crossing one-way streets that have a red light where there is no conflicting traffic, where there is not even a safety benefit to having a Don’t Walk sign. As such, a large majority of pedestrians can be observed disregarding pedestrian signals. A positive sign is that when street are reconstructed, Somerville is increasingly use concurrent pedestrian phasing, although in some cases it is still pushbutton-actuated. Furthermore, countdown timers have been added throughout much of the City.
What we can do about it: Culture and enforcement
From a cultural and enforcement standpoint, there are a few things we can do to decrease jaywalking as well. For one, police could start handing out warnings and citations to pedestrians who cross against the signal or who cross at locations without a crosswalk, especially when they pose a danger to themselves or other roadways users. (For example, if someone was crossing illegally when no other traffic was around, they would not get a ticket.) For this to be effective, we would likely need to increase the fines for jaywalking as well. For example, in Boston the fine for jaywalking is $1. Educational campaigns could communicate the potential danger (and rudeness) of crossing when you don’t have the right of way. As recent safety campaigns in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have focused on improving bicyclist and motorist behavior, it would make sense to extend these to encourage pedestrians to do the same.
As we can see, jaywalking is not something that can be totally blamed on pedestrians, although certainly being courteous is something we should all try to do. Our physical environment, culture, and enforcement policies all play a large role in how people behave. Only when we make concerted efforts to treat pedestrians fairly and as equal users of our streets as everyone else will their behavior improve in a big way.
What do you think? Will we ever be able to eliminate jaywalking in the Boston area?
“Crosswalk Buttons Don’t Do Anything! Except When They Do” Radio Boston 12 May 2010
Walkinginfo.org, a US-based Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center