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Monday, March 17, 2014

Conflicted Crosswalks: Washington St. and Columbus Dr. in Jersey City

This is the second in a series of posts about crosswalks with conflicts that threaten pedestrians. These are intersections located in neighborhoods that are not living up to their full potential, due in large part to traffic that is hostile to walking. As they exist today, these street corners are not neighborhood places; they are merely the residual space where flows of vehicular traffic collide. Each intersection has its own unique problems, but looking at several cases will help to identify some commonalities. This time we look at Washington Street and Columbus Drive in Jersey City.

One of my colleagues was complaining to me about drivers failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk near our office. He was particularly concerned that the traffic controls were giving left-turning drivers a left arrow at the same time pedestrians had a walk signal. This clearly creates a conflict (which concerns me even more for nighttime operations, given reduced visibility and the likelihood of impaired pedestrians leaving the bar on the corner crossing the street en route to the light-rail station or a bus stop).

My colleague and I both had an initial thought that this signal sequence would be prohibited by engineering standards. Yet when my colleague looked it up in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), it appears it is actually allowed:

Section 4D.04 Meaning of Vehicular Signal Indications

...1. Vehicular traffic facing a GREEN ARROW signal indication, displayed alone or in combination with another signal indication, is permitted to cautiously enter the intersection only to make the movement indicated by such arrow, or such other movement as is permitted by other signal indications displayed at the same time.Such vehicular traffic, including vehicles turning right or left or making a U-turn movement, shall yield the right-of-way to:
  1. Pedestrians lawfully within an associated crosswalk, and
  1. Other vehicles lawfully within the intersection...
...3. Pedestrians facing a GREEN ARROW signal indication, unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian signal indication or other traffic control device, shall not cross the roadway.

So the MUTCD anticipates that pedestrians generally would not be allowed to cross with this conflicting movement, but it is allowed nonetheless. In theory, drivers are supposed to yield to pedestrians, even when they have a green arrow. At this intersection, however, that message is not communicated to drivers through any of the traffic control devices. Instead, drivers bring with them a typical experience throughout the region that green arrows are protected, exclusive movements (consistent with the general prohibition on pedestrian crossings, except when "otherwise directed"). So drivers do not anticipate any conflicting pedestrian movements (even if the obscure standards of the MUTCD say they shall).

Although the MUTCD includes provisions that would allow this conflict, it seems ill-advised. Moreover, the signage directing drivers to yield to pedestrians (R10-15 sign), which could mitigate the conflict, has not been used. 

Incidentally, this same intersection has a problem for cyclists as well. On two different approaches, there are bike route signs that are incorrect. The bike route sign indicates a through movement as well as left and right turns. The intersecting street, however, is a one-way, so only one of those turns is possible. Hopefully cyclists recognize the situation before starting to position themselves to attempt turning the wrong way into oncoming traffic.

There are a number of improvements that can be made. First, there are the immediate fixes: correct the bike route sign and install a yield-to-pedestrians (R10-15) sign. The yield-to-pedestrians sign may not be a permanent solution, but should be installed as an interim fix while assessing the potential of retiming the signal to provide pedestrians a separate phase or at least a leading interval. Longer-term, there should be some review of the MUTCD to put better guidance around left-turn and pedestrian conflicts.

On further review of the MUTCD, it contradicts itself in the section on left-turn treatments. It stipulates what common sense would dictate, you shouldn't have a pedestrian signal encouraging people to walk in front of left turning traffic that doesn't expect them!
If pedestrians crossing the lane or lanes used by the protected left-turn movement to depart the intersection are controlled by pedestrian signal heads, the pedestrian signal heads shall display a steady UPRAISED HAND (symbolizing DONT WALK) signal indication during the protected left-turn movement.  
(Section 4D.17.05)
So Jersey City's ill-advised signal timing is not even in technical compliance with the MUTCD. There is obviously some clean up for the next version of the MUTCD as well...


  1. My interpretation is what you described in 4D.17.05 and that the green arrow crossing the WALK indication is not allowed. My recollection is that it was explicitly discouraged in past editions, but there are rural conditions where they allow all turning movements from one approach at a time to go, and few pedestrians and so the change was made.

  2. Thanks Peter.

    As it reads now, 4.D.17.05 and 4D.04 seem contradictory. If there is an intent to allow a degree of professional judgment for things like rural conditions, I think it would help to make that more explicit and provide a little guidance (recommending a R10-15 sign, for example).