Here’s a location where sensors and an immediate green for pedestrians when no opposing traffic would make sense. Several people, one pushing a baby carriage, crossed against the light in the time before the light finally turned green for pedestrians.
After my post Traffic Signals for Active Mobility several people sent ideas for and examples of using traffic signals to encourage active walking and cycling, so I thought it would be a nice idea to keep track of the ideas just in case someone decides to pursue the idea of developing a best practices summary in the future.
Self-Controlled Traffic Signals
Self-controlled traffic signals use sensors to detect how many vehicles, cycles and pedestrians are approaching from each direction and the optimization algorithm continuously recalculates signal timing to minimize stop time for everyone. The approach was tested in Lucern Switzerland during 2020. After implementation the average waiting time for pedestrian traffic at one intersection was reduced by 29 percent thanks to self-control, and by 18 percent for car, motorcycle and bicycle traffic (ETH Zurich Research Report – German).
Reduced waiting time for pedestrians and cyclists = more walking and cycling!
Plus … no one gets mad waiting for traffic signals while no traffic is coming = less crossing against the signal and fewer complaints about the city not knowing what they are doing.
Real Time All-way Walk Phases
Figure 1 (top) shows normal traffic signal operation. Traffic and pedestrians on up-down street have right of way (green signals). Vehicles/bikes and pedestrians on cross-street are waiting (red signal).
Sensors determine there is no vehicle/bike traffic approaching on up-down street.
Figure 2 (bottom) shows that vehicle/bike traffic on up-down street receives a red signal and pedestrians on cross-street receive a green signal enabling them to start crossing the up-down street early.
It might be possible to exempt bikes from stopping and allow them to start crossing the up-down street with the pedestrians, but this would require some good cooperation from everyone.
Independent 4-way walk phase.
Real time all walk phases would be especially useful on one-way arterials where traffic often moves in bunches down the street, leaving relatively long periods where no traffic is coming. This encourages pedestrians to cross against the light (in New York this is practically standard procedure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous).
The photo at the top of this post shows one of these situations in Vienna. I was shocked to see a person pushing a baby carriage cross against the light.
Your idea here!
I’d like to make this an updated list of ideas. So please send your ideas or comments to the above and I’ll update this post in the future.
In our paper Experimentation in Transport Planning: BridgeX Case Study presented at the 2021 Transportation Research Board annual meeting, we looked at how experimentation has been used to test transport changes before a decision is made whether to keep, refine or remove the change. Tactical urbanism is a form of experimentation and it’s now a well established approach for testing small changes.
Our paper examines the idea of using experimentation for larger projects. We investigate examples and identify a set of best practices for using experimentation on large projects. Our examples were: removal of freeways in San Francisco, Stockholm’s congestion charging program, New York’s Times Square pedestrianisation, Vienna’s Mariahilfestrasse shared space and several more. I thought it would be interesting to keep a list of more examples. This is it. Send me additions and corrections.
Toronto King Street Streetcar
Streetcar in Toronto
Toronto tested a public transport priority project for it’s very busy King Street streetcar line starting in 2017. The test was hugely successful and the project was made permanent in 2018. The project used all the strategies identified in our research: (1) inclusive and detailed advance planning, (2) quick and dirty implementation, and (3) rapid and continuous improvement.
Laurence Lui, of the Toronto Transit Commission made a presentation summarising the project to the TRB’s Streetcar Subcommittee on 12 January 2021, here a link: Performance of the King Street Streetcar Pilot Program (to be added).
More Projects Coming
Send me additions and corrections.
2021 is the European Year of Rail. It reminded me of an idea I had several years ago that European Railways should start something like the European Song Contest, In this case it would be the “European Train Song Contest” and it could be held every year in one of Europe’s beautiful old (and new) train stations. I still think that would be a cool idea. It would be a lot of fun to start in this Year of Rail!
I had the idea after making my first music video parody: What do you get when you take the train? It’s based on that great Burt Bacharach / Hal David song I’ll never fall in love again. My line is … I’ll never take a plane again. Well, at least until tomorrow. I worked in a little Amy Winehouse at the end with … try to get me in an airport, I say no, no, no. Filmed on location at Vienna’s Westbahnhof in November 2008.
Let me know if you want to work on this idea!
We applied the strategies for transport experimentation in our Bridge X design for the Re-imagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition in 2020 (Source: ScenesLab, www.bridgex.today).
Our paper Experimentation as a Public Engagement Strategy in the Bridge X Proposal for Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge was selected for presentation at the 2021 Transportation Research Board meeting, this year all online.
The paper presents recommended strategies for using experimentation to implement big transport changes in cities. Cities have been using tactical urbanism to implement “small” changes for many years, but only rarely have experimented with big changes. The strategies were identified by looking at examples of big changes including removal of San Francisco freeways, introduction of congestion charging in Stockholm and pedestrianization of Times Square.
BridgeX balcony zone by ScenesLab
We applied the recommended experimentation strategies in developing the BridgeX proposal for New York’s Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition in summer 2020. The big change consisted of creating open space on the existing Brooklyn-bound lanes and shifting all traffic to the existing Manhattan-bound lanes while the bridge’s promenade deck is widened to reduce pedestrian and cyclist overcrowding. New Yorkers could decide to keep the open space or return traffic to the Brooklyn-bound deck after completion of the promenade widening. The same experiment could be tested with the winning proposal Brooklyn Bridge Forest.
We’ll be online for our poster presentation in TRB 2021 – Session 1175 – Current Issues in Public Engagement and Communications; Tuesday 26 January 2021; 11:30 AM to 13:00. Here are links to our presentation slides and video. And, here’s the paper abstract:
Cities are increasingly using experimentation to test innovative and controversial policies and infrastructure projects. Experimentation consists of making temporary changes, carefully assessing their impacts, and using this assessment to decide whether to keep the changes or refine them. For example, tactical urbanism tests small changes such as cycling lanes. Using experimentation for large changes is more difficult and often depends on seizing unique opportunities. This paper outlines a model and recommendations for using experimentation in transport planning and applies them in a case study. It argues that enabling people to directly experience the impacts of a transport change provides them with a much better understanding of project impacts and benefits than possible in traditional transport planning processes. The case study describes how experimentation was integrated into Bridge X, a proposal prepared for the Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge competition. Bridge X combined one large transport experiment (replacing the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound vehicle lanes with space for active transport and open space), with many small urban design and transport experiments on multimodal access routes, the vacated bridge deck and anchorage areas. Bridge X proposed initial ideas for these transport and open space designs as well as community engagement processes. A continuing public engagement process was proposed to refine these initial ideas. This paper presents a model for using experimentation in transport planning, the case study and recommendations.
Many people waiting to cross this street in Vienna did not know they needed to push a button for the walk signal.
I’ve found, in my walks and rides through cities, that traffic signals really impact my route selection. I avoid intersections where I need to wait a long time or need to cross in multiple stages (the completely awful waiting on a traffic island with traffic speeding by on both sides). In other words, from my perspective at least, traffic signals have a huge impact on pedestrians and cyclists.
A cyclist green wave traffic signal on Vienna’s Praterstrasse.
On the other hand, some cities are changing their traffic signals to improve walking and cycling. Methods include count-down timers, improved timing to reduce pedestrian wait times, using sensors to detect waiting pedestrians rather than forcing them to push a (beg) button and green-wave timing for cycles.
I thought it would be interesting to comprehensively document these techniques for using traffic signals to encourage (or at least, not discourage) walking and cycling. Therefore, in 2020 I prepared a research proposal for developing a set of best practices for using traffic signals to encourage walking and cycling. Here’s the abstract:
Traffic signals are a key element of urban transport. They allocate, in time, street space to users. Traffic signals were invented as part of the effort to make room for motor vehicles in the early 1900s. Traffic signal planning, arguably, incorporates an unconscious bias towards prioritising motor vehicle flow. Furthermore, traffic signal planning (e.g., timing, phasing, location) is complex, making it difficult for non-specialists to effectively participate in design decisions. Some cities are using traffic signals to increase walking (e.g., smart signals) and cycling (e.g., green waves), but many of these strategies and their detailed engineering are not widely known. The project’s objective is to identify, design and communicate strategies for using traffic signals to increase the use and safety of walking and cycling. Therefore, this project will bring together traffic signal planners with academics, NGOs and local residents, to survey existing methods, develop new strategies, and broadly communicate recommended best practices, for using traffic signals to encourage walking and cycling. Importantly, because autonomous vehicles will also need some process for allocating right-of-way at intersections, the project will consider how the best practice strategies can be implemented in both today’s traffic signals and tomorrow’s autonomous vehicle control software.
One of the proposal’s organising concepts was that we currently focus on allocating street space … we should think more systematically about allocating TIME. For example: Why, when most cities have the goal of encouraging walking and cycling, do they focus on timing their signals to encourage driving?
We also planned to develop and investigate new technologies and practices that could be applied to traffic signals to help encourage walking and cycling like using sensors to give early green phases when pedestrians or cyclists are waiting – but there is no opposing vehicle traffic.
Unfortunately the proposal was rejected by the funding agency, but I still think it would be an excellent research project. Contact me and I can send you more information and put you in contact with my excellent team of collaborators.
Vienna’s old bus/tram stop sign on the left and new sign on the right.
UPDATE: 14 January 2021
Of course the Wiener Linien, the public transport company that makes Vienna the world’s most livable city, has very good reasons for the new signs. (I should have known given the overall excellent quality of the Wiener Linien public information.) I just saw a video about the Wiener Linien’s new signs on LinkedIn that describes their advantages:
- Signs designed with strong involvement of accessibility community;
- Barrier free (type size, contrast, audio information, big red post);
- Video displays that provide route information, schedules, transfer points, walking distances, changeable with an accessible button;
- Information consistent with the WienMobil Vienna multimodal trip planning app
As they say at the end of the video, the new signs provide more information, more comfort and are more barrier free. Again, the Wiener Linien shows why they are the leader in all things public transport. I can always see the old signs in the wonderful public transport museum Remise Vienna transport history museum.
The Viennese have a reputation in Austria of being grumpy (“grantig” in German). They are also, justifiably in many cases given the city’s beautiful historic buildings, parks and public spaces, not particularly enamored with change.
After living here 13+ years maybe I’m finally becoming Viennese. I’m really grantig about the new signs being used to designate bus and tram stops (Haltestelle).
BusMeister game bus stop improvements panel.
The old signs are simple, low tech, instantly recognisable, useful (most have attached garbage cans as shown in the photo) and clear. Note how the old tram signs are oval and outlined in red while the bus signs are half-oval and outlined in blue. I was surprised that the game designers who created my BusMeister game actually knew this difference and incorporated the half-oval signs into the game. And, of course, the old low-tech signs are also consistent with Vienna’s historic feel.
The new signs just seem blocky (in contrast to the old signs’ simple elegance). Sure they include the real time display (which is on a separate pole at many stops with the old signs), they clearly show the stop name, and they use more up-to-date fonts, icons and corporate design. But, hey, I’ve become old fashioned.
There’s no question in my mind that the Wiener Linien (Vienna’s public transport company) is the finest public transport operator in the world, but I just wish they would keep the old signs!