Walk? Don’t Walk? Get Run Over?

Nashville Skyline, July 2013

Nashville Skyline, July 2013

I traveled to Nashville recently and, as is often the case for me, I think about Knoxville in the context of the city I’m visiting. I walked extensively in Nashville, just as I walk extensively in downtown Knoxville. That means dealing with cars and crosswalks. It means jaywalking sometimes and carefully following the rules other times.

Nashville, July 2013

Nashville, July 2013

Nashville, July 2013

Nashville, July 2013

I remember several years ago, Michael Haynes wrote about crosswalks, jaywalking and what is really the safest way to navigate downtown streets. It was the first time I noticed someone mention the safety of crossing mid-block as opposed to the corners of blocks. That is precisely what one does in Paris, I would learn later. The crosswalks are not at corners, but rather moved down several meters. The streets are one-way, primarily, so you only have to worry about one direction as you cross.

Legislative Plaza, Nashville, July 2013

Legislative Plaza, Nashville, July 2013

Flowers in Downtown Nashville, July 2013

Flowers in Downtown Nashville, July 2013

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, July 2013

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, July 2013

Shop, Nashville, July 2013

Shop, Nashville, July 2013

Why is this more safe? Because turning vehicles at intersections are often looking elsewhere for on-coming cars and are not considering pedestrians. It’s generally these turning drivers that give us walkers reason to be concerned. I recently came close to being hit, something that happens from time-to-time when you often walk in a city. It happened as I walked across Summit Hill toward the 100 block of Gay Street.

Jaywalking in Nashville, July 2013

Jaywalking in Nashville, July 2013

Walk, Knoxville, July 2013

Walk, Knoxville, July 2013

Do Not Walk, Knoxville, July 2013

Gestures were exchanged. Mine was to hold my hand up in a “stop” sign to the car while pointing to the walking sign which clearly showed I had ten seconds or so left. The lady driving the SUV in question then motioned to the same signal – which was flashing a red hand much like the one I had flashed to her. I forget her precise words, but it was something along the lines of, “Sir, did you notice you have a flashing red hand?”

Countdown in Red, Knoxville, July 2013

Countdown in Red, Knoxville, July 2013

I had an epiphany: the sign didn’t mean the same thing to each of us. She had a green light to go straight or turn and assumed the sign meant I should not cross. I know better, but who cares, if I wind up dead?

So I’m walking in Nashville and I get curious. As you can see in the photograph, jaywalking is alive and well in Nashville. A closer inspection of their signals, however, revealed a couple of significant differences. First, most of the crosswalks also have a high-pitched beeping sound for blind pedestrians. I’ve never seen a blind pedestrian in Knoxville, but that seems like a pretty cool idea.

Second, and more important for this discussion, the walking lights flashed a walking guy while the countdown – in white – commenced. This seems to take away the ambiguity. Clearly, that’s how long you have to walk. At the end, the red hand returns and walking is forbidden. I think even a non-downtown resident could understand that.

Countdown with Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

Countdown with Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

Nine Seconds with Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

Nine Seconds with Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

As I watched our signals again last night and pondered this piece, I realized that, not only do we have the mixed signal of a red, flashing hand meaning “walk,” but our signals don’t even display consistently. If you look at the photographs you’ll notice the progression: Walking guy in white (lasts a nanosecond), then red countdown letters, then as the time grows short, red hand plus red letters. Except that it doesn’t always happen for some reason!

Five Seconds with No Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

Five Seconds with No Hand, Knoxville, July 2013

If you notice, again, in the photographs you see a “9” with a red hand and a “3” with a red hand. But wait, there’s a “5” with no red hand. It’s not the primary problem, but it doesn’t help clarify an already confusing signal.

So, to me, the answer seems obvious: the walking guy in white should be up the entire time walking is allowed. That way, even a suburbanite in an SUV would know pedestrians are allowed to walk. The countdown could then be in red for attention, but clearly it would be a countdown of how long the pedestrian has left to walk – not a countdown until he or she is allowed to walk as my angrily gesturing friend assumed.

Until that happens, drivers need to understand that the countdown – albeit with a red flashing hand – is how much longer pedestrians are allowed to walk. Pedestrian friends, you need to understand that drivers will continue to not get this and will come close to running over people like you and me. And they will continue to be angry because we walked with a red, flashing hand clearly displayed.

Comments

  1. Mary Holbrook says

    I almost always cross in the middle of the block and also find the Gay/Summit Hill intersection the most problematic downtown. Have you read Walkable City by Jeff Speck? He is coming to Knoxville for a symposium hosted by the Community Design Center on the afternoon of September 12.

  2. James Rowland says

    I usually run across Gay/Summit Hill Intersection even when the flashing red hand “tells” me that I have a given number of seconds left to walk across. Always wondered why I ran—now I know.

  3. You had the flashing hand/countdown and she had a green light already? Something wrong there.

    The crosswalk signals do another dumb thing: they signal “don’t walk” in both directions at the same time. And for long periods. That encourages people like me to get frustrated and ignore the signal.

    The design of Summit Hill is probably the bigger culprit. What if it was reduced from 4 lanes to 2? Add curbside parking and reduce the speed limit to 25. The road doesn’t really get enough traffic to justify its 4-lane mini-highway design. The land freed up by eliminating lanes could be combined with the useless grassy “park” to become a site for a new building. (Tilting at windmills, as usual.)

    • Art Wagner says

      I, too, have almost been run over crossing with the walk signal at Gay and Summit Hill.

      Oddly, when Summit Hill was created, property that once had buildings was taken to accomplish the curving street. The 200 block of Gay was the victim. Summit Hill is attractive, but it sucks the pedestrian/urban energy right out of that area.

  4. The evening of Steampunk Fest I was almost hit at the crosswalk of Summit Hill and Gay. We weren’t jaywalking and we had the red countdown numbers. Until this article I never thought about the color before. Of course, the driver of the oversized pickup truck immediately turned left into that intersection because he had a green light. It was very scary. Jaywalking away from the corner makes good safety sense!

  5. As a pedestrian you must be defensive since your life is at stake.

    Pedestrians, cars and cyclists all feel like they have the right of way all the time. They feel the others should look out for them. Now, regardless of who actually has it is useless since the other two don’t care. This was the case when I lived in NYC, and it’s the case in Knoxville, Nashville, Atlanta, etc.

  6. I was once told by a city engineer that our signals downtown have the capability of emitting an audible signal, but that the feature was not implemented. I still don’t understand why.

    Oh, and Greg: the problem is with turning vehicles. Pedestrians should be treated as oncoming traffic, and allowed to pass before the vehicle turns. Thus the walk signal and the green light. It’s a go for everyone traveling on that axis.
    ~m.

  7. Honestly, I don’t think the problem is the crosswalk showing a red hand and flashing numbers. I would say that the average person realizes that when numbers are counting down, that means that the pedestrian has more time to cross. Yes, cars should be more aware of pedestrians in the crosswalks. However, it goes both ways. Pedestrians should also be paying attention and not leaving the responsibility of looking both ways to the cars alone. I always err on the side of caution when crossing the street, even if it seems clear and I have the right of way.

  8. I almost got run over at the same intersection, and for the same reason.

    In my case it was a city bus driver who thought the flashing red hand meant she had the right of way. I can understand, but I do think a bus driver should know better. (Actually my two other close calls as a pedestrian downtown also involved city buses…)

    It should definitely be changed; no time for ambiguity when you are driving.

  9. Jonathan Ziegler says

    Here’s a video of the audio crosswalks they use in Sydney, Australia

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk4HOLZOY6Q

    So the first sounds are the countdown and start when you press the button, so you know the system is working and your turn is coming up. Then the high pitched signal to let you know to walk, and then the fast beeping lets you know it’s still safe to cross. I noticed while I was down under that after awhile, you get a Pavlovian response to the fast beeping and it seems to get you to cross the street faster and more efficiently. When I came back to the states, it was noticeably awkward to walk across the street without any sounds assuring me it was safe.

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