Public Works: Saying No to So-So Ideas
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Public Works: Saying No to So-So Ideas

California is toying with tiny lights to try to make crosswalks safer. The idea may be better off dropped.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

California’s new yellow-bordered pedestrian lights. Courtesy of Caltrans.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is testing out a crosswalk upgrade that it says “could be the newest and innovative safety feature on pedestrian signal[s].”

It is actually a border of tiny yellow lights added around the edges of your standard stick-figure pedestrian crossing light.

Designed by a senior Caltrans transportation engineer, the Yellow Pedestrian Border is meant to protect road-crossers from cars making right-hand turns, particularly on red lights.

“A lot of times the drivers [making rights] are distracted,” creator Rob Stinger said in a Caltrans PR video. They’re either looking at the signal indications or they’re looking to their left to see if there’s oncoming traffic.”

The yellow LED lights are activated when someone pushes the pedestrian crossing button at an intersection. They stay on until the flashing red hand appears to signal that the time to cross is running out. According to Caltrans, the presence of yellow border lights will alert drivers to the fact that there are pedestrians about to enter the intersection.

A test of the Yellow Pedestrian Border was rolled out in Redding, a city of 91,000 in northern California. And they think it will help drivers become more aware of people waiting to cross.

A 2014 report said that, after a two-year pilot period, Redding’s five yellow border-adorned intersections have seen a 17 per cent decrease in pedestrian-motorist “conflict”—loosely defined as drivers having to swerve or slam on the brakes, or pedestrians having to stop in mid-step.

But, as The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab blog recently pointed out, Caltrans reports also show that the yellow border is less effective at big intersections, where drivers from outside the city who don’t know about the newfangled yellow borders are involved.

The testing in Redding continues.

But there is a common sense issue here that’s more important than the statistical findings. To increase drivers’ awareness of their surroundings, Caltrans has implemented tiny yellow lights on a pedestrian sign that drivers will have to appraise while still also looking left for oncoming traffic, looking at their own traffic signals and looking wherever else good defensive drivers do when preparing to make a turn.

And even if drivers do learn to add the yellow border lights to their turn-prep checklist, there’s the danger of the inherent laziness that comes with thinking traffic lights have you covered. What about pedestrians who don’t push the crosswalk button? What about jaywalkers?

There are other cities where traffic controls like lights are being decreased, with the (granted sort of scary-sounding) idea that drivers and pedestrians will look after themselves and take more care if they don’t have the safety net of lights and stop signs.

Maybe neither of those methods is a good solution to pedestrian safety, but something halfway between them likely is.

What Toronto can learn from the Caltrans yellow border initiative is that new ideas should be scrutinized. There are plenty of new urban innovation and design ideas floated every day. Some of them are great. Others probably need a bit more work.