Flipping Signals

In places that are, or want to be, walkable, and serve pedestrian traffic, traffic signals should have a default setting of pedestrian scramble (Barnes Dance), and only switch to a green light for motor vehicles from a particular approach (for a short time period) when it is actually actuated by a vehicle. Buses and emergency vehicles would still be able to get priority by signaling from upstream.

Shibuya, Japan (from wikimedia commons)
Shibuya, Japan (from wikimedia commons)

Today, in the United States, traffic signals are usually designed with the objective of minimizing motor vehicle delay, yet many policies and plans have a stated aim of reducing the amount of vehicle miles traveled or the automobile mode share. How does lowering the cost of driving and increasing the cost of every other mode help with that objective?

Now we place pedestrians in the supplicant position of begging for a green light. Let’s give walkers some dignity, and instead of making them “scramble” at the intersection, allow them to simply purposefully walk, or even amble. If instead of pedestrians waiting for cars, cars had to wait for pedestrians, vehicle delay would undoubtedly rise. But vehicle counts would fall, and pedestrian demand would rise. Where would the vehicles go, would they disappear or reroute?


Think about places this would work in your community. In the Twin Cities, I think this would be great for Dinkytown and Uptown.

It is a change, it would need to be tested somewhere before it could be done everywhere. There will always be resistance by the stalwarts. But we should experiment.

The measure of success would be change in pedestrian and bike counts, the reduction in vehicle counts (at this location), and maybe the change in sales at nearby businesses.

One thought on “Flipping Signals

  1. The Barnes dance was developed in Denver by Seymour Barnes to actually move more traffic. The sites where it was first used were downtown with two lane one way streets. The signals were running on an 80 second cycle with a 50-50 split. However, pedestrian traffic interfered with the left and right turning vehicles so much that through traffic was blocked as well and major congestion developed. Mr. Barnes proposed taking the 80 seconds and creating a 30 second pedestrian scramble phase and a 25 second vehicular phase for each of the two intersection street approaches. The key to its success was that during those 25 second intervals the DON’T WALK would be displayed and turning vehicles would then not be impeded and the through traffic could move. The best part of his plan was that he sold it to the elected officials as a pedestrian safety measure. He proposed it to move traffic. While it did make pedestrians safer, but not umtil after there was concentrated police enforcement of the DON’T WALKs during the vehicular greens.


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