Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Transportation Home  |  Discussions  |  Traffic  |  Columns  |  Q&A     |      Twitter |    Facebook   |  phone Alerts
Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 01/12/2011

New countdown signals in Bethesda

By Robert Thomson

Montgomery County has installed pedestrian countdown signals at five busy intersections on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. There were 17 pedestrian accidents in this area from 2005 to 2009, according to county statistics, so it's a good target zone for safety enhancements.

Countdown signals are generally popular where they have been installed in the D.C. region and across the nation. They give pedestrians and drivers the comfort of knowing how long a signal cycle will last. But what's their role in safety?

The countdowns are most useful to pedestrians at heavily used crossings on wide roads with lots of traffic. Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda is a perfect spot. The walk time for crossing such busy commuter routes tends to be tight. Otherwise, the backup on the commuter routes would be even worse than it is.

You'll see countdown signals at some places where they are less useful, such as the narrow east-west streets on either side of 16th Street NW in the District. Pedestrians have plenty of time for the short hop across the side streets, because they're taking advantage of the long green time that favors north-south traffic on busy 16th Street.

Studies for jurisdictions across the nation, including Montgomery County, have shown positive results following the installation of countdowns, though the studies have their limits. At this point, the research is encouraging, but doesn't scream "You absolutely have to have these." See a report on San Francisco's program.

A pedestrian safety study for the Federal Highway Administration noted that pedestrians get the intent of the countdown signals right away, and that the technology involved is straight forward.

One of the safety concerns behind the program is that older systems make it more likely that pedestrians will get caught in the middle of a wide street when the light changes. Studies are generally encouraging about this: Pedestrians are less likely to be in the crosswalk when traffic gets the green. Fewer pedestrians have to run after being taken by surprise at the change.

But there are concerns in these studies about some unintended consequences. You're not supposed to start crossing when the red hand is flashing. The old-fashioned crossing signal -- without the countdown -- has a self-enforcing element. Pedestrians who are unsure how much time is left might stop and wait for the next white-hand symbol rather than attempt crossing on a flashing red hand.

The countdown signal removes the mystery. A signal displaying even a few seconds convinces some pedestrians that they're Usain Bolt -- and they're not.

Meanwhile, some impatient drivers will stare at the countdown signal and not at the crosswalk. Some safety experts fear that a small portion of drivers might step on the gas when they see the signal go to zero, rather than look for possible hazards ahead.

What's been your experience with the countdowns, either as a driver or pedestrian?

The Bethesda locations for the new countdown signals: Leland Street, Willow Lane//Bethesda Avenue, Elm Street, Elm Street/Waverly Street and Old Georgetown Road. Here's a map of that area.


View Larger Map

By Robert Thomson  | January 12, 2011; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Traffic Safety  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Full NE Amtrak service resumes Thurs.
Next: Full NE Amtrak service resumes Thurs.

Comments

It makes crossing the street easier, thank you Bethesda!

Posted by: Hattrik | January 12, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

According to the 2009 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the MUTCD), Section 4E.07, "All pedestrian signal heads used at crosswalks where the pedestrian change interval is more than 7 seconds shall include a pedestrian change interval countdown display....." In otherwords, once states adopt the 2009 MUTCD (no later than January 15, 2012), there will be a lot more countdown signals. Generally, only the smallest streets will not have them. So even though the research doesn't scream that you have to have these...FHWA does.

Also, the way DC implements these in most cases is wrong...the countdown is only supposed to be displayed during the flashing hand phase...not during the steady walking person phase.

I think countdowns are very helpful for pedestrians. They are not meant to be used by drivers though. For example, in DC, the light turns yellow when the countdown hits zero, but in Arlington County, the light for vehicles changes when there is still a second or two left on the countdown timer (the pedestrian clearance phase extends into the yellow phase).

FHWA had proposed allowing pedestrians to cross on the flashing hand indication if a countdown timer was present and the pedestrian knew they could make it across. This was in the January 2008 proposed rulemaking for the MUTCD. In otherwords, it would have added legitimacy to what most pedestrians already do. But FHWA did not include this provision in the 2009 MUTCD since safety experts were concerned about how to teach the meaning of the steady hand, the flashing hand, and the walking person indications to school children. It is much easier to teach the school kids when the flashing hand has one meaning (don't start crossing) than when it has a variable meaning (you can start crossing under these conditions). But, unfortunately, pedestrians are unlikely to change their behaviors, especially now that the walking speed used to calculate the length of the change interval has decreased (to account for slower walking speeds of older pedestrians....so the flashing hand change interval phase will be required to be longer than it currently is).

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

As both a driver and a pedestrian, I absolutely love countdown signals. They make it so much easier to anticipate the onset of the yellow light and allow me to accurately judge whether I can get through a big intersection on the green or need to start slowing down now.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 12, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Why is MoCo installing these expensive signals while ignoring the real problem in this area - the over 90% of drivers who blast right through crosswalks when pedestrians have the right of way. One block down from these signals is a marked crosswalk with heavy pedestrian traffic at Stanford St. & Wisconsin Ave., in front of Trader Joe's. A pedestrian stands in the intersection and usually sees twenty, thirty, or more automotive lawbreakers rush through the crosswalk illegally. How about either ticketing, or installing a light?

Posted by: wondering27 | January 12, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

As a driver I like the countdown signals for a different reason than WashingtonDame: I watch the one on the other street when I'm stopped at the red light and, in most cases, I can step on the clutch and shift into gear as it reaches zero so I'm prepared to move as soon as the light turns green, assuming of course that the way is clear (and I'll blow the horn at anyone who's improperly blocking the way). To me it's sort of like the combined red-yellow phase on the traffic lights in Europe, which I absolutely LOVE. Drives me crazy that we don't have it here, but at many intersections (not all, to be sure) the countdown timers perform the same function. Drivers in Europe for the most part MOVE when the light goes green, whereas here, because there is no advance warning that the green is coming, there's often a brief delay before people start moving.

If there's no countdown light I try to keep an eye on the light for the other street because when it goes yellow I know I'll get the green soon, except at some big intersections where turn lanes or longer light cycles necessitate something different. But it can be harder to see the other light compared to the pedestrian countdown timer, so I prefer those.

thetan notes that the countdown timers aren't intended for use by drivers. I should point out that I'm not relying on it to tell me when to go--the green light tells me that. I like the countdown timer because it lets me anticipate the green by (a) not having to shift into first sooner than needed and (b) not having to wait for the green to appear before shifting into first.

Incidentally, I've noted an excessively obnoxious habit downtown where some people will start crossing when there's only one second left on the countdown timer. It seems to me the timer should be telling those people to park themselves on the sidewalk and wait. There's no way you're going to clear a wider street in that amount of time (example: I've seen this multiple times at 14th & New York outside Potbelly's when I've been heading east on New York). In that situation, if you start out illegally and you have not yet reached my lane, I'm going to go on green and you'll need to get back to the median and wait your turn. I'm happy to respect when it's legitimately a pedestrian's turn (and, indeed, when I'm a pedestrian I will seize the right of way when it is my turn), but I demand the same respect in return and I will seize the right of way as a driver when it's my turn to go (and when I'm a pedestrian I won't cross when it's not my turn). Urban intersections work a lot more efficiently when people drop the standard DC-area "me first, up yours" attitude and recognize that if we'd all let other people go when it's their turn to do so, we'd all get through more quickly. (The worst, in my opinion, are the morbidly obese people who walk SLOOOWLY against the light and then, if someone honks, they point at the "Yield to Peds" sign. It doesn't mean "Peds Can Ignore Don't Walk Sign!")

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Now, if we could just get Bethesda residents to use the crosswalks...

Posted by: kim6160 | January 12, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

For 1995hoo: I'm delighted there is at least one other stick shift driver here. I use the pedestrian signs the same way. I do wish pedestrians would pay attention to the no-walk signs, though. I cross often at intersections where there is a walk delay for left-turning traffic, and the clueless folk who start walking when they see cars moving in same direction alternately drive me nuts or give me a fright as a full-speed vehicle turns into the crosswalk.

Posted by: busgirl1 | January 12, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

kim - At most locations in Bethesda, it is perfectly legal to cross the street outside a crosswalk. Use of a crosswalk is mandatory only when both adjoining intersections have traffic lights.

The difference is that when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk (either marked or unmarked), cars must yield to the pedestrian, but outside a crosswalk pedestrians yield to cars. Since the cars almost never yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, especially at unmarked crosswalks, pedestrians have little motivation to go out of their way to use a crosswalk.

Posted by: wondering27 | January 12, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

" I cross often at intersections where there is a walk delay for left-turning traffic, and the clueless folk who start walking when they see cars moving in same direction alternately drive me nuts or give me a fright as a full-speed vehicle turns into the crosswalk."

On my drive home, I have to make a left from a major road onto the dead end street where I live. I get a 20-second left-turn arrow for my turn, and since I'm facing four lanes of opposing traffic, I can only turn when I get the left-turn arrow. VIRTUALLY EVERY DAY, pedestrians ignore the red light and the green arrow and stroll across the street when I and other drivers are trying to get through the intersection during the 20 seconds we have. It's a dangerous situation for everyone. But without fail, it happens every day.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 12, 2011 3:27 PM | Report abuse

1995hoo says: "Drivers in Europe for the most part move when the light goes green...."

The reason that doesn't happen here is because too many idiot drivers are sitting at the light texting instead of paying attention to the traffic light. It's especially annoying when it's the first driver at the head of the line. Their slow start decreases the number of cars that can get through a light and tempts those at the end of the line to go through the light as it changes at the end of the cycle.

Posted by: rrno62 | January 12, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

1995hoo says: "Drivers in Europe for the most part move when the light goes green...."

The reason that doesn't happen here is because too many idiot drivers are sitting at the light texting instead of paying attention to the traffic light. It's especially annoying when it's the first driver at the head of the line. Their slow start decreases the number of cars that can get through a light and tempts those at the end of the line to go through the light as it changes at the end of the cycle.

Posted by: rrno62 | January 12, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I'm delighted there is at least one other stick shift driver here. I use the pedestrian signs the same way. ....

Posted by: busgirl1 | January 12, 2011 2:51 PM

Been driving since 1989 when I turned 16 (well, 15 and 8 months, when I got my learner's permit) and I've never owned an automatic-shift car. Driven them, of course (rentals; service loaners; friends' and family members' cars), and the kickdown feature always gives me trouble. I drove a right-hand drive manual-shift Volkswagen in Scotland a few years ago and didn't miss a beat. Currently I have one car with a 6-speed and one with a 5-speed, and my wife's car has a 6-speed. I've lived in the DC area that entire time unless you count time spent away at school (Charlottesville and then Durham, NC) as living somewhere else. Driving a manual in traffic is no big deal. My right leg gets more fatigued from constantly riding the brake than my left leg does from working the clutch, and of course you'd be riding the brake regardless of your transmission type....

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The reason that doesn't happen here is because too many idiot drivers are sitting at the light texting instead of paying attention to the traffic light. It's especially annoying when it's the first driver at the head of the line. Their slow start decreases the number of cars that can get through a light and tempts those at the end of the line to go through the light as it changes at the end of the cycle.

Posted by: rrno62 | January 12, 2011 3:42 PM

I thought about saying something along those lines but decided to be snark-free for a change. :-) Thing is, though, drivers here were slower off the line prior to the spread of cell phones, so I don't think it's just a case of distracted driving (though it's absolutely a major problem). I have no doubt that the three-cycle American light cycle has something to do with it. You shouldn't have to guess at when the light is going to turn green, but the red-yellow combined cycle is not permitted by the MUTCD.

(I suppose another related point that goes back to the exchange between busgirl1 and me is that the prevalence of automatic transmissions in the United States also contributes to people being slow off the line. A lot of people who have never driven a manual don't necessarily understand how properly to accelerate to take advantage of a car's gearing and they wind up moving slowly when the light goes green.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

WashingtonDame brings up a good point. That is why I prefer that the left turn phase comes after the regular green phase. However, that means the other direction without the turn arrow will not be able to make a left-turn at all. This is what is in place at Connecticut and Cathedral. When you do a left-turn phase after the through phase (lagging left as opposed to leading left), the peds generally stop. As opposed to what WashingtonDame is saying where peds "anticipate" that the walk sign will come on.

Many reasons peds try to "anticipate" the walk and get a head start is because car drivers will try to beat the peds to the crosswalk to make a turn (if the ped's feet aren't in the crosswalk, they do not yet have the right-of-way). This is why engineers sometimes put the walk signal on a few seconds in advance of giving parallel car movements a greeen, to give peds a head start. Likewise, the ped phase may end a few seconds before the yellow light comes on to allow cars to turn free of pedestrians.

What 1995hoo describes...the delay in starting when the light turns green...has an engineering term: startup lost time. My startup lost time is generally close to zero because I too am looking at the cross street signals and get a good guess at when I'll get the green. I occasionally get fooled by traffic signals where peds get the walk signal for a few seconds before drivers get a green, and I'll never take my foot off the brake until I see green if there is a camera.

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why they even bother. I live in downtown Bethesda and as a driver and a pedestrian I can attest that I think I am the only person that actually obeys the cross walk signals. Otherwise people just cross against the light. My thought are if you are too stupid to figure out a cross signal and you get hit oh well! I think people think its a suggestion as to when you might cross the road and most decide not to take it. I used to live in Baltimore and I thought that possibly the lack of diligence was due to an economic/educational issue. But Bethesda has highly educated rich people who still cannot seem to figure out cross signals go figure?

Posted by: lisannez | January 12, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

WashingtonDame brings up a good point. That is why I prefer that the left turn phase comes after the regular green phase. However, that means the other direction without the turn arrow will not be able to make a left-turn at all. This is what is in place at Connecticut and Cathedral. When you do a left-turn phase after the through phase (lagging left as opposed to leading left), the peds generally stop. As opposed to what WashingtonDame is saying where peds "anticipate" that the walk sign will come on.

....

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 3:54 PM

I used to work at 13th & G and the light at 14th & G had a cycle that I think fits what thetan describes--on 14th, traffic going north (away from the Mall) cannot go left onto G, but traffic going south can. There is a left-only lane with a green arrow that comes on at the end of the green cycle for 14th--that is, G has a green, light turns red, 14th then gets a green in both directions, and then the northbound 14th light goes red and the green arrow comes on.

I always thought that the pedestrian behavior there was very dangerous because a lot of pedestrians simply watch the cars and pay no attention to the pedestrian lights. Thus, pedestrian standing on the southeast corner of the intersection wanting to cross 14th (towards the Citibank) sees the northbound cars stop, so he thinks he can walk. But southbound cars are still going through their green light at full speed. It's a wonder no pedestrians have been hit there. I wouldn't be terribly sympathetic to anyone struck, either. The pedestrian light is quite clear.

I recall some lights in Charlottesville, such as the one on Emmet Street at the intersection with University Avenue/Ivy Road, had an odd light cycle where one direction would get a green circle and green arrow at the same time, then the green arrow would go out and the other direction's green circle would come on (so both directions had green at the same time), then the original direction's light would go red and the other direction's green arrow would come on. It was a weird system but it worked reasonably well, at least as well as anything could in a city with a disproportionate number of elderly drivers who seemed generally clueless!

BTW, the point thetan makes about conflicts with turning cars is a serious problem. Pedestrians' refusal to obey the signs makes for some SERIOUS problems when people try to make turns downtown. The intersection of 15th & Constitution, for example, is particularly bad (a situation exacerbated by too-short turning cycles and drivers' refusal to obey the lane markings on 15th, as a lot of people illegally turn right out of the second lane that's marked straight-only). I think that sort of thing is part of what contributes to all the red-light running. If people don't run the light to turn right, they'll wait forever through umpteen light cycles!

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I see the problems with the lagging left at Connecticut and Cathedral. I think most of us walking in that area trying to cross Connecticut are local residents who know that there is a delayed green (though if crossing from east to west you can get a little head start).

The biggest problem is from drivers who think they can ignore the northbound no left turn restriction, and don't realize that southbound still has a green light when the northbound side turns red.

The Charlottesville intersection 1995hoo references has been updated with more "normal" phasing, with both left-turn arrows coming before the "green ball". What 1995hoo describes is "lead-lag" phasing, which is confusing, but can be very helpful in maintaining a good signal progression in some cases.

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, wondering27. I have tried to cross there hundreds of times in the last decade and nearly killed many of those times. This is not the only Bethesda CROSSWALK that this happens in. Leland and Woodmont is another. I am a very careful pedestrian and it's not always enough.

Posted by: amk1005 | January 12, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

The Charlottesville intersection 1995hoo references has been updated with more "normal" phasing ....

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 6:37 PM

Interesting that they changed it. I haven't driven through that one in a while; when I was in school, I usually avoided that intersection because it was always so backed up (usually took Rugby Road instead). We dropped our football tickets this past season and so I haven't been back there recently, and when we did have our tickets we parked at U-Hall because that's where our tailgate set up. (Because I use the VA-3 -> VA-20 -> US-15 -> VA-231 route, we approached from a different direction.) As of the last time I was in Charlottesville, the intersection on the east side of town next to the Free Bridge still had the "lead-lag" phasing (never heard that term before). I can't recall ever seeing it used outside of the Charlottesville area, though I'm sure it must be.

I suppose one thing about the District of Columbia's traffic lights and pedestrian signals is that they are, for the most part, predictable--the cycles are consistent. Once you know how an intersection's lights are timed, you'll know when the lights are going to turn and how much time you'll have to make it through (the left-turn arrow from eastbound Constitution to northbound 15th, for example, allows no more than three cars in each of the two left-turn lanes, and it depends on people going as soon as the light turns green). The point thetan makes about local residents who know about the oddity in the light cycle at the spot he mentions is a good one; at the downtown 14th & G intersection, there were a lot of people crossing who don't work in that area (tourists going to see the White House, for example), and so it makes for a lot more problems. I suppose in a city having constant light cycles is reasonable. It can be frustrating as heck in the suburbs. When I took my wife to the Metrorail this morning I had to wait almost 3 minutes at a red light while no cars were going by on the other street, this because the rush-hour cycle doesn't allow a car on the neighborhood street (me) to trip the signal to request an immediate green.

I suppose that last point could re-kindle the old philosophical debate about it being 2 AM, nobody on the road, and you're faced with a red light--do you wait it out or do you go? (And if you're in a place such as the parts of Pennsylvania that use "third-car detect," does that change your opinion?)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 13, 2011 9:07 AM | Report abuse

The biggest problem is from drivers who think they can ignore the northbound no left turn restriction, and don't realize that southbound still has a green light when the northbound side turns red.

....

Posted by: thetan | January 12, 2011 6:37 PM

I meant to add a comment about this. Alexandria has a few lights of this sort along Duke Street; the one that most readily comes to mind is the one in front of Landmark Honda at the entrance to Cameron Station. There is a sign up next to the left-turn light for westbound Duke Street traffic looking to enter Cameron Station that says something like "Oncoming traffic may have extended green." Nice idea, but the problem is that the sign is the typical small sign put up across the intersection on the mast arm, and it uses black text on a yellow background (instead of the more common white). That means it's hard to see, especially given that the average driver turning left isn't looking up at that sign--he's looking at the traffic. Of course I know it's Virginia's standard practice to put those small signs up there, but it's not always a good practice, and that intersection has the additional problem of the traffic lights (and hence the sign) being right in the sun's glare during the afternoons.

But I like the idea of putting up some sort of sign to warn drivers that "this light is different." In parts of Canada the signs say "Delayed Green" when the other side gets the green first. (Many of those places are areas that use a flashing green light instead of a green arrow. I'm thankful we don't use the flashing green here.) It seems to me that subtlety doesn't really work well with DC-area drivers, though. Maybe the sign should say "Other Direction's Light Stays Green After Yours Turns Red." Yeah, it's wordy, but no more so than the sign Alexandria uses now....and if you can't understand what it means, you probably shouldn't be driving!

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 13, 2011 9:14 AM | Report abuse

@wondering27-

Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, the place in Bethesda that I see the most dangerous behaviour in Bethesda is mid-block on Woodmont between Bethesda and Elm which both have traffic lights. I do stop for pedestrians where ever they are crossing as I am often a pedestrian but I also blow my horn at those failing to yield when they cross mid-block.

Posted by: kim6160 | January 13, 2011 9:33 AM | Report abuse

The preferred, and safest solution, is to ban left turns rather than try to explain to drivers that oncoming traffic has a longer green. In the case of northbound Connecticut at Cathedral, it works because traffic that wants to make a left can turn at Woodley Road (which has a green turn arrow for northbound Connecticut) or Garfield St. to get into that neighborhood.

Problem is drivers who blatently ignore the no left turn rule. They "assume" it's there to keep rush hour traffic from backing up behind someone making a left, so they don't see a problem with making a left anyway when traffic is lighter. Problem is, they do not know for sure why that sign was placed, and it was really placed to avoid a more dangerous situation (the "lagging left turn trap"). They would have very little recourse if they got into a crash making that turn, they would likely be held at fault.

Posted by: thetan | January 13, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

They need to just get rid of that crosswalk at Wisconsin and Stanford; it's too unsafe. Ever since I saw a man nearly get nailed by an SUV driver who wasn't paying attention and didn't slow down until it was nearly too late in that crosswalk one morning, I don't cross there. It's safer to just wait for some traffic to pile up at the Bradley Blvd. light and cross through the stopped cars.

Posted by: fhyrew | January 13, 2011 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company