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5 Traffic Hacks that could save the lives of Pedestrians

Updated on: 11/14/2019

The world we build determines what can happen to us. That seems like a dull (maybe silly) observation, but what it should do is make us excited about what we can change in our immediate surroundings to make ourselves safer. For instance, we could build a world with a third fewer pedestrian accident deaths. There were 4,743 pedestrian deaths in 2012 (the most recent year we have the most complete data for), which is a 6% increase from 2011. All But we can change that number by altering how traffic flows around us with the following urban designs:  

Protected Left Turns: Those intersections that only allow a left turn on a green arrow.

PROS: Fewer crashes, and the crashes that do occur in these intersections aren’t as bad.
CON: A dedicated left-turn lane means a higher maintenance cost. Some drivers grow irritated that there’s a dedicated left turn lane.


Pedestrian Head Starts: Pedestrians get halfway across the street before cars can turn.

PROS: Cheap, as it relies on reprogramming a light pattern so pedestrians get to walk for 4 seconds before cars can turn. This allows drivers to plan their turn.

CONS: Pedestrians are easily confused by walk/don’t walk signal. They only follow traffic prompts if they are designed for maximum clarity, meaning this is only useful with intensive, context-based planning.

Raised Crossings: Crosswalks that are literally elevated so drivers focus on them.

PROS: Generally described as putting pedestrians on “equal footing” with cars, the biggest advantage of this feature is that it redirects squirrelly drivers trying to shave a few minutes off their commute back to the bigger streets designed to handle that volume.

CONS: Expensive. Cities have to lift the crosswalks which requires substantial construction.

Curb Extensions (aka “neckdowns”): The sidewalk pokes out into the street slightly like a small porch.  

PROS: Acts as an “attention shelf” that allows people to use the space for local notifications, newspaper boxes, public sculpture, or street lights.

CONS: Creates drainage problems and leads to standing water, which can damage the street and increase insect populations.

Barnes Dance (aka “Pedestrian Scramble): A traffic signal is devoted to pedestrians crossing the street any way they want—including diagonally.

PROS: In high traffic areas, a Barnes Dance can reduce pedestrian collisions by nearly 2/3rds.

CONS: Pedestrians are easily confused by signal placement in the environment, and cross in front of traffic without their signal more often after the Barnes Dance is implemented.

There’s one more urban design that might save pedestrians from cyclists and vice versa, but you’ll see why I didn’t include it in the original list:

BONUS: Protected Intersections: Extending bike lanes through intersections and giving them their own phase during the traffic cycle.

PROS: Increases overall bike travel and cyclist safety.

CONS: Difficult to implement. In fact, this hasn’t be implemented in America yet. But Portland is working on it. 

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