Install or Improve Traffic Signals

Pedestrians are instructed to use the crosswalk at an intersection in North Las Vegas, Nev.Traffic signals are an important means of traffic control. When used properly (and where warranted) they can help improve safety, manage traffic effectively, and make it easier to cross the street. However, a number of factors need to be considered before a traffic signal is installed.

If the street is relatively narrow and motor vehicle traffic on the cross-street is moderate to low, the signal can result in more pedestrian delay while waiting for the WALK signal.

  • Often times, pedestrians will cross against the light, and motorists may also run the light, resulting in severe crashes.
  • Other potential pedestrian crashes may result from right-turn on green or left-turn on green vehicles (when motorists are supposed to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk).
  • Improperly placed traffic signals can result in an even higher numbers of crashes, can waste fuel, and can create more traffic congestion and air quality problems.
  • Traffic signals are expensive to build (costing $180,000 or more to build), in addition to ongoing operation and maintenance costs.
  • The installation of a traffic signal may increase cut-through traffic on the neighborhood street where the new signal is located.

Despite these concerns, where warranted, traffic signals (along with pedestrian signals) can benefit pedestrians in certain situations.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), published by the Federal Highway Administration, provides conditions when the advantages of a traffic signal may outweigh the disadvantages of a signal. There are two warrants, or reasons, that specifically or partially apply to pedestrians: the Pedestrian Volume Warrant, meaning there is a large number of pedestrians that would benefit from the installation of a traffic signal, and the School Crossing Warrant, meaning there is a good opportunity to improve a crossing for children near a school.

Even if these conditions apply, an important additional consideration is traffic signal spacing. When signalized locations are too close together, they could create more congestion, and may create gridlock conditions. In the core of a downtown area, it may be common to have traffic signals spaced one block apart, and traffic progression may be maintained by having one-way streets. In outlying areas, traffic signals should generally be spaced further apart. Because of the high cost of traffic signals and possible negative safety implications, it may be best to evaluate other measures in lieu of a signal, including raised median islands, reducing the number of lanes, improved lighting, improved warning signs or pavement markings.

Pedestrian Signal Use

A sign warns pedestrians to look for turning cars before crossing at a marked, signalized crosswalk in Boston, Mass.All traffic signals should have pedestrian crossing signals if pedestrians typically cross at the signal (except for some narrow street crossings). However, some intersections may not, perhaps because little attention may have been paid to pedestrian activity at the time the traffic signal was installed, or it was not the practice of your community to install pedestrian signals. Pedestrian signals are essential at complex intersections or when left-turn arrows exist. They should also be used at school crossings and for wide streets when pedestrians need to know if they will have enough time to complete their crossing

Operation and Maintenance

Most traffic signals should operate so that pedestrian push buttons are not needed. Under these conditions, a walk interval is provided on every green signal for cars about every one to two minutes (called "fixed-time" signal operation). Some pedestrian signals may need a push button to call the WALK signal to cross one or both streets at an intersection. When push buttons exist, they should be conveniently located near the crossing point, be reachable by a person in a wheelchair, be in plain view, and be easy to find. Agencies could also post signs informing pedestrians about how to use the push button and to wait for the WALK signal before crossing.

Signal timing must ensure that pedestrians have enough time to cross the street. When traffic signals make pedestrians wait too long for a WALK signal to be given, people may become discouraged from using the crossing or may cross against the light. Similarly, people may ignore the signal if it does not give enough time to cross the street.

If you experience or if you witness people experiencing any of these problems, contact your city's traffic department and give them a detailed description of the problem and/or request that more time be added to the WALK cycle. For information on the timing of pedestrian crossing cycles and different options for coordinating these cycles, see the PEDSAFE section on pedestrian signal timing.

A group of children cross at a marked, signalized crosswalk in La Mesa, Calif.Traffic Signal Education

Not all pedestrians understand what the pedestrian signal is telling them. While many pedestrians expect to see the WALK signal during the entire crossing, this isn't possible in many cases, especially for wide streets. The WALKING PERSON symbol or WALK signal means it is okay to start crossing. After a few steps into the street, pedestrians may see a flashing orange UPRAISED HAND or DON'T WALK signal. When this occurs, there should be enough time to complete crossing the street, but if you have not stepped into the street, you should stay on the curb and wait for the next WALKING PERSON or WALK signal. The duration of the flashing DON'T WALK should be long enough for a pedestrian to cross the entire street (or to a median or other place of safety). Signs can be installed at the traffic signal to educate pedestrians on the meaning of the WALK (or WALKING PERSON), the flashing DON'T WALK (or UPRAISED HAND) or solid DON'T WALK pedestrian signal. If you still need extra crossing time, you should wait for a 'fresh' WALK signal or call your local agency to request more crossing time.