Archive | Pedestrians

Completing my Personal “Tilikum Grand Slam”

I’ll admit I had a head start. I enjoyed preview rides on both MAX and Streetcar.

During yesterday’s opening festivities, I had the chance to cross both on MAX and on foot.

And today I cycled east across our wonderful new bridge, and then made the return journey with my bike on the front of a #9 TriMet bus, completing the cycle of all the modes allowed!

[For the record I plan to neither skateboard nor rollerblade across the bridge.]

What Makes a Friendly Street?

PSU Transportation Seminar:

Impact of Route-Level Features on Decisions to Walk or Bike

Speaker: Joseph Broach, Portland State University
Topic: Impact of Route-Level Features on Decisions to Walk or Bike
When: Friday, October 31, 2014, 12-1 pm
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204

Summary: Some travel routes attract people walking and cycling, while others may scare them away. What features of street environments are most important, and how do available routes affect decisions to bike or walk on a specific trip?

Research to date has focused on either large-scale areal measures like “miles of bike lane nearby” or else has considered only shortest path routes. Neither method is suited to capturing the impact of targeted route-level policies like neighborhood greenways. This session will present a new technique for measuring bike and walk accessibility along the most likely route for a given trip. The method is applied to travel data, and results provide new insight into the relationship between route quality and travel mode choice.

Does Metro’s Climate Smart Communities Plan Do Enough for Active Transportation?

I’ve been struggling for a week with how to write this post, and I’m grateful to Michael Andersen at BikePortland, who has covered many of the great things about Metro’s Climate Smart Communities plan.

That leaves me free to write to a counterpoint, questioning whether in fact it does enough for active transportation.

First, let’s talk a bit about the plan. It’s a response to a mandate from the Legislature to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation. Metro considered three alternatives when developing the plan:

A) Keep building in the pattern we have been

B) Build what’s in the RTP (Regional Transportation Plan)

C) Get more aggressive and develop new policies to reduce GHG

The draft plan in front of us for comment is essentially option B+. It’s what’s in today’s constrained RTP, plus about $5B in additional transit funding (for which we will need to find new funding sources).

The political logic for this is pretty straightforward. Rather than a big lift for new policies, let’s just amp up a bit what we’ve already got regional agreement on. That turns out to be sufficient to meet the state GHG goals (a 20%  reduction in transportation GHG contribution from the 2005 levels by 2035).

So what’s not to like? I would suggest there are at least two ways in which this plan is going to be challenging for active transportation, particularly in Portland.

1) The funding priority tilts heavily towards transit. The RTP already is much more aggressive about funding transit than it is about funding active transportation. The constrained plan only builds out a portion of the region’s active transportation plan, and Climate Smart Communities would give a $5B boost to transit while not adding to what’s planned for active transportation. The Commission that I serve on weighed in with a letter suggesting that fully funding the active transportation plan would yield more mobility per dollar and would have substantial health co-benefits.

2) It’s not very aggressive about reducing driving. The plan goal is a per-capita reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) from 19 miles daily to 17 miles by 2035. That’s just a smidge over a 10% reduction. In contrast, Portland’s 2009 Climate Action Plan (stay tuned for the 2014 update in a few months) shoots for a 30% reduction in per-capita VMT by 2030. Why is Metro’s VMT target important for Portland if we have a more aggressive plan? Because Metro is the keeper of the yardstick by which we measure regional travel. To take a current example, if we’re looking at whether we can take out an auto lane on Barbur Blvd, the planners have to look at Metro’s regional model to determine how much auto traffic is projected on the street. Portland’s goals are generic, they are not modeled street-by-street, so we have to use Metro’s numbers!

So please read the plan, and comment in any of these ways (via Metro). The comment deadline is October 30th.

  • Take a short survey online at on transportation and land use policies and actions that can shape our communities.
  • To provide more in depth feedback, visit to download and review the draft approach and implementation recommendations (Regional Framework Plan amendments, toolbox of possible actions and performance monitoring approach) and provide comments in one of the following ways:
  • Mail comments to Metro Planning, CSC Comment, 600 NE Grand Ave., Portland, OR 97232
  • Email comments to
  • Phone in comments to 503-797-1750 or TDD 503-797-1804
  • Testify at a Metro Council hearing on Oct. 30, 2014, at 600 NE Grand Ave., Portland, OR 97232 in the Council chamber

Oh… and whatever policy changes do get enacted won’t show up until the 2018 RTP. The old yardsticks are going to rule for a few more years.



The Story Told by the Blinking Hand

Joe Rose penned an interesting Q&A yesterday that takes up one of my favorite topics: the Flashing Don’t Walk (FDW) phase. While he caricatures the consequences of the widespread non-compliance with the FDW indication just a wee bit—it may cause motorists (gasp!) delays, and in extreme circumstances may even cause (gasp! recoil!) cycle failures, where all the cars don’t get through on a single green—he is correct that non-compliance is indeed widespread in downtown Portland.

That’s precisely what makes it a favorite topic: The FDW indication, at least when it comes with a countdown clock, is in clear violation of Brian’s First Rule of Traffic Engineering.

When people are disobeying your traffic control device en masse, there’s probably something wrong with your traffic control device (See: Circle, Ladd).

So what, then, could the issue be with something as universally accepted as a FDW indication? Perhaps some insight can be gleaned from comparing how signals handle pedestrians to how they treat vehicles.

Though we claim to prioritize pedestrians above other modes, our assignment of green time suggests otherwise. Pedestrians see a Walk phase for a given movement downtown for about 9 out of every 56 seconds during daytime hours, or about 16% of the time. By contrast cars will be assigned a green for 25 seconds, good for about 45% of the overall time. On the transit mall these percentages are often more skewed, since the pedestrian signals sometimes ‘rest’ in the Don’t Walk phase to quickly serve approaching transit vehicles. So if you were to assume random arrivals at an intersection, a car (or bike) is much more likely to see a ‘go’ indication than a pedestrian.

Of course, arrivals at intersections aren’t random; we specifically time our signals so a mixture of cars and bikes can progress smoothly through downtown at about 13 miles per hour. Since this is a little faster than most people not named ‘Bolt’ tend to travel on foot, the relative chances of arriving at a green indication are skewed further. And since turning movements on the downtown grid are what we’re concerning ourselves with here, let us not forget that these are commonly allowed on reds.

To be fair, our signals do some good things for pedestrians. The quick speed at which our downtown signals rotate through the indications (cycle length, in the jargon) serves to reduce pedestrian delay at the expense of auto capacity. And a happy consequence of the 13 mph progression speed for vehicles is that, if you were to walk opposite vehicular traffic at about 4.2 mph—a nice, brisk pace—you’ll catch all the Walk signals (and incidentally, you’d make it across an intersection in just more than half the time the countdown clock thinks it takes you). Still, though, relative to their wheeled counterparts, pedestrians are asked to endure a lot of delay at signals if they’re to follow the letter of the law.

To blame, of course, is the length of the FDW phase. Since pedestrians move more slowly than other modes, the time needed to clear them of the intersection—the clearance interval— is necessarily longer and thus the Walk time is naturally limited. Moreover, as the population ages average walking speeds are getting slower, so FDW times are getting longer. Not fair, but unavoidable, right?

A fun fact about Oregon is that we’re only one of a handful of states that treat the FDW and yellow lights with consistent logic, requiring the user to stop at both. But vehicles can proceed if it is unsafe to stop at a yellow, so as long as you know how to say, “Sorry, officer, I thought it’d be safer to keep going!” then the law really just means that you’re okay as long as you’re not still in the intersection at the onset of red. Still, though, this is better than the majority of states, which give vehicles far more leeway to enter an intersection on yellow.

But a when a countdown clock is present, it provides a lot of information, and so perhaps it is a useful ally here. Former Chicago DOT head John N. LaPlante examined the effects of countdown clocks [pdf] in a 2008 presentation to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, finding that more pedestrians began to cross during the FDW phase when a countdown clock was present, but fewer began walking late in the FDW interval, and fewer remained in the crosswalk at the onset of Don’t Walk. And guess what? Crashes decreased.

So what if we applied yellow-light logic to the FDW indication, allowing pedestrians to enter during this phase so long as they were clear by the end of the countdown? Revising our crossing laws to better reflect how people naturally interact with the indications makes sense from an engineering standpoint, and would be a powerful way to reinforce our stated claims regarding modal priority. And lest our fair city’s new-found fear of solving a problem with some new thinking cripple us, we can take comfort in the fact that those wily urbanists down in Salt Lake City provide precedent:

A COUNTDOWN CLOCK (displaying time in seconds remaining in the pedestrian crossing phase) in conjunction with the flashing orange UPRAISED HAND means that a pedestrian facing the signal indication may start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal indication, but only if such pedestrian is able to safely walk completely across the street or to a safety island before the COUNTDOWN CLOCK shows no remaining time.

Traffic laws, right-of-way allocation, and signal timing combine to tell you just about everything there is to know about the transportation priorities of a particular place. That story is on full display when the countdown clock starts rolling.

To Cross, or Not to Cross…

PSU Transportation Seminar:

Speaker: Ron Van Houten, Western Michigan University
Topics: Pedestrian Safety and Culture Change
When: Friday, May 16, 2014, 12-1 p.m.
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
Summary: This session will describe the process and results of a NHTSA study that showed a change in driver culture of yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks on a citywide basis. The research won the Pat Waller award from the National Academy of Sciences, Transportation Research Board in January of this year. The approach to changing road user behavior focused on an integrated approach that include Enforcement, Engineering, and Educational efforts that were designed to be dovetailed together and that included a social norming component. Additional information will be provided on engineering solutions that can facilitate changes in pedestrian level of service and safety.