I noticed something rather unfortunate while running through the 520 trail crossing at NE 40th St the other day. I’ve written before about all of the conflicts at the intersection. It turns out that the number of conflicts isn’t necessarily the lowest when the crosswalk signal is green. I suppose I should add a disclaimer that readers should make their own decisions about the safety and legality of any maneuvers, which is probably further indictment of how our transportation systems aren’t designed for people, but I digress…
This depends a lot on the traffic levels, which mainly depend on the time of day. This observation was from attempting to cross southbound on foot in the morning after the main commute, so traffic was light.
To the intersection:
(And note that right now the embedded image is old but if you click on the larger Google map you can see the result of the recent construction.)
The relevant change from the construction is the pedestrian island. It’s small if you’re stuck there and creates a bottleneck for cyclists, but it can make the crossing more manageable. It means that only the first half of the street needs to be clear to begin a crossing. Previously, the intersection was simply too large for judgment. Now, if one reaches the intersection outside of a pedestrian green (which is likely since the green is about 3 seconds long), one only needs to look back and left to find a clear opening to the median (plus whatever quick scan for wrong-way traffic and the like). In the middle of the countdown, this might mean getting temporarily stranded in the median as the light changes. Right after the countdown (during light traffic), the off-ramp will have cleared and a few cars will proceed from the east. Then the light will stay green for no cars for a while. Visibility to the east isn’t perfect since the traffic comes up over the bridge, but often this is a time where there are no cars on the off-ramp or headed westbound. Contrast that to waiting for the pedestrian green, which gives enough time for someone to show up:
There is usually a driver waiting for an opportunity to turn right on red when the cycle changes to green for the off-ramp and trail. This driver often won’t look and would run over anyone entering the intersection immediately. Unfortunately, once this car has cleared, the trail will already be on the countdown timer, so legally it is impossible to cross. The next car will be in a better position to see the trail traffic and usually, but not always, will wait.
In fact, it gets better:
After this, the issue is traffic that is approaching the intersection during the green light. They will be moving at highway speeds and since 40th is so wide they can physically navigate the turn at high speed as well, and some do.
The pedestrian green is the only time that traffic can make the turn at high speed. (Well, perhaps overlooking the possibility of an exiting car completely blowing the stop sign at high speed isn’t so wise, but a red is better than a green.)
This gets one to the median, where one might find the following:
At the median, there might be a car blocking the crosswalk in the first lane of eastbound traffic.
[Edit: The signal phasing has changed so that the left turn onto the 520 on-ramp is now at the beginning of the east-west phase rather than the end. This means that the below “first half” and “second half” no longer apply, and the north-to-south flow of somewhat less conflict no longer exists. I’m not planning on writing about south-to-north, and the real point here is describing how pedestrian/bicycle lights are not designed for pedestrians’ or bicyclists’ safety, let alone convenience, so I’ll leave the rest of this up.]
During the first half of the east-west traffic phase, such a car will leave. Otherwise, things are no worse than crossing with the signal.
When traffic is light, then as with the westbound traffic, the few eastbound cars will clear out early in the long green light, leaving a clear second-half crossing. With no cars waiting to go straight, the right-turning drivers’ vision isn’t blocked:
Lastly, it is common for a driver in the right-turn lane (so, the last lane to cross for southbound pedestrians and bicyclists) to blindly pull through the crosswalk before looking for anything. Always slow and peek around the cars in the next-to-last lane.
The second half of the east-west traffic phase gives a green light and left-turn arrow to the westbound traffic. Often, due to the multi-intersection signal, more cars show up from the east for it. If one has made it to the pedestrian island, then the drivers blocking the remaining crossing will have a red light, whereas the new traffic would block a full crossing of the street. The right-turning drivers won’t be looking during the pedestrian red, but they aren’t looking during the pedestrian green either.
A side effect of this is a quicker crossing, but that isn’t really the point. And if traffic is heavier, one can do the normal wait for the green light conflicts. Or maybe WSDOT and Redmond can remove the conflicts from the pedestrian green someday…