Don’t Wait For The Walk Signal

Why would anyone wait for the walk signal at the typical Boston-area crosswalk?  It’s a fair question.  I don’t have a good answer.  The “walk” signals often are elusive and unhelpful.

When the crosswalk button works — and often it does not — the walk signal takes a long time.  Waiting, waiting, all the while wondering when that signal light ever will illuminate, and seeing multiple opportunities to cross safely without it.

At least one intersection in Newton requires three entire light cycles to cross from corner to corner.  Here is a dramitization of the process.  Press a button.  Wait a minute.  Cross.  Stop.  Press another button.  Wait a minute.  Cross.  Stop.  Press a third button.  Wait a minute.  Cross ….  Whew, that was exhausting.  And it was only 150 feet of walking.  That is a walk signal functioning (by some meaning of the word) as designed, and it is not really much of an outlier as crosswalk signals go.  Many other crosswalks require at least two cycles to go from corner to corner.

I figure that after patiently pressing buttons and waiting for that light, a pedestrian ought to get a real prize.  When a driver waits for a green light he gets free passage through the intersection without competing traffic.  The light is green, and cars in other directions stop and wait.

No such luck for a pedestrian.  When a pedestrian waits patiently at the “Do Not Walk” sign, and then crosses with the white “Walk” signal, he is as often as not likely to see more oncoming traffic.  To facilitate traffic flow, many signals don’t actually stop competing cars and trucks, and to the contrary they send them through the crosswalk with the “Walk” signal with no appreciable change in frequency.  When you see a “Walk” signal and look down the crosswalk, just as often there will be a car driving through.

What do you get by pausing for a “Walk” signal?  Too often, not much.

Waiting With a Bicycle at a Light that Never Turns Green

A change in the law governing bicycles recently was in the news.  In January, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a regime of traffic-ticketing to enforce existing laws that require bicyclists to, for example, stop at red traffic lights.

The Legislature was wise to insist that bicyclists err on the side of safety and caution.  Someone on the road has to, and it probably won’t be automobile drivers, chatting on cell phones and shuffling through the songs on i-pods.

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

So here’s a question:  what is a bicyclist lawfully required to do when the light never turns green?  It’s a frequent problem.  Modern traffic lights (i.e. the ones used everywhere except the city of Boston) are triggered by sensors that detect automobiles.  Roll over the sensor in a Chevy, and the light turns green.  Roll over the sensor on a Raleigh bicycle and … the light stays red.  It never turns green.  Ever.  Roll back and forth on it.  Jump up and down.  Nothing.

The question is sort of academic; the obvious answer is that you treat the traffic signal an ornament with little relevance to a bicyclist … but still you do so at your own risk — risk of physical injury and risk of legal jeopardy.  Injury because the lights are most frequently used at the most dangerous intersections.  There is a chance that the ornament will be you.  Jeopardy because who is to say the law enforcement officer will agree with your choice.  And it takes some significant waiting and experimenting to be sure the sensor really doesn’t work; that’s not a small inconvenience with traffic lights every few blocks.

I wish I had the answer.  It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the only safe thing to do is to drive.