Pushing our way toward car/human interplay.

Here’s a rarity for me: a short(-ish) post! About half the time, I aim for my posts to be brief (which for me is under 400 words), and they just balloon out of control. I can’t rein myself in. Obviously I have no one to blame but myself, but I’ll also recognize that the shorter the post, the more likely my commenting base is likely to call me out for pettiness in my analysis and criticisms. Like this one from several years ago. And considering how many of my subjects are already intrinsically tiny in scope, accusations of facile polemics are often fully justified—when the argument is brief. So, to avoid coming across as niggling or captious, I turn my topic inside out, and the text proliferates.

But here’s a signalization shortcoming in our nation’s capital that I can’t ignore. And I’ll try to keep it short.

IMG_7541

Looks like a fairly normal crosswalk, right? For all intents and purposes, it is. And it’s in a prominent point in a high-profile neighborhood: Columbia Heights—nearly smack in the geographic center of District. Like so many areas in this fast re-growing city, Columbia Heights has undergone extensive redevelopment, mostly of a flavor in which high-income professionals have supplanted working-class minorities. But the gentrification of Columbia Heights has hardly eclipsed its gritty past, and for the time being, at least, it thrives as a neighborhood of high-density, multi-racial, multi-income co-existence. Virtually all of the recent development has capitalized on proximity to the Columbia Heights metro stop, with loads of multi-family apartment and condo buildings springing up on land that previously hosted low-rise uses…or even mere parking lots. The new residential building in the background of this crosswalk is a perfect example.

So why do I single out this particular crossing? Pivot to the left and you’ll see why.button activated crosswalk Washington DC

It’s a sign that specifically mandates that pedestrians hit a button to cross. At first blush, such a sign seems unremarkable, since virtually every city has its share of button-activated pedestrian signals. But, with few exceptions, the buttons expedite the “WALK” sign, ensuring that it occurs more quickly within a stop light’s cycle than it otherwise might. The presence of the button encourages the pedestrian to push it. But, as this sign indicates, pushing the button is compulsory to cross safely.

The most ardent pedestrian advocates tend to inveigh against all button-activated crossings, since they put an added burden on pedestrians who have long languished hierarchically at the bottom in urban environments. This dogmatic approach is, in my opinion, unnecessary: I’m willing again to recognize that, at a midblock crossing with light pedestrian presence, it may prove wise to have a user-activated signal, to keep a traffic light from stopping vehicles unnecessarily. But that is not the case here in Columbia Heights; the button-activated crossing is a conventional T-shaped intersection, so vehicles must already abide by a conventional traffic light. Here’s the view when pivoting the other direction.

IMG_7542IMG_7543

In a city with a robust transit system and a sizable contingent that does not own cars, it’s surprising to encounter such infrastructure. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. And I suspect that it’s a surviving vestige from an era when such an approach seemed acceptable, if not exemplary. The communicative language at pedestrian crossings has evolved considerably over the past twenty years: most electronic signals used to employ the written “WALK” and “DON’T WALK”—something we rarely encounter today. Nearly all major urban crossings today include handicapped accessible curb cuts, with Tactile Walking Surface Indicators, while quite a few offer audible indicators of a guided crossing through either chirps (the old-school method) or a spoken voice reciting the name of the intersecting streets (the new-fangled way). I suspect it’s a matter of time before Washington DC’s Department of Public Works removes this overtly pedestrian unfriendly crossing. And in the meantime, it’s there for me to carp…and still fail to do it in less than 500 words.

6 thoughts on “Pushing our way toward car/human interplay.

  1. Chris B

    This reads to me less as generally “pedestrian unfriendly”, and more as condescension to those perceived as lower on the socio-economic ladder by the powers-that-be who make the rules.

    And I am not usually one who goes around looking for thinly veiled racism in the built environment (well, except for “fortress” downtown architecture from the 60s and 70).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You’re probably on to something. The installation looks old. And it’s the first time I’ve seen an intersection that both forces the pedestrians to push buttons to get the right to walk AND uses vehicular stop/go cycles on the associated right-of-way. (The only other situation where this installation usually exists is at a mid-block pedestrian-only crossing.) How would a blind person know how when it’s safe to cross? I’d imagine it’s a matter of time before the DPW replaces it.

      Reply
  2. Steve P

    Is there an human engineering purpose at all for that clock-puncher to exist? I might feel safest if I knew that my punch would gain me the intersection to use at my (alone) discretion.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good point Steve. My guess is this signal is pretty old and eventually will get discontinued. The only other place I’ve seen this sort of approach is at a pedestrian-only crossing where pedestrians are few and far between, but occasionally they need to cross. Definitely not the case here in DC!

      “Human engineering” is a good choice of words though. The mechanism is clearly trying to discourage pedestrians from crossing unless they signal that they really need it. Not the sort of thing you expect to see in a pedestrian-friendly place.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Maybe they were trying to discourage “jaywalking” (of the “crossing at corner against light” variety) or prevent right-turn-on-red from mowing down pedestrians?

        It still reads like “you’re too stupid to know better” to me, but maybe it was intended to address some specific “problem” perceived by the DC traffic engineers?

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          You could be onto something Chris, since a right-turn-on-red would pose no problems at a T-shaped intersection like this, leading both motorists and pedestrians to get dangerously complacent.

          It’s probably unrealistic to think that I could easily find out how old this crossing signal is–I’m not so ambitious to try calling the DPW to find out–but that may have something to do with it. It surely doesn’t date to the DC riots of ’68, but, since neighboring Mt. Pleasant had its own riots in 1991, this may have been an early application of “Broken Windows” to keep basic order and prevent it from escalating into the streets, at the fundamental level of reducing jaywalking, as you noted. Pure speculation of course. Regardless, the entire installation of this crossing seems anachronistic at this point.

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.