Pedestrian Signals

Pedestrian Signals

FAQ - Pedestrian Signals

Pedestrian signals are special types of traffic-signal indications installed for the exclusive purpose of controlling pedestrian traffic. They are frequently installed at signalized intersections where engineering analysis shows that the vehicular signals cannot adequately accommodate the pedestrians using the intersection. Pedestrian signals have evolved over the years and are now effective, sophisticated traffic controls. Unfortunately, their necessary sophistication has resulted in common misconceptions. The page answered questions about when pedestrian signals are normally installed, how they function and what the indications mean.

The content on this page is based on a booklet called "Pedestrian Signals: Are They Guarantees of Safety?", published by the Arizona Department of Transportation.

When are pedestrian signals used?

Pedestrian signals are installed for a variety of reasons. Frequently, they are installed

  • when the layout of an intersection is such that vehicular indications are not visible to pedestrians.
  • if pedestrian volumes are very heavy, as in a central business district.
  • when the traffic movements at an intersection are so complex that special efforts have to be made to communicate with pedestrians.
  • if a special pedestrian path has to be defined across a complex intersection.
  • if pedestrians have to be given exclusive use of an intersection in the interest of safety.

How do pedestrian signals function?

There are two types of pedestrian signals: those with pedestrian detectors ("Push-to-Walk" buttons) and those without detection. Pedestrian detectors are normally installed at intersections when

  • arrival rates of side street vehicles are occasionally low and pedestrians experience undue delay waiting for a vehicular indication to turn green.
  • vehicular green indications are too short to allow for a pedestrian to cross a wide street safely. In these instances the pedestrian push button causes the signal controller to "extend" the green time for both vehicles and pedestrians.
  • pedestrians can get "trapped" on median islands in the middle of a complex intersection.

What do the indications mean?

Pedestrian signals consist of the illuminated words WALK and DON'T WALK, or the illuminated symbols of a walking person and an upraised hand. The meanings of the indications are as follows:

  • A steady, illuminated WALK display, or a steady illuminated symbol of a walking person, means that a pedestrian may enter the roadway and proceed in the direction of the indication.
  • A flashing, illuminated DON'T WALK display, or a flashing illuminated symbol of an upraised hand, means that a pedestrian may not start to cross the roadway in the direction of the indication, but any pedestrian who has partly completed the crossing during the steady WALK indication may continue across.
  • A steady, illuminated DON'T WALK display, or a steady illuminated symbol of an upraised hand, means that a pedestrian cannot legally enter the roadway.

What are some common misconceptions about pedestrian signals?

There are several misconceptions about pedestrian signals and pedestrian detectors:

  • The belief that the WALK indication should be displayed for the entire time required to cross the street is erroneous. The critical requirement in pedestrian signal timing is that opposing vehicles not be permitted to go before all pedestrians who have entered the roadway on the steady WALK interval have had adequate time to complete their crossings. The pedestrian protection does not terminate for pedestrians already in the roadway when the steady WALK ends and the flashing DON'T WALK begins. Complete protection exists for any pedestrians who begin to cross the roadway during any part of the steady WALK interval, even if most of the actual crossing takes place during the flashing DON'T WALK interval. Essentially, the steady WALK indication informs pedestrians that they may begin to cross the roadway. The flashing DON'T WALK provides protection for pedestrians who began their crossing during the WALK interval and prevents late arrivals at the intersection from beginning to cross.
  • The belief that available pedestrian detectors don't have to be pushed to gain access to the roadway is mistaken. Some pedestrians fail to push available detector buttons and instead proceed to cross by observing the vehicle indications rather than the pedestrian indications. Because vehicles normally move faster than pedestrians, the green time needed to cross the intersection is less for a vehicle than for a pedestrian. If the detector is not used, the pedestrian indication remains at steady DON'T WALK, and the green time given by the vehicular signal is not always sufficient to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway completely. When pedestrians do cross under these conditions, they are not only disregarding the traffic signal indications and are in violation of Arizona Revised Statute 28-646, but they may come into conflict with a vehicle legally using the intersection, thus jeopardizing their own safety and the safety of others.
  • The belief that pedestrian signals and detectors automatically increase safety and should be installed at all signalized intersections is also mistaken. Every signalized intersection has to be evaluated independently. If the combination of signal timing, intersection layout, pedestrian volumes and vehicular volumes are such that pedestrian signals and detectors are not needed, then they should not be installed. In addition to the substantial installation costs, pedestrian signals consume a significant amount of electrical power at a typical intersection. If the vehicular indications can safely accommodate pedestrian traffic, then there is no justification for installing elaborate pedestrian controls. At some intersections it may be that only pedestrian detectors need to be installed. Where pedestrian volumes are low and pedestrian signals are not needed, a pedestrian detector can be used to extend the vehicular green, if it would otherwise be too short for a pedestrian to cross.

What are pedestrian responsibilities with respect to pedestrian signals?

Pedestrian signals assign right of way to pedestrians in much the same way as vehicular signals do for vehicular traffic. However, they are now a guarantee of safety. Pedestrians still have to exercise sound judgment when crossing a roadway:

  • Before crossing a signalized intersection, ALWAYS push the pedestrian detector if one is present. Doing so will guarantee adequate crossing time.
  • If no pedestrian signal is present, push the pedestrian detector if one is available, and ALWAYS cross as soon as the vehicular signal turns green. Doing so will ensure that adequate crossing time will be available. Pushing the detector when the signal is already green will not cause the green time to be extended during that particular green interval. The next green interval will, however, be extended. If the green signal has been on for any length of time prior to your arrival, be cautious about entering the roadway. The vehicular signal could be ready to turn red and you could be trapped in the roadway when it does!
  • When full pedestrian signalization is present, push the pedestrian detector, and cross when the pedestrian indication turns to WALK. Don't panic when the indication turns to flashing DON'T WALK. There is still adequate time to finish crossing before opposing traffic is released.
  • While crossing a roadway, regardless of the presence or absence of pedestrian controls, minimize the time you spend in the roadway: DON'T SAUNTER!
  • ALWAYS be attentive and watch for possible vehicular traffic turning across your path. By law, vehicles have to yield to pedestrians lawfully within the intersection. However, in any contest of right of way between pedestrians and vehicles, the pedestrian will ALWAYS lose. Too many epitaphs for former pedestrians could read, "But I was in the right."

Cross intersections defensively!