Dancing in the Streets?

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  • The intersection of Whitehall Street with State Street and Water Street in the Financial District includes an “exclusive pedestrian phase” signal that stops traffic for pedestrians in all directions. Photo: Michael Garofalo


DOT to study “pedestrian scramble” crossing model at dangerous intersections

By Michael Garofalo

Pedestrian safety advocates are hoping that a new law will bring an old way of crossing the street back into vogue. If the legislation’s supporters get their wish, pedestrians walking diagonally from corner to corner while vehicles are stopped in all directions could soon become a common sight at some of Manhattan’s busiest intersections.

Legislation passed unanimously by the City Council last week requires the Department of Transportation to explore the implementation of Barnes Dance crossings at high-crash intersections. Under the Barnes Dance crossing model, also commonly referred to as a pedestrian scramble, traffic signals include a phase that halts vehicles in all directions, allowing walkers to cross intersections as they please.

“One in four of the crashes that kill or seriously injure people happens in the crosswalk when the pedestrian or the bicyclist has the right of way,” Council Member Helen Rosenthal, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a telephone interview after the legislation was passed. “As I learned about the different street engineering ideas, the Barnes Dance stood out as something that could make a real difference addressing exactly this problem.”

The Barnes Dance takes its name from Henry Barnes, who served as New York City’s traffic commissioner in the 1960s and implemented the signal pattern at a number of prominent crossings during his tenure. The Dance fell out of favor with transportation planners in the decades after Barnes’ death in 1968, but in recent years the scramble has been reintroduced in several cities, including Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Rosenthal and other supporters feel that Barnes Dance crossings could mitigate the risk posed to pedestrians by turning vehicles — particularly those turning left — at dangerous intersections. According to the DOT, vehicles making left turns account for more than twice as many pedestrian and cyclist fatalities as those turning right. Advocates say that the Barnes Dance ensures better outcomes by eliminating this conflict between vehicles and pedestrians, so that neither share the right of way concurrently.

DOT has focused on several strategies to make dangerous intersections safer, including the installation of left turn signals, physical cues like rubber curbs intended to slow vehicle turning speeds, and “leading pedestrian interval” signals, which give pedestrians a head start crossing intersections before vehicles proceed. But the department has not moved towards reintroducing the Barnes Dance on a wide scale at high-traffic crossings. “We tend to shy away from it more now than we used to,” Sean Quinn, senior director of the DOT’s Office of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs, said at a November 2016 hearing on the legislation.

As of November, the Barnes Dance was employed at 89 intersections in the city, often in the outer boroughs at intersections with lower pedestrian and vehicle volumes, Quinn said. At high-traffic intersections of the type that the DOT will study in response to the new law, the DOT has instead usually opted to implement alternative measures, due in part to certain drawbacks associated with the Barnes Dance. In areas with high pedestrian volume, Quinn noted, the Barnes Dance’s additional signal phase can cause increased sidewalk congestion at corners because pedestrians must wait longer to cross. Additionally, he said, the Barnes Dance requires increased signal time during the pedestrian phase to accommodate walkers covering longer distances by crossing diagonally. Combined, these signal timing factors can have broader implications for the movement of vehicle traffic on the surrounding grid.

“It’s not out of our toolkit,” Quinn said. “It’s just not one of our newer tools that we’re really applying to these more congested locations.”

The recently passed legislation does not specify the crossings to be studied by DOT (the department will be responsible for identifying locations that might benefit from the Barnes Dance), but Rosenthal believes one intersection in her Upper West Side district — where West End Avenue meets 96th Street — is an ideal candidate. “Coming south on West End and then turning on 96th seems to be one of the places that’s jammed up, and it’s a place where pedestrians and cars are really fighting,” she said. “The cars want to turn and the pedestrians are crossing. And that’s exactly where you would want something like a Barnes Dance so traffic would be stopped in every direction.”

“We approach intersection design with an open mind and design to the context,” a DOT spokesperson said after the legislation was passed last week. “We implement several types of exclusive pedestrian phasing and protected pedestrian movements on a regular basis. For new changes and enhancements at our priority locations, we think that tools such as ‘split’ leading pedestrian interval phases [which give crossing pedestrians a head start while allowing non-turning vehicles to proceed through intersections] may often be the best choice for protecting pedestrians with conflict-free crossing time.”

The law directs the DOT to submit a feasibility report to the mayor and City Council by August 1. It requires the DOT to study the potential use of the Barnes Dance at high-crash intersections, but does not bind the department to ultimately implement the crossing method.

Michael Garofalo can be reached at reporter@strausnews.co

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