Does the DOT Always Know Best?

This crosswalk in downtown Princeton was the scene of a pedestrian fatality in 2017.

Is it possible that I know more than a traffic engineer from the New Jersey Department of Transportation? To put the question in context, I should say that I never took a single engineering or science or architecture course in college. I majored in English. And I have never served on a planning or zoning board in any town.

But, with respect to a certain intersection in my hometown that will be the subject of a two-week study by the DOT, I do have some first-hand knowledge. As a motorist I have driven through it twice a day for 30 years or so commuting to work. As an avid pedestrian, who lives less than two blocks away, I have walked through the intersection a dozen times a week, if not more.

Also, as a reporter for a community newspaper, I studied the intersection closely when a major change was made to its signals for motorists and pedestrians in 2016. I studied it again after a pedestrian was killed in 2017, for an in-depth article on pedestrian safety that appeared in the Princeton Echo.

Pedestrians get bombarded with instructions, but often they still fail to push the button.


As I noted then, the intersection where Washington Road and Vandeventer Avenue meet Nassau Street in the heart of downtown Princeton, is a challenging one, with four phases of signals to govern the vehicular traffic, two of which also permit pedestrians to cross. But pedestrians know they can cross only if they push the button – aka the “beg button” – on the traffic signal poll. Often the pedestrians do not push the button, assuming that the walk/don’t walk signal will change automatically, as it does at most other intersections in town.

We argued then that the signal changes were an improvement, but that pedestrians couldn’t be relied on to push the button to activate the signals. We do not know if that shortcoming contributed to the pedestrian death, but it certainly has led many instances of confusion, with frustrated pedestrians stepping out into the roadway against their own better judgment to finally get on their way.

During the trial period from Monday, June 10, through Friday, June 21, the new “exclusive pedestrian phase,” or “all-way scramble,” as it is called, will still rely on pedestrians to push the beg button to work. Then they will have to wait through up to four separate signal phases enabling the motorists to go their various ways. After that pedestrians will get about 39 seconds to cross in any direction, even diagonally if they wish.

That will be a sweet time for pedestrians after a long wait. But it will be a bitter moment for motorists, who will soon realize that, if they miss their green light, they may well have to wait 39 seconds longer than before to finally get moving.

We have some guesses as to how this will all shake out. But we will defer judgment until after we have had a week to observe the motorist-pedestrian interaction. We will post an update on June 17, or thereabouts, which will give Princeton-based readers of this a chance to check the intersection out for themselves — and to see who knows better when it comes to this intersection.

Below is the release from the DOT. Following that is a statement from the Princeton mayor.


New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) officials today (June 3, 2019) announced a pilot project to study the effectiveness of a pedestrian-only signal phase, known as an Exclusive Pedestrian Phase (EPP), at the intersection of Route 27, also known as Nassau Street, and Washington Road/Vandeventer Avenue in Princeton.

Beginning on Monday, June 10, and continuing for two weeks until Friday, June 21, NJDOT will be testing an exclusive pedestrian phase, also known as a pedestrian scramble, at the Nassau Street/Washington Road/Vandeventer Avenue traffic signal. The EPP is a traffic signal operation that allows pedestrians to cross in any direction, even diagonally, while all vehicle traffic is stopped.

The pedestrian must push the button on the existing traffic signal pole to initiate the pedestrian phase, and then wait until the white walk symbol lights. Pedestrians will have approximately 39 seconds to cross the intersection while vehicles have the red light. This will occur every 90 to 132 seconds if the pedestrian button is pushed. Currently no right turns on red are allowed and this will continue. During the exclusive pedestrian phase, all traffic will have a red light and turning on red will continue to be prohibited.

The study is being done at the request of Princeton officials. NJDOT has a responsibility for providing safe pedestrian accommodations on state roadways while not increasing traffic congestion and gridlock on a critical roadway through any town. Balancing these concerns is paramount for any roadway improvements NJDOT considers. Upon completion of the trial, NJDOT will review the findings to determine what is best in terms of safety and operational performance at the intersection for all users.

In 2016, at the town’s request, the Department made pedestrian and safety improvements to the intersection of Nassau Street and Washington Road/Vandeventer Avenue. Due to the non-standard geometry of the roads, the traffic signal phase for Washington Road and Vandeventer Avenue was changed so that both approaches no longer get a green at the same time.

The main advantage of an EPP is that during the pedestrian-only phase, all traffic has a red light and no turns are allowed, which eliminates the conflict of turning vehicle and pedestrians. The main disadvantage is the signal will have five phases, rather than four phases. This creates longer wait times for vehicles while pedestrians are crossing, and for pedestrians when vehicles have the right of way.

Motorists are encouraged to check NJDOT’s traffic information website for real-time travel information and for NJDOT news follow us on Twitter @NJDOT_info and on our Facebook page.

From Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert:

“Nassau Street is officially a state highway, but it is also the center of our walkable community, and it’s vitally important for it to be an attractive and safe place to walk. Princeton has been advocating for safer intersections for years, especially after a pedestrian crossing Washington Street at Nassau was struck and killed by a turning truck. We are glad that the New Jersey Department of Transportation is finally conducting this study and recognizing pedestrians – not just cars and trucks — as important users of the road.“