How many officials does it take to change a traffic light?

Even in a college town things need explaining. This sign in Princeton, NJ, is in English, Spanish, and Chinese, but it never says that pedestrians must push the ‘beg button’ to make the new signal work.

A recent major change in a dangerous pedestrian crossing in downtown Princeton, NJ, begun June 10, has been extended beyond its two-week initial trial period. Even though everyone – motorists and pedestrians alike – are inconvenienced by the change, few horns have been honked in the longer than usual lines of traffic at the intersection and no angry letters have appeared in the community newspapers. Maybe this change, while not a significant improvement, will turn out to be a moment of enlightenment for the state Department of Transportation, which controls the intersection and which until now has greeted every proposal for increased pedestrian safety with the refrain that the proposed change better not impede traffic – and by traffic they don’t mean foot traffic.

Some background: The intersection in question is on the town’s main street, Nassau Street, where two cross streets, Vandeventer Avenue and Washington Road, meet Nassau. In 2016 a change was made to the traffic lights to make the intersection safer for motorists. It also had one small improvement for pedestrians — a three-second lead time that gave pedestrians a head start in a crosswalk before turning traffic could cut them off.

But I warned in a community newspaper at the time that there was one small problem for pedestrians: Activation of the walk/don’t walk signals depended on someone pushing a “beg button.” Often no one did – everyone no doubt assumed that the signal would change at the appropriate time. As a nearby resident who drove through the intersection twice a day and used it often as a pedestrian, I witnessed many platoons of confused pedestrians, with looks of desperation asking “when will it be our turn.” The answer: Never, if you don’t push the button.

My 2016 concern took a tragic turn in October, 2017, when a pedestrian in the crosswalk was struck and killed by a cement mixer. (Amazingly, the resolution of the case has not yet been made public, even almost a year after I wrote a major story on that accident and several other near-fatal crashes involving pedestrians. We have sent e-mails requesting follow-up information to the investigating agency.)

The DOT’s trial solution for that problem was to, yes, continue to use a beg button, but to change the pedestrian access to an “exclusive pedestrian phase” or “all-way scramble,” as it is called. That means that pedestrians – If one of them pushes the “beg button” — are now directed to stay out of the intersection for four phases of traffic light changes. Then they get to go in any direction or diagonally if they want. Once the all-way walk begins, motorists then have to wait 39 seconds before any vehicles get to go.

The change has caused long back-ups on both cross streets. On Vandeventer Avenue it is not unusual to see 13 or 14 cars lined up for the light, with only six or seven getting through any one cycle. (More often than not, the sixth car goes through a yellow light and the seventh car goes through a red light.)

But still, few horns are honked. Motorists seems as content as those waiting in line for fries and burgers at a drive through restaurant. Pedestrians, as always, take what they are given.

Princeton mayor Liz Lempert, who has been lobbying the state for safer conditions for pedestrians, reports that the town does not yet know whether the extension of the trial means that the pedestrian phase will be permanent. Lempert reports that the town received more than 100 responses to a survey – “almost all of them enthusiastically in favor of the new signal timing.” she says.

Meanwhile, one block away, is another intersection that could actually function better for both pedestrians and motorists if an “exclusive pedestrian phase” or “all-way scramble” were put in place. It’s where Witherspoon Street ends in a T intersection with Nassau Street, and it is the most heavily used intersection by pedestrians (sometimes including literally busloads of foreign tourists, moving in a platoon of their own). Cars approaching Nassau on Witherspoon are already delayed by pedestrians who prevent left or right turns while the light is green for traffic. Those motorists would appreciate having the intersection to themselves. Motorists on Nassau Street would have to wait a few seconds more for their light to change from red to green.

Lempert reports that the town has requested the same “all-way scramble” at the Witherspoon Street intersection and at University Place and Nassau Street, two blocks away. Judging by the experience of the current trial, the DOT may have one less excuse for not making these changes.

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