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Austin giving pedestrians, cyclists a piece of traffic light time


Highlights

The city has allotted seven seconds of pedestrian-only signal time at eight streets crossing South Congress.

The time for walkers, with all cars facing red lights, came from the side streets’ signal time, officials say.

The city is spending $300,000 to add bike-only signals at 12 intersections and bicycle detectors at 20 more.

Pedestrians and cyclists are getting a head start at more Austin intersections, part of a broad set of changes by the city to make it easier and safer for people to travel around town under their own power.

Added time has been provided for pedestrians to cross at eight intersections along South Congress Avenue while all cars are idled at red lights. The city also plans to install bike signals at 12 crossings, as well as bike sensors that trigger signal lights at 20 locations.

“We’re looking at pedestrians and cyclists as the most vulnerable users of our roads,” said Jorge Riveros, the city’s arterial management division manager. “And we want to make sure they have a safe haven to get across those intersection.”

City officials said that in most cases, the extra seconds of each light cycle reserved for cyclists and walkers do not cut into the drivers’ green light time along the primary road at the intersection. On South Congress Avenue for instance, where the city in December added seven-second “leading pedestrian intervals” to eight intersections through the heavily trafficked SoCo entertainment district, the time was taken from the cross streets’ green-light time rather than from South Congress.

“Congress itself didn’t lose any time,” Riveros said. “We haven’t seen any detrimental effects to the (Congress) corridor’s movement” of automobiles.

At those intersections, after the lights facing South Congress traffic go red, the “walk” signals for pedestrians flash for seven seconds while the cross street light remains red on weekdays from 9 a.m. to midnight. Outside those hours, and on weekends, pedestrians will get the seven-second head start only if they press a button at the intersection.

That dead period for vehicles allows pedestrians, in theory, to begin their trek across the street without contending with people turning right or left from Academy Drive, Mary Street or the other six cross streets. The city in 2012 had added curb “bulb outs” to many of those same intersections to shorten the distance for people walking across South Congress.

However, right turns on red are still allowed at each of the eight intersections, Riveros said. So motorists from the cross streets still could pose a problem even during those seven seconds, even though the law requires them to yield to pedestrians in this case.

A 2010 Penn State University study showed adding pedestrian intervals could reduce crashes between vehicles and pedestrians by up to 60 percent at intersection but not if right-turn-on-red was allowed.

“The presence of right-turn-on-red traffic,” the study said, “may reduce the effectiveness of (leading pedestrian intervals) by allowing the potential for conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles…”

Few collisions on SoCo

The past two years have been a dangerous period for pedestrians across the city, with close to 400 incidents each year in which a car hit a pedestrian in Austin, along with 30 pedestrian deaths in 2015 and 27 in 2016.

But the accident data for that section of South Congress does not present a pressing case for the added pedestrian protection.

City data showed one collision at the eight South Congress intersections in 2015 and two in 2016, with two listed as causing “possible injury” to the pedestrian. In the third case, a woman was taken to a hospital Dec. 8 with what police characterized as non-life-threatening injuries.

That stretch of South Congress had one pedestrian/car collision in 2012, one in 2013 and none in 2014, according to the city.

In any case, Riveros said, the changes are part of a city-wide effort to ease the way for those on foot or on skinny tires. Austin, including the South Congress changes, has about 45 intersections where pedestrians get a head start.

Bicycle signals coming

The city is also about to begin a $300,000 program (about $200,000 of it funded with a federal grant) to add special traffic signals for bicycles at 12 intersections and, at 20 other intersections, improve equipment to detect bikes waiting at an intersection for a light to turn green. That equipment, either video cameras that see the cyclist or a metal detectors embedded in the pavement, is needed at “traffic-actuated” traffic signals where the light turns green for the minor intersecting street only when a car or bike shows up.

The work should begin in about a week, said Nathan Wilkes, an engineer with the city Transportation Department, and take several weeks to complete.

About half of the 12 intersections getting bicycle signal lights — an icon of a stick figure on a bike appears on the signal box — would grant a few seconds of exclusive crossing time to the bikes, similar to what the pedestrians get at the South Congress signals.

The rest, he said, are situations in which bikes already are allowed to move with pedestrians during a reserved interval, based on posted signs. The new signals, he said, would make it more obvious to cyclists when it is their time to move through the intersection.



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