A Pedestrian Scramble Can Make an Intersection Safer For Everyone

Have you heard of pedestrian scrambles? I’ve become something of an evangelist for them after moving to a city that employs them liberally. Cambridge, Massachusetts—which local signage labels a “highly settled” area as you enter the city limits—is packed with university students, families and a whole variety of people, many of whom regularly travel on foot. Parking is a pain here, driving is stressful, and the public transit isn’t amazing, but fortunately, the area is small enough that walking becomes a really easy option. (Biking is pretty fantastic here, too, but that’s for another article.)

So the need to keep pedestrians safe, amongst fast drivers and winding streets with sometimes-narrow sidewalks, is paramount.

The famous scramble crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. (Source: Dimitry B. via Flickr)

That’s where the pedestrian scramble comes in. In short, it’s a traffic light setup wherein pedestrians get an entire light cycle just for their own crossing purposes. If you’re on foot, you simply get to the intersection, press the Walk button and wait for the current green light cycle for cars to complete. Then all the traffic lights go to red, and the Walk signs in all directions light up. You can cross straight, left, right or even diagonally, without any concern for car traffic. Not only does this make your life safer and less stressful, it also makes things safer and easier for drivers, who don’t have to worry about close calls with people walking as they make their turns. 

I’ve seen pedestrian scrambles implemented very well in two key circumstances: 

1. The Pedestrian-Heavy Area

At intersections with a heavy flow of pedestrian traffic that must unavoidably cross paths with car traffic, pedestrian scrambles are a no-brainer. Most of the intersections around my university campus employ these well. It means that a large amount of people can safely cross on foot, but car traffic also gets a turn to go through.

Without the pedestrian scramble, we would inevitably have lots of perilous close calls between students darting across the street and cars attempting to turn into them—not to mention lots of drivers waiting in uncertainty about when the flow of walkers will stop, then racing to get through the gap.

For both people walking and driving, it’s these moments where someone seizes a break in traffic to dart through that put lives at the greatest risk. I certainly feel my heart race in Cambridge every time I’m trying to make a left turn in a car or cross on foot at an unmarked intersection.  With pedestrian scrambles, though, these hazardous interactions can be completely avoided, decreasing uncertainty and danger.

2. The Stroad

Sometimes, there’s no way to avoid the presence of a busy, fast-moving street in an urban area, especially during rush hour.  For these streets, a pedestrian scramble is immensely helpful.  

On my jogging route, there’s a busy stroad I routinely have to cross, which employs a pedestrian scramble beautifully. Picture four lanes of cars speeding around you at 5pm on a Monday evening.  You feel like an ant amongst these fast-moving vehicles, and the width of the street you want to cross is expansive. 

With a standard pedestrian signal, you end up waiting ages to get the Walk sign to pop up, and the entire time you’re crossing, you have to constantly be on the look out for left- or right-turning vehicles darting through breaks in traffic and nearly running you over. And after all that, if, like me, you’re trying to get to the diagonal corner of the intersection, you have to wait for the next cycle and do it all over again.

Scramble in Cambridge, MA (Photo by Rachel Quednau)

With the pedestrian scramble, however, I simply push the Walk button, wait for the existing light to go red, and then enjoy a safe stroll directly to the corner I wish to go to while all the cars are stopped around me. There’s no need to look anxiously about for a surprise left-turner or worry that someone might suddenly veer into the crosswalk. The sense of safety you feel while crossing with all the cars stopped is incredible.

And it’s so easy to achieve! You could implement pedestrian scrambles at significant intersections in your city next week at no extra cost. All it requires is the reprogramming of the light cycle.  It can take a little while for pedestrians to get used to these lights and recognize their newfound freedom, but unlike other traffic additions like roundabouts and bike lanes, this switch is unlikely to cause much confusion or misuse.  

Because they have not been implemented on a large scale nationwide, there isn’t an overwhelming amount of data on pedestrians scrambles, but what does exist shows a serious decrease in collisions and dangerous close calls after pedestrian scrambles are implemented in areas with high volumes of people on foot.

If you’ve been reading Strong Towns for any length of time, it may not surprise you to learn that plenty of traffic engineers are against pedestrian scrambles due to their potential for slightly decreasing auto “efficiency” and perhaps adding a few extra seconds to car trips through busy areas. If only these same engineers cared about pedestrian efficiency, though (let alone safety). For me and my fellow walkers, it’s far more efficient to be able to safely cross to the diagonal corner of a street in a matter of seconds, protected by a light, than to fearfully wait for a break in traffic to dart across.  It also seems more efficient for cars to then travel through the intersection on a green light without needing to worry about interactions with pedestrians during their trip.

The bottom line? In busy areas where people and cars intersect, pedestrian scrambles just make sense.

(Cover photo: Pedestrian scramble in Toronto. Source: City Clock Magazine via Flickr. Creative Commons license.)