How Push-to-Walk reduces the quality of walkable neighborhoods

December 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm

The downtown of my hometown could be classified as “walkable,” if only for a few blocks. This is one of Lake Geneva, WI’s main qualities and one of the reasons many tourists from the Chicago metro region and its environs go there for a visit. Downtown has small-town charm and history dating back to the US railroad era. I wrote about my last visit, and some information on the former train running to Lake Geneva (the old right-of-way is now a multi-use recreational trail).

The principal road, Main Street, is also State Route 50, meaning it is under WisDOT jurisdiction. This is generally not a good thing, since the state-level DOT never seems to really grasp the notion of anything except traffic movement. Luckily, nothing else can really be done to make traffic move faster through Lake Geneva’s downtown except remove angle parking on both sides, which would single-handedly destroy downtown business. There are two traffic signals within downtown, one at Main and Center, and one at Main and Broad (one block from each other). Formerly, they were not coordinated and operated on a timer. I had the timing down to a science when I was in high school and worked downtown. In the summer tourist season, traffic was awful: it could take as long as 20 minutes just to move along a 5-block stretch. The signals weren’t timed for traffic movement.


Main St and Broad, Lake Geneva, WI. View Larger Map

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the City Council thought so. Just recently, new “high-tech” signals were introduced. I don’t see them as an upgrade for two reasons:

  1. There are new “push to cross” buttons at all crosswalks.”
  2. They are synchronized for maximum traffic flow.

I just finished reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City (Amazon). He made some interesting points and some others I didn’t always agree with, but the following assertion made sense after seeing Lake Geneva’s new signals:

…it is almost always the cities with push-button crossings that need the most help … Push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile dominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent. Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

The signals were formerly timed so pedestrians always had their turn. Congestion in the summer went hand-in-hand with the amount of people on the street. Pedestrians and automobiles existed peacefully, something I’ve yet to see in Chicago. Congestion caused cars to drive carefully and slowly because of the street activity. Riding a bicycle actually felt safe.

Push-to-cross signal button

These have no place in our walkable neighborhoods, whether they serve 7,000 or 7,000,000 people. Credit: ooomz on Flickr.

Now, pedestrians have to ask for a signal by pressing a button. The signals are synchronized to move traffic more quickly. I’m careful to say that it would destroy the pedestrian atmosphere of downtown, but it could certainly impact how the street feels. It would take a lot more than new signals to actually destroy the downtown economy, but every little bit plays a role, especially if this is the beginning of a push to improve traffic flow.

As some commenters noted in the local newspaper article about the signals, traffic actually moved more quickly during signal installation, when there were no signals but only stop signs. This is more likely attributable to the winter, off-peak season and not the lack of signals, but it begs the question: would downtown be safer if there were only stop signs?

Stop signs instead of signals would force drivers to look at their natural level, not up at a traffic signal. A full-stop would be necessary before proceeding, and makes drivers more careful because coordination with other drivers is necessary. The dramatic difference is best observed in the suburbs when a traffic signal on a large road is out of operation. A six-lane, four-way suburban intersection served by traffic signals would seemingly become chaotic in the absence of any signals, but it’s quite the opposite. While drivers may become stressed, it is not because there is chaos, rather, it is because the normal mindless activity of observing a tricolor signal becomes an activity where much more coordination with the environment becomes necessary. David Owen, author of Green Metropolis (another book I recommend) notes this in Walkable City:

The clear experience in the (mainly) European cities that have tried ["naked streets" with no signals or signs] has been that increasing the ambiguity of urban road spaces actually lowers car speeds, reduces accident rates, and improves the lives of pedestrians.

Still following me? Without drivers being told how to behave with a signal, they become reliant on each other and more of their surroundings for cues on how to behave. Drivers aren’t inherently careless; instead, carelessness is a result of the lack of need to care that much in the first place. Traffic signals make it easier to not care that much. Throw some navigable obstacles in the way and you’re forced to care.

Lake Geneva instead decided to make it easier to speed through downtown by synchronizing traffic signals and make pedestrian crossings optional. In the process, cars will drive faster, the street will be less safe for people on bikes, and the pedestrian quality will be reduced. Milwaukee did the same thing by my former house on the East Side. Pedestrians at the intersection of Bradford and Oakland Avenue had to push a button to cross Oakland, full of fast-moving cars otherwise unimpeded by signals or stop signs for at least 2 block. Waiting at least 30 seconds for the signal to change after pressing the button often meant waiting in the cold or missing the only bus. People on bikes had to walk to press the crossing button, too. This wasn’t changed until I contacted the Alderman and requested a sensor for bicycles, which was later installed. Push-to-walk buttons can reduce the quality of an otherwise walkable neighborhood.


Oakland Ave at Bradford, Milwaukee, WI. View Larger Map

Lake Geneva is no Amsterdam, but something I loved about Amsterdam (even in the winter) was the peaceful coexistence of all modes of transportation. Cars driving on the same streets as pedestrians, people on bikes, and trams meant that everyone had to proceed with caution. There was no distinction between the sidewalk, the bike lane, the tramway, or the driving lane. I’m not suggesting that Lake Geneva open its streets, but keeping one mode of transportation moving at a slow pace is actually a good thing because it forces coordination and cautiousness (whether this is done with fixed-timed signals or just stop signs is a matter of debate).

While keeping less traffic at a standstill may be good for reducing pollution and getting people to their parking spot, an optimal solution maintains the slow-moving quality of the street while ensuring that traffic can still move somewhere. Perhaps demand-priced parking (all meters have now been upgraded to wireless pay boxes) would ensure that people don’t drive in circles looking for a space, or parking tourists and employees at unused lots at the high school and shuttling them in using municipal bus loops. Years ago when I would sit frustrated in the traffic trying to get to work, I thought there had to be a better way to manage the madness. The ideas I wrote down may have been my first urban planning ideas before I knew what urban planning was.

I’ll be interested to see how anything changes as a result of the new traffic signals, and will have to wait until a busy July or August weekend to find out. Until then, drivers will speed through downtown, unimpeded unless someone decides to push one of those buttons.