The Chainlink

Bill and I are riding  east on  Washington after our Wednesday morning ride to Wishbone for breakfast. We are both heading  towards the loop.  At Halsted I see the counter on  the light telling me there are  three seconds left and I am about  75 feet from  the corner. I decide to come  to a stop as the light turns yellow.  A rider behind is is bolder and  speeds through the intersection as the light turns red.

Bill and I talk about the thin line between wisdom and anxiety at the light and  as we ride on the next  green. We ponder our decision to  stop at  Halsted and  whether we would have gone  through  when  we were  younger.  We give ourselves some credit as we are both getting on  in years and  we are  out here on  a  chilly morning when  most  people  our age would  have  let the weather keep themselves indoors. We are telling ourselves that this was wisom. We are on our bikes but we are not  going  through a turning  light at a busy intersection  during rush hour.

Just as  we are reaching back and patting  ourselves on the back for our decision  to  stop at Halsted we approach Clinton. I again see the light  tell me there  are  three seconds left  and I am again  about 75 feet from the intersection.  Again,  I stop, thinking we had just  reaffirmed that this was a good decision. I come to  a stop and watch  as the light remains green  for at least  five seconds after we had  come to a stop before turning yellow and red.  This  light  does not  count  down  to the  yellow  but  down to a void of  "still green but about to turn" that confounds and annoys me. This  is a light I  could have  safely passed  at three seconds. 

Bill  and I go under the viaduct when  the  light is again green discussing this arrhythmia wondering why the  lights are  not  consistent. This  consistency would be  much safer and allow drivers,  riders,  pedestrians and anybody else to know  what  to  expect. We are  still discussing  this  as we come to the  civic opera house at  Wacker  Drive and where  the light counts down,  three, two,  one and  turns yellow just as it had  done at Halsted.  We  comment that had  a rider experienced  the useless "grace period" at  Cinton he/she might be  killed  riding through the intersection at  Wacker. 

We enter  the bike lane and wonder  why the traffic overlords  even bother  with this  countdown when  we  have no idea  what it leads to.

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The countdown is for the pedestrians. I agree, they don't always align with the traffic light. I wish the city, and the state for that matter, would start using flashing green to indicate a light is about to turn yellow. Many states do that. Given that Chicago has had a short yellow for ages, and was actually caught shorting the yellows when red light cameras were installed, it would make sense to give traffic an indication that the light is about to change.

There's SOOO much more information you can convey via traffic lights.  Flashing green to indicate the green is almost done; red/amber to indicate the green is about to come, diff shapes to help in case you cant see color clearly, etc.

Good observation about the inconsistency between how the countdown functions at Halsted and Wacker versus at Clinton. I'll keep an eye out for this elsewhere.

Lincoln/Sheffield/Wrightwood is a great example of this. Every intersection along Lincoln (from Wellington to Armitage) has the pedestrian timer synced to end when the light turns yellow, except this intersection.

Going south Lincoln, the traffic lights at this intersection cycle from green to yellow when there are still 4 seconds on the pedestrian countdown. I am sure I have seen some close calls between all users because the timing of the lights is just that different from just about every other intersection; I'm actually surprised I haven't seen an actual collision and not just close calls.

(Then again I see enough stupid people tricks by all users on any given day/week/month that something needs to be truly memorable to stick out more than a day or two)

The city changed the timing of some "don't walk" signs a while back, seemingly at random. It has come up in previous threads, including my speculation that it may have contributed to the car / cyclist collision at Roosevelt and Halsted earlier this year.

This thread worries me because I've been used to watching those count-down pedestrian signs to see how much time I have to get across the intersection.  So far, I haven't run into any issues, but I never thought about how they might get out of sync with the traffic signals.  Scary!

Well I guess we have NY City to thank for erratic stop lights and walk signals, according to the NYTimes yesterday:

....The walk signals at many New York City crosswalks were recently re-timed to come on seven to 11 seconds before drivers get a green light — instead of at the same time — so pedestrians can get well across before the cars can move, with more lag time for wider streets.

On New York’s increasingly crowded streets, so-called “pedestrian head starts” have become a key tactic used by city officials to reduce dangers at busy intersections by making pedestrians more visible and reinforcing their right of way. Pedestrians are now given a head start

Even so, the head starts have gone largely unnoticed by many pedestrians. There is nothing really to point at.  The use of pedestrian head starts is also spreading across the country as the strategy is adopted by a growing number of cities, including Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.   The National Association of City Transportation Officials has highlighted the measure — called a “leading pedestrian interval” by traffic engineers and urban planners — as a best practice in its urban street design guide, saying that it is one of the ways that “effectively decrease crashes and save lives on our cities’ streets.”

The preliminary data indicates that the overall effect “was to reduce vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes.”   In New York City, pedestrians were first given a head start in 1976.  But it was not until three years ago that city transportation officials began rolling out the measure on a vast scale, with priority given to intersections where there have been pedestrian-vehicle crashes, or where there are school children and older walkers requiring more time to cross.  Some drivers have grumbled that the measure slows traffic, while [cyclists and] others said it is confusing to see conflicting signals at an intersection....
It seems that the "count down" is not related to actual stop watch/clock seconds. I have no proof ...but I swear the count down speeds up at the end of the count(at some intersections).

This  may be true.  I had shared this thread with an engineer friend who railed against the inconsistency and  said the ability to have all  lights be the same is what allowed  actors to  make choices.  He went on to mention that  it really doesn't matter  if the numbers are actual seconds as long as the countdowns end the same way and that  in wider streets or busier intersections the  interval could be greater than  a  second.  I was thinking about intersections that cross Lake Shore  Drive near Grant  Park. Of course,  a countdown with it's own  variable speed as you  mention, would  be  equally evil to having them end at a "still  green" at  some intersections and a  yellow at others.   If I  had to boil it  down  to a pithy aphorism that would turn Emerson over  in his  grave,  I  would  say,  "inconsistency is the hobglobin of traffic safety."

I've noticed this at a few intersections as well. I realize the counters are there primarily for pedestrians, but they are valuable to both cyclists and drivers as well. I think the city (and other municipalities where these are popping up) should be encouraged to settle on one predictable scheme.

Yes, it's an interesting example of something intended to benefit X group also benefitting Y group.

The classic example I always think of is handicapped-access ramps. Intended to help people in wheelchairs and scooters, but as it turns out they help all sorts of people: parents with strollers, delivery people, etc.

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