To watch a video of pedestrians crossing the street at Tokyo’s Shibuya Scramble, is to watch a well-timed dance.
Thousands of people surge into the intersection where five cross walks and 10 lanes of automobile traffic converge. They cross the street left, right and diagonally, weaving past one another through the crowd to reach their final destination. As soon as the light changes and pedestrians are off the road, traffic starts up again.
This intersection, known as a pedestrian scramble or diagonal crossing, uses traffic lights to stop vehicle movement in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the street whichever way they choose. The name pedestrian scramble is derived from the fluid movement of walkers and bikers in the center of the intersection.
The simplicity of stopping all traffic and allowing people to cross before starting it back up again is appealing to East Passyunk resident Nicholas Mezzina.
Mezzina, who frequently crosses Washington Avenue with his children to get to the Italian Market, wishes that more street lights in Philly would just pause traffic in all directions so that he doesn’t have to dodge vehicles turning left or right while he’s trying to cross. He’s frustrated as both a walker and a driver, who has had to worry about hitting people and bikers when he’s turning onto a city street in his car.
“You can spend all the money you want on redoing all the roads and all that, but if you still have a situation where your people are going to get hit by a car, you haven’t done anything,” Mezzina says.
“If you’re walking down to the Italian Market on Saturday or Sunday, it’s crazy,” he says. “Everybody’s turning and if you have cars turning the same way people are walking, there’s going to be an accident.”
The intersection at 11th and Washington where Mezzina frequently walks and drives is among the most dangerous in the city. Washington Avenue ranks on the city’s high injury network, a group of 12 percent of city streets where 80 percent of accidents occur.
The city is currently planning on redesigning the thoroughfare, but dueling factions have argued over whether pedestrian safety or traffic flow should take priority. Earlier this month, the city ditched a three-lane redesign plan that prioritized pedestrian safety after further outreach to neighbors and business owners revealed concerns that a lack of loading zones and increased traffic times could hurt businesses and fuel gentrification in the area.
With pedestrian deaths jumping to 156 in 2020 despite the city’s Vision Zero promises to cut pedestrian deaths and serious traffic-related injuries in half by 2026, it’s clear Philly needs to start looking for new solutions to make Washington Avenue—as well as Roosevelt Boulevard and other thoroughfares—safer. A diagonal crossing could be a middle ground solution that increases pedestrian safety while preserving loading zones and traffic lanes for drivers.
An old idea that still works
Pedestrian scrambles got their start in Kansas City and Vancouver in the late 1940s, before being popularized in 1951 by traffic engineer Henry Barnes, who installed the intersections throughout Denver’s Business District, Bloomberg CityLab reports. Barnes, who went on to work as a street commissioner in Baltimore and New York City, is so often commonly associated with diagonal crossings that the rapid movement of pedestrians in all directions while traffic is paused is sometimes known as the “Barnes Dance.”
While pedestrian scrambles are most common in Japan where the L.A Times reports there are 300 pedestrian scrambles, dozens of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Pittsburgh have adopted the intersections. Studies have found that installing scrambles can lead to as much as a 50 percent reduction in pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.
Diagonal crossings are most beneficial for improving safety at two different types of intersections. The first kind are pedestrian heavy intersections, like Tokyo’s Shibuya Scramble, which sees as many as 3,000 people use the intersection during a single signal change.
“Pedestrian scrambles are on paper the safest type of crossing because there are no conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles,” says Tankle.
The second kind of intersection that can benefit from a scramble is multi-lane roads that see a lot of traffic during rush hour. At these intersections, standard pedestrian signals don’t account for cars turning left and right, so walkers and cyclists have to constantly be on the lookout to avoid vehicles. With a pedestrian scramble, all traffic is stopped so walkers can freely cross during the busiest hours of the day.
That’s the problem Los Angeles sought to solve when they installed pedestrian scrambles at the intersection between Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Before the scramble was installed the intersection, which connects motorists to the 101 freeway and the Hollywood Bowl, saw 38 pedestrian/vehicle crashes between 2002 and 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the first year after the scramble was installed the number of crashes dropped to zero, Los Angeles Magazine reported.
In Boston, pedestrian scrambles were the default crossing until 1970 when the city began converting some to concurrent crossings. Citywide, 562 intersections out of 885 signalized intersections are pedestrian scrambles. Carla Tankle, a spokesperson for the Boston Transportation Department, says that the city currently implements pedestrian scrambles at intersections where there are more than 250 vehicles that turn into an active crosswalk within one hour. She sees both pros and cons to using pedestrian scrambles and notes that they are the preferred type of crosswalk for intersections near schools, hospitals and senior citizen homes.
“Pedestrian scrambles are on paper the safest type of crossing because there are no conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles. But pedestrian scrambles can cause the cycle length of a traffic signal to greatly increase and cause longer delays for both drivers and pedestrians. This can lead to increased jaywalking,” Tankle wrote in an email.
How could pedestrian scrambles help Philly?
Philadelphians can advocate for the city to consider pedestrian scrambles as part of the solution to Washington Avenue’s safety problems as the city continues to release construction plans. This week, the city plans to unveil final construction plans for the roadway at a public open house on March 1 at 6pm at the Christian Street YMCA. The meeting will be live-streamed via the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (oTIS) Facebook page.
During this forum, oTIS will present final construction plans for Washington Avenue and detail additional pedestrian safety interventions they are considering for the road. Though they will not be collecting public input during this meeting, the city says there will be opportunities for future engagement as they continue to consider other pedestrian interventions that could make the roadway safer.
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This public open house comes after bicyclist and pedestrian advocacy groups accused the city of caving to the interests of a handful of motorists when it backpedaled on the three-lane redesign plan for Washington Avenue. Lane reduction would result in drivers spending an additional 5 to 10 seconds on the road per block during rush hour, the city’s three-lane design plan notes.
The three-lane option, which was labeled the final design decision in 2020, would have reduced traffic to just two lanes and a center turn lane along some parts of Washington Avenue and would have added protected bike lanes on both sides of the road. The design still included several blocks with four or five lanes for traffic. An online survey of more than 5,400 city residents found that most favored this design option.
“Over 5,000 people—more than 71 percent of the original survey-takers—indicated in the City’s own survey that they wanted the safest three-lane option possible. In addition, a majority of the area neighborhood associations, almost all school community groups and principals whose school catchments touch Washington, and the 2nd Ward Democrats vocally support the original Kenney plan,” Jon Geeting, director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, wrote for the Philadelphia Citizen.
The city abandoned the three-lane plan after in-person meetings with residents of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, Registered Community Organizations and a working group of community members, businesses, and advocacy groups. During these meetings, the city says residents and business owners raised concerns that a road diet plan could hurt long-established businesses and increase gentrification in the area, WHYY reports.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the intersection near Michigan Stadium allows scramble crossing only on home game Saturdays. They use Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors,” as well as a light signal to indicate when diagonal crossing is allowed
Critics of the three-lane design say that the city’s online survey drew in too many people from outside of South Philly and didn’t prioritize input from the people living in the neighborhoods along Washington Avenue. City officials cited a lack of engagement from older and Black residents with the online survey in particular as a reason they pursued additional, in-person engagement on the plans even after releasing a final design, per WHYY’s report.
Now, the city is considering both a four-lane and a mixed design plan for the thoroughfare. The four-lane design would still include a wider section along Broad Street and the mixed design where nearly half of the project area from Grays Ferry Avenue to 4th Street would have three lanes and the rest would be wider. oTIS is also considering adding additional pedestrian safety interventions, including hardened centerlines, corner wedges, pedestrian head start signal timing, speed minder feedback signs, automated red light enforcement cameras and speed cushions.
Currently, the city isn’t considering installing pedestrian scrambles at any of the intersections along Washington Avenue, largely because oTIS determined the volume of foot traffic did not warrant it. “The installation of either the four-lane or mixed lane options will give pedestrians an effectively shorter pedestrian crossing distance and safer crossing, while maintaining separate walk phases for the north-south pedestrians and east-west pedestrians,” Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for transportation, wrote in an email.
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It’s true that Philly doesn’t have upwards of 3,000 people crossing the street during one signal change like Tokyo. But smaller U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh and Boston, have implemented pedestrian scrambles on streets that seem to need them. And other cities have turned to temporary scrambles, which allow diagonal crossing only when pedestrian traffic is high.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the intersection at Main Street and Stadium Boulevard near Michigan Stadium allows scramble crossing only on home game Saturdays. They use Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors,” as well as a light signal to indicate when diagonal crossing is allowed, the Northern Kentucky Tribune reports.
Mezzina says he’d be in favor of the city installing pedestrian scrambles along Washington Avenue, especially since he’s seen other pedestrian interventions, like those installed during the 11th Street redesign in 2019, either get ignored or tampered with. After the city added bike lines and removed several parking spaces to improve sightlines on 11th Street, one resident woke up as early as 4:30 a.m. to remove the temporary barrier the city set up and many others just ignored them and parked there anyway, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“You can spend all the money you want on redoing all the roads and all that, but if you still have a situation where your people are going to get hit by a car, you haven’t done anything,” Mezzina says. “[Philly] should be like other cities in the world where they just let the pedestrians cross and then the cars go.”
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Header photo by M. Fischetti / Visit Philadelphia