The “yellow pedestrian border” is an intriguing fix—if not the ideal design solution.
The natural reaction for many drivers is to hit the gas as soon as a light turns green. But when cars are turning right, that instinct creates a potential conflict with pedestrians crossing the intersection, who get the walk signal at the same time. The result can be a near miss, or worse.
Caltrans traffic engineer Rob Stinger has proposed a solution: the “yellow pedestrian border.” The new signal—which pedestrians can trigger by pushing the walk button as they’re waiting to cross—frames the standard white walk signal in a border of yellow LED lights. The border is supposed to draw the driver’s attention to the walk signal, serving as a reminder that there might be someone in the crossing.
The signal is currently being piloted in Northern California. Early tests conducted at five intersections in Redding, California, a city of 90,000 north of Sacramento, showed some promise. Before-and-after analyses suggest that the yellow pedestrian border helped to decrease car-walker conflicts by about 17 percent, though the results varied by trial location.
In a 2014 report on the trial submitted to federal officials, Stinger noted a number of factors that came into play when determining the signal’s effectiveness. It didn’t work as well at large intersections, for instance, where drivers tend to favor speed and signals across the way are tougher to see. Nor did it work as well in places where there were lots of drivers from outside Redding who might not have been familiar with the new indicator.
On the whole, though, Stinger’s report is optimistic. In addition to reducing conflicts at many intersections, the yellow pedestrian border also seems to have reduced the rate of pedestrians crossing against the walk signal—likely because the border confirmed to them that their walk button request had actually worked. The report goes so far as to conclude that the signal has no downside:
Overall, this experiment demonstrated that the yellow LED border is a positive enhancement to a standard pedestrian signal. From the many hours of observations made during this study, there does not appear to be a downside to the modification. The YPB is not a distraction to motorists, nor does it adversely affect driver behavior. The device provides supplemental information to motorists while giving pedestrians reassurance that the signal will provide a WALK indication soon. Lastly, the border is most visible, providing the greatest benefit, to pedestrians and motorists during low light or inclement weather conditions when the potential for conflict is greatest.
The results are encouraging, especially since the signal is relatively new to drivers. (There was a modest learning period of a few weeks during the Redding trials.) But to say there’s no downside misses a couple obvious ones. The burden to trigger the signal still falls on pedestrians; if they don’t push the walk button, the border doesn’t emerge. Even if they do press the button, they’re at the mercy of drivers who may or may not process the signal and respond accordingly.
In other words, a car-first mentality remains the default here.
It’s possible to imagine urban street designers who prioritize pedestrian safety coming up with a very different sort of fix for the same hazard. Take a curb extension—like the sort shown below, via NACTO—that advanced the sidewalk farther into the intersection and squared off the corner. The safety benefits here include a shorter total crossing distance, a clearer view for drivers of pedestrians gathering to cross, and a tougher turn that required slower speeds.
Such a design change does something else: it signals to everyone that pedestrian safety is as important to this intersection as traffic flow. No LED lights required.