Flickr/thisisbossi

Cities have largely given up on pedestrian scrambles — but some are bringing them back.

Earlier this month, in a great piece for New York magazine about traffic and pedestrian safety, Robert Kolker mentioned that the city has only one remaining "Barnes Dance" (where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street). The Barnes Dance, sometimes called a scramble, is an intersection where car traffic halts for a bit so pedestrians can cross in all directions — including diagonally. You've probably seen pictures of the famous one in the Shibuya part of Tokyo (via Flickr user lu_lu):

The Barnes Dance takes its name from traffic engineer Henry Barnes, who served as street commissioner for a number of major American cities in the 20th century, including Denver, Baltimore, and New York. An old New York Times profile of Barnes described him as "a tense and ever-active man possessed of a peppery temper that at times lends tartness to his tongue." In 1968 the stress got the best of him, and he died of a heart attack on the job.

Barnes didn't invent the pedestrian scramble — Kansas City and Vancouver had such systems in the late 1940s — but did popularize it during his time in Denver. The dance got its name when a city hall reporter wrote that the crossings "made the people so happy they're dancing in the streets," according to Barnes's autobiography. In a 1951 talk to fellow engineers, Barnes described what inspired him to install the scrambles throughout Denver's business district:

As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm, and a St. Christopher's medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other. As far as I was concerned — a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings — I didn't think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving.

Barnes became traffic commissioner of New York City in 1962 and started looking for potential dance sites on his very first day in office. He made plans for a test crossing at Vanderbilt Avenue and East 42nd Street, near Grand Central Station. The crossing went live within ten days, with pedestrians getting free reign for 23 seconds of every 90-second light cycle, and was immediately hailed a success by the Times:

New York pedestrians are accustomed, if not reconciled, to the desperate game of trying to cross a street between cars that are trying to turn corners.

The scramble system is designed to eliminate this unequal contest and its dangers.

Soon Wall Street, then Fifth and Madison avenues at 42nd Street, then Brooklyn had installed Barnes Dances as well. That's not to say the commissioner's balanced approach was beloved by all: he frequently clashed with New York's infamous road-builder Robert Moses, complaining that Moses's highways, bridges, and tunnels dumped traffic into the city without any concern for how to manage it. In the end Barnes understood that directing traffic is a contentious pursuit; he once wrote:

The one thing that a traffic engineer learns early in life is that, no matter how many statistics or how many studies he makes, he never can come up with an answer that will completely satisfy everyone.

One might say the same of the Barnes Dance itself. While most pedestrians loved the scramble, most drivers hated it. Since Barnes's time, traffic engineers have fought the crossings on the basis that they create too much congestion, guided largely by level-of-service metrics that prize vehicle flow over all over types of movement. Meanwhile walking speeds slowed to 3.5 feet-per-second overthe years, requiring even longer pedestrian breaks. Conflicts can occur when pedestrians don't hold for the all-clear because they're accustomed to crossing with traffic.

This gradual change of heart toward the Barnes Dances culminated in Denver's decision to remove them last year — despite the city's love for the man himself.

Barnes's former homes may have turned on the scramble, but it's making a bit of a comeback in a number of cities around the world. Toronto launched its first one in 2008, London built diagonal crossings in Wood Green in 2010, and a number of American cities are reintroducing the concept as well, including Washington, D.C. The District brought the Barnes Dance to 7th and H streets NW, in Chinatown, a couple years back (via WTOP):

So far so good, says George Branyan, pedestrian coordinator for the District Department of Transportation, who calls the crossing an "enhanced Barnes Dance." Unlike a classic scramble, the district allows pedestrians to walk with traffic during a green light and protects them from conflicts by prohibiting turns. The intersection might have lost some vehicle capacity, says Branyan, but that was a small price to pay — especially considering that the intersection has more walkers (30,000 a day) than cars (27,000).

"This is a unique situation that we felt needed a unique solution," he says. "We have had some angry calls about the turn restrictions (by drivers who have received tickets for doing it), but overall it seems to be working well."

Top image: DC's Barnes Dance by Flickr user thisisbossi

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her government's Brexit deal outside No. 10 Downing Street
    Equity

    Britain Finally Has a Brexit Deal. Everyone Hates It.

    Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.

  3. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.
    Equity

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.

  4. A photo shows the Amazon logo on a building.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

    Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution.

  5. A map of states with laws that make voting more difficult.
    Equity

    Voting Rights Aren’t Just a Black Issue: They Affect Poor People of All Races

    The Poor People's Campaign is building a multi-ethnic national force to “save the democracy,” and end the cross-racial poverty it sees as born of racialized voter suppression.