The Portland Bureau of Transportation just flipped the switch on new traffic signals at Northwest Couch and Broadway, 10th and 11th Avenues. The signals on Broadway are on a major bike route where they were first flagged as necessary four years ago. At the intersection of Couch and 11th, PBOT has installed Portland’s first ever “pedestrian scramble signal.”
NW Couch and Broadway (photos below) has been a safety concern for PBOT for many years now. Prior to 2012 this intersection only had stop signs on Couch (in the east-west direction). With Burnside just one block to the south, traffic frequently backed up and trying to cross Broadway was often a risky gamble. In February 2012, then City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield told us the agency was concerned about the intersection because it had a high crash rate. Between 2007 and 2012 PBOT had 103 collision recorded at Couch and Broadway — seven of which involved someone on a bicycle.
By the end of March 2012, PBOT had installed stop signs as interim measure. They wanted signals but claimed funding simply wasn’t available. At the time, many people — including members of PBOT’s own Bicycle Advisory Committee — felt the interim solution wasn’t enough. Given how the intersection has functioned since then, they were right.
A reader whose office faces the intersection of Couch and Broadway emailed us this morning elated that the new signals were finally turned on. “This is a dangerous intersection,” he wrote, “and I see near daily accidents and other terrible things.”
When I observed things today all appeared relatively calm. The new signals give priority to Broadway (north-south) traffic which gets a significantly longer green cycle than Couch traffic (about 50 seconds of green versus about 30 seconds of green respectively). With just stop signs the wait at this intersection was never more than a few seconds. If you get the green, you’re in business; but as is often the case with new signals, what you gain in safety and predictability, you might lose in efficiency if you get caught at a red. I’d say it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
Head west from Broadway and you’ll notice two more new signals on Couch at 10th and 11th. This area, near Powell’s and the “Brewery Blocks,” is always busy. People on bikes, in cars, in streetcars, and on foot via the sidewalks exist in an often chaotic state as they all vye for space on relatively narrow streets.
At 11th, PBOT has installed Portland’s first-ever “pedestrian scramble signal” (wikipedia entry here). What that means is there’s one phase of the new signal where all cross traffic is stopped and people who are walking can cross in any direction — including my favorite, diagonally.
While I observed the intersection no one used the diagonal crossing. They were either unaware of it or unsure of how safe it would be. (I crossed diagonally several times and thoroughly enjoyed it.) Perhaps one reason for the lack of people in the diagonal crossing is that the markings PBOT has laid down are very sparse. Instead of the bold “zebra” striping of some scramble signals (like this one in Tokyo), PBOT has made short elbow markings that only extend a few feet into the intersection. They suggest the diagonal to people who are looking for it, but I don’t think they make it obvious enough.
PBOT has installed a-board signs at the corners to help folks understand the new crossings:
Overall, the new signals at 11th are a welcome addition. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy at these intersections and it’s nice to take the guessing games out of the equation. That being said, even with the new signals, some people driving cars were still having trouble staying out of the intersection. Right before I packed up my camera two people nearly rammed their cars into each during a scramble phase…
All these signals (and a few others) are part of a $2.4 million project that was paid for by system development charges and urban renewal area funds.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be watching the new signal on Broadway during the morning rush. Stop and chat if you roll by. I’d love to know what you think.
For more about the scramble signal, read Elliot Njus’s piece in The Oregonian.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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