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Keven Moore: The pedestrian scramble — be sure to look both ways before crossing with the crowd

Last fall, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, in partnership with the University of Kentucky’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, announced the implementation of Lexington’s first all-way pedestrian crosswalk, also known as a “pedestrian scramble” at the intersection of Prall Street and South Limestone.

When I first read about this pedestrian scramble down on campus, I first saw visions of stampeding college students darting out into traffic. Then I saw some new-age real-life board game in which college kids compete in some virtual game of word scramble. The students participate as teams and are required to cross the street in a free-for-all to obtain letters to spell out unheard of words in some kind of new-age word game.

But that is not the case. Instead, pedestrian scramble crosswalks are a type of traffic-signal movement that temporarily stops all vehicular traffic in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction, including diagonally, all at the same time.

They are also known as scramble intersection and scramble corner (Canada), ‘X’ Crossing (England), diagonal crossing (U.S.), exclusive pedestrian interval, or Barnes Dance crosswalks, named after Henry Barnes, a public official who worked as a street commissioner in a number of American cities during the mid-20th century.

If you find yourself on your typical busy street corner and you need to get to a destination that’s diagonally across the intersection, then you would have to wait for the signal, cross one street, wait for another signal to change, and then cross the other street.

Japan’s largest and most famous diagonal crossing is found in Tokyo outside of Shibuya station, where 3,000 pedestrians can cross in one scramble.

Being the impatient type of personality that hates to waste time, I view the X crossing as a nice little time saver, but as a safety and risk management consultant I can say that if you can avoid crossing one less busy intersection, it reduces your risk for a pedestrian accident.

Today, pedestrian scramble crosswalks can be found all around the world and they were first introduced in Vancouver, Canada. Here in the U.S., Kansas City was one of the first cities that used a pedestrian scramble system in the 1940s.

They are very common in Europe, and in Japan, they have more than 300 such intersections exist. Japan’s largest and most famous diagonal crossing is found in Tokyo outside of Shibuya station, where 3,000 pedestrians can cross in one scramble. It has become a symbol of Tokyo and Japan as a whole.

Early on cities such as Washington, D.C., Denver and New York all have experimented with them, but they later fell out of favor with traffic engineers, as it was seen as prioritizing the flow of pedestrians overflow of car traffic.

Denver formerly used the pedestrian scramble system at nearly every intersection in the downtown business district. The practice was eliminated in April 2011, in order to “balance” resources allotted to pedestrians, vehicles, and mass transit. Exclusive pedestrian intervals were kept, but the diagonal crossing was made illegal.

Its benefits for pedestrian amenity and safety have led to a resurgence and once again as many U.S. cities are experimenting with them. Atlanta nearly has a half a dozen scramble crosswalks today and Portland and Chicago just recently installed one. Even New York is starting to consider using them again.

In Washington, D.C., the diagonal crossing existed at several downtown intersections until the mid-1980s. It was tried again on an experimental basis at 7th and H streets Northwest in the Chinatown neighborhood beginning May 2010, and a second one was added in 2017.

Los Angeles set up their first pedestrian scramble at one of its most dangerous intersections, Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and immediately saw its pedestrian crashes drop from an average of 13 per year between 2009 and 2013 to one during the crossing’s first six months in operation between November 2015 and May 2016.

In some cases, pedestrian scrambles are implemented only temporarily, during times when extremely high pedestrian traffic is expected. A notable example of this occurs on home-game Saturdays at the intersection of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is immediately adjacent to Michigan Stadium. Local police take control of the vehicular signals and indicate the pedestrian phase by playing Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors.”

Scrambles aren’t the solution for every intersection, of course. They work best at intersections where pedestrian traffic is the heaviest and pedestrians have a place to stand in large numbers, especially in areas where walkers outnumber motorists and they allow people safer options for crossing busy intersections.
Not surprisingly, pedestrians loved these pedestrian scrambles because they allowed them to cross the street without having to worry about what motorists were doing and allowed them to cross diagonally instead of standing through two different traffic cycles to get to a destination.

Research at Transport for London has suggested the installation of a diagonal crossing can reduce pedestrian casualties by 38 percent. Pedestrian deaths rose by 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, while other types of traffic deaths dropped by 14 percent. As a result, pedestrian deaths make up a growing proportion of overall motor vehicle fatalities.

U.S. pedestrian deaths totaled nearly 6,000 in 2017 for the second straight year amid mounting signs that walkers and drivers are dangerously distracted according to all the studies. Although reasons for the recent rise have not been scientifically determined, experts suspect that smartphones and increased marijuana use could be the key factors in the deadly trend. The reported numbers of smartphones in active use in the U.S. increased by 236 percent from 2010 to 2016, as has the number of cell-phones related emergency room visits, according to the study.

Despite the need to increase pedestrian safety, drivers and many traffic engineers still view these pedestrian scrambles as time-wasters and congestion-enhancers. The truth is, a full traffic cycle devoted to pedestrians means that drivers are sitting still and not even allowed to make turns and to keep traffic flowing which leads to more congestion.

Regardless, as cities work toward creating more pedestrian-friendly cities and try to become more innovative, it is still going to be difficult to come up with an answer that will completely satisfy everyone.

So I will still wait for my George Jetson world, where I can summons a fly car that is sync with some overhead autonomous traffic control system that allows me to shave or read the news on my way to work.

Until then, be sure to look both ways and then look both ways again.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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