The City of Oakland recently unveiled a new pedestrian signal policy intended to streamline the implementation of more pedestrian-friendly intersections. We’ve written at length about how Oakland’s implementation of automobile-oriented traffic signals threatens its walkability. As the City has switched from pretimed to actuated signals, pedestrian circulation has often been an afterthought. In essence, new signals on key pedestrian corridors like Broadway, College Avenue, and Grand Avenue have defaulted to the “Don’t Walk” phase as opposed to the “Walk” phase unless pedestrians push the call button to cross. The result has been a number of messy intersections where pedestrians experience significant delays and largely ignore these poorly-designed signals, creating potential for conflicts and collisions.

The City’s new pedestrian signal policy, revealed at last week’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting, seeks to address these shortcomings. The policy establishes new thresholds for actuated signals to be placed on recall, a setting which automatically triggers a pedestrian phase during each cycle. As shown in the flow chart below, all actuated signals located Downtown will be placed on automatic 24 hour recall. For locations outside of Downtown, time of day recall will be provided for any pair of crosswalks that experience greater than 100 pedestrians per hour.


While the pedestrian signal policy offers a half-step forward, it has several shortcomings that suggest its impacts may be limited:

Exclusion of Key Transit Corridors – Most of Oakland’s key pedestrian corridors are also transit corridors, and in practice, transit corridors may be largely excluded from the pedestrian signal policy. AC Transit’s approach to reducing bus delays has generally come at the expense of pedestrians: instead of providing transit signal priority combined with recall (like Muni and other peer agencies), AC Transit has installed actuated signals that provide general vehicle priority. On key corridors such as Broadway and College Avenue, it has implemented short cycle lengths that eliminate an automatic pedestrian phase – a step that reduces delays for buses, but increases delays for riders walking to the bus. Placing these signals on recall is at odds with these “improvements.” Unsurprisingly, Broadway, San Pablo Avenue, and Telegraph Avenue are excluded from the requirements of the pedestrian signal policy.

Conservative Thresholds – Even with the pedestrian signal policy, many Oakland intersections with variable or moderately high pedestrian volumes will remain unchanged. The policy also does not mandate recall for intersections where adequate time already exists for pedestrians to cross the street regardless of volume, including several minor street crossings on International, Grand, Telegraph, and other corridors. Considering the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide states that “Use of semi- or fully-actuated signal operations should mainly be restricted to suburban arterials and rural roads,” Oakland is still being incredibly generous with their implementation without recall.

Limited Staff Resources – Oakland has over 650 traffic signals, yet has no dedicated staff to upgrade signal operations. While Mayor Schaff’s proposal for a Department of Transportation (OakDOT) would remedy this issue, the Oakland City Council’s Draft Budget has reduced the Mayor’s proposed OakDOT budget by $750,000. Without the necessary staff resources to implement the policy, its impacts will be limited.

Oakland’s pedestrian signal policy is worth celebrating, but expectations should be measured: it represents a half-step forward for a City still facing considerable challenges associated with safe and enjoyable pedestrian circulation.