Crossing the street in Oakland’s Rockridge District just got a lot more difficult due to “improvements” by the City’s traffic engineers. Along College Avenue, one of Oakland’s most walkable streets, the city recently changed the configuration of several traffic signals, dramatically lengthening the amount of time it takes to lawfully cross the street. Eric Fischer, a transportation researcher and Oakland resident, was among the first to notice these changes:


As Mr. Fischer notes, it now can take as long as 2 minutes and 35 sections to cross the intersection of College, Hudson, and Manila. Prior to the new signal timing, it took less than one minute. While this intersection serves one of the most striking examples, these pedestrian-unfriendly signal changes are occurring throughout College Avenue and across Oakland.

The cause behind longer delays to pedestrians is the switch from pretimed to actuated signals. In essence, the difference relates to how pedestrians are accommodated: pretimed signals have a set cycle that always allow pedestrians to cross the street during a green light; actuated signals require pedestrians to push a button to trigger the walk phase during a green light. Actuated signals are often preferred among traffic engineers because they keep signal phases shorter – when crossing the street, it takes longer to accommodate pedestrians than cars (nearly all intersections in suburban areas are actuated). However, actuated signals can also limit walkability by inhibiting pedestrians from conveniently crossing the street: it puts the onus on pedestrians to request to cross the street, and penalizes them if they forget to push the button or arrive too late (forcing them to wait through another cycle). For this reason, pedestrian push buttons are often derided as “beg buttons” – they send a clear message that the street is oriented toward vehicles rather than people walking.

Newly installed push buttons at the intersection of Broadway and 17th Street

Newly installed push buttons at the intersection of Broadway and 17th Street

Across Oakland, pretimed signals are being converted to actuated signals due to misguided applications of traffic engineering requirements. New guidelines require cities to install accessible pedestrian signals (push buttons) as a means of providing audible feedback for visually impaired users. San Francisco has fulfilled these requirements by installing push buttons with the pedestrian phase on recall, meaning the pedestrian phase still defaults to a “Walk” signal and continues operating as before. In contrast, the result in Oakland has been a mass-conversion to actuated signals, and significantly longer wait times for pedestrians in many high-volume areas. Essentially, intersections that used to default to a “Walk” signal now default to a “Don’t Walk” signal, and pedestrians often now must wait through a full cycle before crossing.

The over-application of actuated signals in Oakland’s high-volume pedestrian areas fosters an environment of disorder and law-breaking. In the case of College Avenue, few people want to wait up to two and a half minutes to cross a street that otherwise takes 20 seconds – especially when they’re on their way to BART, the bus, or a dinner reservation. Unsurprisingly, a video posted by Mr. Fischer of the same intersection shows that most people disobey the seemingly unresponsive new signals and cross against the “Don’t Walk” sign. Widespread disobedience of traffic laws by pedestrians threatens the safety of all street users. Streets are safest when they’re organized and predictable; if a person driving isn’t expecting a someone to cross the street against a “Don’t Walk” signal, it creates the potential for conflicts, mistakes, and collisions. Bad design begets bad behavior and bad situations.

Ironically, along College Avenue, the impetus for conversion of pretimed signals to actuated signals is actually a bus improvement project for AC Transit’s Line 51A. Shorter cycle lengths may reduce delays for buses, but they consequently increase delays for bus riders and impair the accessibility of transit. Other options to increase bus speeds were available along College Avenue – such as a reconfiguration of the intersection or other improvements like bus bulb outs – but instead, pedestrians incurred most of the impact. This pedestrian-unfriendly approach for the Line 51A project is concerning given AC Transit’s bigger capital investment underway for bus rapid transit along International Boulevard, a street with very high pedestrian volumes.

It is clear that Oakland’s signal timing policy has not been thought through in relation to the City’s broader goals of encouraging walking and transit use. Oakland has a number of smart and passionate engineering staff; however, as we’ve previously discussed, the city is woefully understaffed when it comes to active transportation and complete streets; things seem to fall through the cracks. However, this may change soon: Mayor Schaff’s new budget establishes a Department of Transportation for the first time, which will hopefully allow for greater attention to these issues. The City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee is also tentatively scheduled to review signal timing policy at their May 21st meeting. We encourage anyone interested to attend this meeting and communicate your thoughts to city staff.