Cities Revive an Old Idea to Become More Pedestrian-Friendly

“Pedestrian scrambles” surged in popularity half a century ago. Some places are bringing them back.
by | June 23, 2017
A "pedestrian scramble" in Washington, D.C.
In a "pedestrian scramble," vehicle traffic is stopped and pedestrians can cross the street in any direction. (David Kidd)

You're on a busy street corner and you need to get to a destination that's diagonally across the intersection. You know what you need to do: Wait for the signal, cross one street, wait for the signal to change, and then cross the other street.

But does that make sense in a place where the number of pedestrians outnumber the number of vehicles? City officials in Washington, D.C., don’t think so.

That’s why the District recently reconfigured an intersection to give pedestrians a chance to cross whichever streets they’d like -- even diagonally. The traffic signal cycle at the intersection now includes a period in which all vehicle traffic is stopped and pedestrians can cross in any direction without worrying about getting hit by a car or truck. The catch is that the walkers then must stop the rest of the time, to let vehicles turn more quickly.

This type of intersection, which is actually the second to be implemented in the District in recent years, has been around for decades. It's known as a “pedestrian scramble” or a “Barnes dance,” in honor of the transportation director, Henry Barnes, who championed the design in the mid-20th century.

Now, local officials in D.C. and elsewhere -- including Nashville, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. -- are taking a new look at this old idea as a way to potentially reduce pedestrian deaths and injuries.

Even though they’re new to D.C., pedestrian scrambles have been used in several U.S. cities. Barnes, who served as a transportation commissioner in Baltimore, Denver and New York City, promoted their use in those cities from the 1940s through the 1960s. But the traffic arrangement slowly lost favor, as engineers focused on making intersections more efficient for moving vehicles.

In D.C., transportation planners will study the new intersections to determine whether the design would make sense in other places across the city.

“We get lots of requests for pedestrian scrambles [but] we haven’t had good enough performance information to know whether it’s something we should be more aggressively pursuing or not. That will come from this,” says Sam Zimbabwe, the chief project delivery officer for the District’s transportation department.

Pedestrian scrambles aren't just more convenient for pedestrians. They're also safer, advocates say, because they help reduce accidents in which cars or buses turn through crosswalks and hit pedestrians.

There are two key components that Washington officials considered when selecting intersections so far.

First, it must be an intersection that's used heavily by pedestrians. At the city's newest Barnes dance location, twice as many pedestrians as vehicles use the intersection.

Second, the intersection itself needs to be relatively small. If it's too large, with lots of traffic lanes, allowing pedestrians to cross diagonally would take too long. That's not just a matter of driver inconvenience: Frustrated drivers are more likely to drive aggressively or break the rules, which would make the intersection more dangerous.

Before D.C. debuted its newest intersection, the city sent out traffic control officers to inform people about the coming changes. Transportation officials handed out brochures in English and Spanish, and shared information with local businesses.

While the pedestrian scramble may seem complicated at first, Zimbabwe says it will make things simpler and safer. The whole idea is to eliminate the conflicts between drivers and pedestrians.

“If you do have a conflict,” he says, “you’re doing something wrong.”