Pre-Holiday Crowdsourcing Project: Map NYC’s Busted Crosswalk Displays

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We’ve got a nice piece of interactive reporting you might want to contribute to on your trip home tonight or while you’re making some holiday shopping rounds. Alex Goldmark at Transportation Nation is collecting photos and locations of NYC’s crosswalk signals gone haywire — the ones that show both the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” symbols during the walk phase.

The confusing sight seems to be getting increasingly common on New York streets. WNYC reported earlier this week that staffers with Council Member Gale Brewer’s office counted 13 busted pedestrian signals in her district. That was a year ago, and my personal observation is that the mixed-message displays have been cropping up in greater numbers since then. But that’s just one person’s hunch. To help aggregate data about the extent of the problem, you can upload photos and locations of malfunctioning signals through the WNYC website, or email newstips [at] wnyc [dot] org.

Photo: WNYC
Photo: WNYC
  • Been happening for a long time. I got a second of NYTimes glory on this two years ago, and the problem was ubiquitous even then.

  • LOLcat

    This problem is EVERYWHERE. Clearly the signs are defective. My impression was that this is more common in cold weather but that is completely anecdotal. The company that produced them needs to fix them at no cost to the taxpayer or be sued by the city. How long before a pedestrian sues the city because they crossed when both images were lit up?

    Who wants to take bets of the manufacturer knows someone high up in city government?

  • Driver

    The city claims these signals are nearing their expected lifespan of something like 7 years. I believe they are due for replacement. Absolutely scandalous.

  • Joe R.

    “Who wants to take bets of the manufacturer knows someone high up in city government?”

    A couple of years ago I was involved in a project to replace the fluorescent lights on those taxicab advertising displays with LEDs. We ( me and a person involved in the taxicab industry for many years ) produced several decent designs. In the end, what was chosen, at least based on my evaluation of it, was cheap garbage. And I heard the company which made it was the same one which had made the LED traffic signals in NYC. There are ways to make a product lower cost without sacrificing service life, no arguing that. The problem is often when you’re going for those last few cents. Do I chintze on a capacitor here, or a transistor there, taking a chance it might not last to save a nickel? Do I buy LEDs made from an untested source in China instead of a company with an established reputation ( I’ve personally done tests where some cheap Chinese LEDs fade to half brightness in weeks, compared to quality ones which may go 60,000 hours until they reach 70% of initial brightness )? Do I take the time to actually test my product under real world conditions in order to make sure it will last in the field? I can’t say what was or wasn’t done with regards to the LED traffic signals. I can only say that I wasn’t exactly impressed with the product which the same company had made for the taxicab industry.

    The problems I personally see with the LED pedestrian signals are two-fold. In some cases, it appears some of the LEDs may have failed. This is obvious when part of a display is out but the rest is working normally. In the case of both the walk/don’t walk signals being on simultaneously, this is likely problems with the controller. I know the city is in the process of replacing its many older mechanical traffic light controllers with more reliable electronic ones. Right now the mechanical relays may fail to move in colder weather, leaving both signal aspects on. Also, LED draws about 1/10th the current of incandescent. A relay which might be bridged partially by dirt may still pass enough current when “off” to light an LED signal, but not an incandescent one. In any case, the LED signal itself is not to blame if this happens.

  • Joe R.

    Oh, regarding the seven year lifespan, to me that seems kind of low for LED. A well-designed LED system will last perhaps 50,000 hours. There’s some data suggesting that underdriving LEDs can increase lifespans to in excess of 300,000 hours. The downside with underdriving is you need more LEDs for any given output. In any case, let’s go with 50,000 hours. If the signal is on 50% of the time, then that’s 4380 hours a year. With a 50,000 hour lifespan, you should get a life of around 11 or 12 years. It’s also important to note that in the case of LEDs, lifespan is typically taken as the point where the LED fades to 70% of initial brightness. LEDs really don’t die completely like other light sources ( unless abused ). Rather, they just steadily fade. Higher currents ( overdriving ) make them fade faster. The opposite is true of lower currents. The relationship is exponential. Doubling LED current may cut lifespan by a factor of ten, rather than a factor of two.

  • Kristen

    I admit when I first saw these that I felt kind of philosophical about it — like they were telling me “well, you CAN walk, but there are lots of crazy-ass drivers in this city, so be extra careful.”

    These are the definition of lawsuit waiting to happen.

  • Driver

    “A Department of Transportation spokesman said the problem “occasionally” arises when the picture-showing signals, which were unveiled in 2003, “reach the end of their expected seven-year life cycle.”


  • They’re also all over the Upper East Side.

  • I haven’t been keeping count but there seems to be broken lights all over the Village/Soho area too.

    Quite honestly I don’t understand why they replaced the Walk/Don’t Walk signs that were around since something like the 60s and obviously lasted more than seven years. Even if non-english reading pedestrians and drivers can’t decipher two simple words they still should be able to understand the colors.

  • J. Mork

    According to (which I don’t consider to be a very reliable source) NYC installed LED traffic lights at 11,600 intersections, saving $6,000,000 a year [in electricity], with a payback period of 4.7 years.

    So, we are saving money and energy. One wishes they would last longer, although this would still appear to be a worthwhile replacement by that measure.

  • Driver

    Interesting info J. Mork, thanks.

  • Joe R.

    The LED traffic lights enabled the city to have battey backup powering the traffic lights for several hours in the event of power failures. That just wasn’t possible with the incandescent traffic lights. BTW, this energy saving aspect of LED is just a bonus. LED was primarily used to save on maintenance. Incandescent traffic lights last about 2 years. Well-designed LED could last 12 or 15 or even 20. Even saving just one light-bulb change pays for the LED retrofit. Any advantages beyond that are just a plus.

  • “Council Member Gale Brewer’s office counted 13 busted pedestrian signals in her district. ”

    Ha! I just added three photos to the database that I took with my iphone while I was out for my run around Washington Square – two of them on the same corner.

  • Stacy – ha! I was probably looking at the same corner as you with 2/3 signals busted (Fifth Ave. at WSP N) – thinking about this problem while singing carols in the park…

  • Hey Ian, I must’ve missed one of the broken signals at Fifth Ave and Washington Square North since I only noticed the one on the northwest corner. I was actually referring to the two broken signals at LaGuardia Place and Bleecker Street!

  • Further explanation: I cheated a bit. I counted two lights on my route back home as I was cooling down from my run around WSP. But having two broken signals at Bleecker and LaGuardia is particularly bad since we have a fair number of seniors dodging tour busses at that intersection trying to get to the supermarket.


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