Light Duty! City Tries New Way to Calm Drivers at Signal-less Crossings

Here's the system in action at Hoyt and President streets in Brooklyn. Photo: DOT
Here's the system in action at Hoyt and President streets in Brooklyn. Photo: DOT

The city has unveiled a new approach to getting drivers to slow down for kids: flashing lights to get their attention.

In an unheralded announcement on Friday morning, the Department of Transportation said it would install rapid-fire strobes at eight intersections near schools — lights that would be triggered by the pedestrians.

The DOT showed off the lights in a tweet from the corner of Hoyt and President streets in Brooklyn. That intersection — at a public school! — has neither a traffic signal nor a stop sign. It is frequently the site of speeding.

Here’s what the same intersection looked like before the installation of the so-called Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons:

Hoyt and President Street
Photo: Google

In a subsequent tweet, the DOT suggested that pedestrians bear some onus for their own safety:

“Pilot features flashing lights to increase pedestrian visibility at crosswalks that don’t have traffic signals or stop signs,” the tweet said. “Pedestrians: Press the button to activate flashing lights. Before you cross, make sure all vehicles have stopped. Only go after the lights are flashing.”

Here's how the system works. Photo: DOT
Here’s how the system works. Photo: DOT

The agency also reminded drivers, truckers, cyclists and motorcyclists, “Always yield to pedestrians, it’s the law. Pay attention to the road and don’t be distracted. Obey the speed limit so you don’t need to make a dangerous stop.”

The DOT did not respond to an initial email from Streetsblog to determine the locations of the seven other schools where the flashing systems have been installed. When the agency responds, we will update this story.

  • r

    Think about how all of this stuff pollutes the visual environment. Who wants to live with blinking strobe lights outside their home? All because we can’t dare change road space or actually build stuff that would do the trick better than lights and signs.

  • Joe R.

    I’d rather see more of this stuff, including having pedestrian/vehicle sensors triggering traffic signals, than existing “solutions”. The strobes don’t seem bright enough to be overly intrusive. The concept here is asking drivers to slow down/stop only when necessary for safety, and not all the time like stop signs or dumb timed traffic lights make them. This makes compliance a lot more likely.

    Nothing is preventing strobes from being using in conjunction with other traffic-calming measures like narrowing streets or making one-way streets bidirectional or using roundabouts. The fact is the existing ideas used by NYC up to this point largely haven’t been effective. That includes speed humps, which actually make things worse for cyclists when they’re not maintained. It’s nice to see DOT experimenting. I’d love to see a lot of 4-way stops replaced with strobes and yield signs. And I want all traffic signals in this city to eventually be sensor activated so they only go red while something is crossing.

  • AnoNYC

    Hopefully the button works. The ones for the traffic lights never seem to.

  • They have something similar to these in Denver.

  • AMH

    I’m actually impressed that DOT at least reminded drivers of their obligation (even if they did lead by telling pedestrians to wait for vehicles).

  • Scroller

    A beg button my another name is still a beg button. Not surprised De Blasios DOT came up with this car centric “solution”. The same mayor who had his DOT install beg buttons to cross the street in front of Penn Station, where pedestrians should always be given priority.

    Can we not put censors in the ground to detect weight like we have for cars at intersections? Asking people to carry the burden to protect themselves for dangerous drivers is not a solution.

  • The flashing lights should be red.

  • Joe R.

    Hopefully once these prove effective a more permanent installation will have pedestrian sensors. With today’s technology there’s no need for beg buttons.

  • Walking NPR

    They have these in Denver and they’re worse than useless. Like other “solutions” that are too scared to inconvenience drivers too much (sharrows, anyone?), they just confuse everyone. Real. Infrastructure. Changes. people. It’s actually better for everyone.

  • sbauman

    There are very reliable and inexpensive people motion sensors that should be used to actuate these lights. They are used by security systems, saving electricity by turning on lights when a person enters an area, etc.

  • Frank Kotter

    Or, we could save us the torture of reinventing the wheel and just do what is proven to work:

    We build freeway bridges and ramps for 3x the capacity which never comes but we somehow can’t build a single city intersection ‘right the first time’.

  • This would be a better solution long term. Keep the lights if they want, but narrowing the roadway is the true remedy.

  • I used one of these in Miami and the cars didn’t stop at all, I had to jump back out of the way. It was a wide three lane thoroughfare, but still, didn’t instill any confidence in crossing the road.

  • HamTech87

    I love speed humps. They are the only thing that is effective on shared streets to slow cars down. Although with the increase in acceleration speeds in recent car models — Tesla, even Volvo’s new electric’s — distantly space humps are not as effective as they used to be.

  • BruceWillisThrowsACar@You

    And if they would allocate the fucking funds — build raised crosswalks along with actual curb extensions.

  • MB

    I was thinking about this the other day — the visual pollution. Looking at a photo of my apartment building from the 40s after the city released all of those old tax photos, I was struck by how serene and uncluttered everything looked. It wasn’t just the architecture, with its original windows and doors, basement windows not bricked over, no weird building appendage add-ons, but the streets were largely free of parked cars, there were no streetlights or stops signs or utility poles. Instead, there were trees, often just a few feet from the corner, which I suspect would be illegal now because of driver sight lines. Of course, I don’t expect to revert to the 1940s but it makes you wonder how much clutter is necessary and what sort of impact that has on a resident’s mental health. And also how nice everything would be with no cars.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    This is a great point. But I’m sure some roadways in old photos will appear far wider than they should be. Free-for-all traffic circles etc.

  • Jeff

    Yeah but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in the days before everything but the sidewalk became the exclusive domain of the automobile. These wide, open, uncontrolled spaces were more or less public squares where the automobile was invited as a guest amongst other types of users (pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, etc.). It’s kind of like wide avenues: As originally intended they were a luxurious, spacious, light-filled antidote to the crowded, narrow streets of yore, and only became speedways when they were repurposed for cars.

  • Mike

    +1 for raised crosswalks. They have these all over Amsterdam and Zurich. I had never seen them before but they made a huge difference in calming traffic. Basically the urban equivalent of the speed bump you see on suburban neighborhood streets.

  • Mike

    These lights will make absolutely no fucking difference. Drivers will just ignore them.

  • Mike

    Ideally make them red and blue like the lights on a cop car. They started installing speed warning poles in the area where my parents live in another state and if you go above a certain speed red and blue lights flash on the pole. From what I’ve observed when visiting it makes a HUGE difference in getting people to slow down and pay attention. No one wants to risk the possibility there is actually a cop there so they always slow down.

  • Mike

    Cool video the New Yorker posted last year comparing various areas around the city in 1937 and 2017. I’d say that actually the on the whole the city looks greener now than it did then. The other major difference is now damn sidewalk sheds anywhere. Though, in Manhattan at least, the on street parking looks pretty much the same. You’re right about the free-for-all traffic though. Streets just have no lane markers. Even two way streets! People are just driving all over the place. It’s crazy.

  • Mike

    If you look at a lot of the traffic fatalities recently though they’re not people getting hit and killed in the straightaways, it’s people turning from one street onto another blindly, without looking. In these instances it doesn’t matter if you’re driving a Tesla with insane mode or a slow pickup truck. Raised crosswalks cause any kind of vehicle to have to slow down.

  • Fool

    The amount of drivers on this city who do not yield at unsignalled crosswalks is appalling

  • Liam Stobert

    Yeah, and how about, I don’t know, a freaking traffic light? Red, yellow, and green? If you feel the need to install a beg button at least make it actually stop traffic.

    The US is the only country that feels the need to reinvent the wheel with these things. RRFBs; Please Don’t Hit Me flags; and the HAWK beacon, whose unabbreviated name is so stupid I refuse to write it. It’s completely inane.

    Cars in the US just do not stop unless they legitimately fear enforcement

  • Jason

    Setting aside the issue of drivers ignoring these lights (which I suspect you’re right about) for a moment, I’d like to know how visible the lights are when it’s sunny out. One problem I’ve seen with implementations where the flashing yellows lights are embedded in the pavement is that the flashing lights are basically invisible during the daytime.

  • Jason

    HAWK beacons really are so fucking terrible. Particularly when the lights are embedded in the pavement, they’re typically basically invisible during the daytime. And the flashing lights are often separated from the signage, further obfuscating what the hell the lights are supposed to be signaling.

    And then to top it all off, since they’re not really standard I think a lot of people don’t even realize what they’re seeing. I know that personally, it often takes me a couple of beats to process what I’m seeing when I see one while driving and I know what they are. Combine this with the fact that they’re placed where drivers often are going 35 mph and you just create a completely unrealistic situation (drivers going 35 mph being able to stop on a dime for confusing signage/lighting).

  • Jason

    Thankfully it looks like there isn’t room here for a motorist behind the lead car to try to swerve around, but one problem with these sorts of situations is that pretty much invariably, motorists behind the lead car will reflexively assume that the driver ahead of them is a dummy stopping for no reason (because the lead car is blocking their view of the crosswalk, and the pedestrians using it) and try to swerve around the lead car, placing the people in the crosswalk at risk.

  • Jason

    The acceleration you’re describing is an inherent aspect of electric cars. Unlike a traditional ICE, electric motors have all of the their torque available immediately, there’s no rev-up period. Different electric cars will still have electric motors with different amounts of overall torque, so 0-60 times will still vary, but in city conditions (?30 mph) they’re all going to be extremely snappy.

  • Joe R.

    Some hybrid of the two probably makes the most sense nowadays. We can acknowledge that being able to get around a city fairly rapidly is important for commerce and also for recreation. However, we can design so only those forms of transportation which are the best fit for urban areas get the most priority.

    As an example, take one of the multilane Manhattan avenues. The “fast” lanes might be:

    1) Bus lane which doubles as delivery truck lane at night, or during off peak times.

    2) Bike lane which can double as an emergency traffic lane when needed

    Everything else is shared space. No need to for separate sidewalks. Private autos would be guests in the shared space, and would need to drive appropriately. They could stop briefly to discharge or pick up passengers, but not to park. Delivery vehicles could use the shared space to park, but not during peak hours.

    Basically, people crossing the street would only need to deal with two lanes of traffic, both of which are likely to be fairly intermittent. No traffic signals needed. Private autos won’t be able to get around quickly, or to park on main thoroughfares, so their use would be discouraged. Once private autos are mostly out of the picture, most of the turning movements which endanger pedestrians will be gone as well.

  • Joe R.

    One answer to that is to use GPS to detune the acceleration of all cars, not just electrics, to something like 2 mph/sec when driving on urban streets. That in turn will prevent of lot of the idiotic maneuvers where motorists try to squirt into every gap just to gain one or two places.


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