Friday, May 31, 2013

Chicago's Pedestrian Scramble

Today was the first day people could legally cross a busy downtown Chicago intersection diagonally. At the intersection of State and Jackson Chicago has introduced a test pedestrian scramble that will allow pedestrians to cross the intersection in six ways, the cardinal four and the two diagonals. 

The pedestrian scramble is intended to reduce conflicts between turning vehicles and pedestrians by letting pedestrians get a head start as well as their own time on the road. For 35 seconds of every third light cycle pedestrians can cross in all directions. The experiment will run for several months to collect data and feedback before deciding if the scramble will become permanent and, perhaps, spread to other intersections in the city. 

Also known as a Barnes Dance, the pedestrian scramble enjoyed some popularity in the 1950s and 60s here in the U.S. with scrambles implemented in Denver, New York City and Kansas City and are currently present in cities in Japan, the UK, Australia and Canada. In the 1970s and 80s, however, many of these signals were removed on the basis of improving traffic flow and reducing automobile congestion. It’s been a slow process, but a general revival of the pedestrian scramble is spreading once more. Washington DC is back on board, Oakland has tested the scramble and there have been a few others popping up in Canada. The pedestrian scramble is certainly not a unanimously supported mechanism, but it is an experiment in process the last few years. 

The pedestrian scramble is specifically significant for Chicago, as it is one of the first expressions of the Chicago Plan that debuted this year. The Complete Streets Design Guidelines states that “[t]o create complete streets, CDOT has adopted a pedestrian-first modal hierarchy. All transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles” in that order (5). Pedestrians get the top priority in street planning, as they should, because trips made by every mode will have a pedestrian component at some point. Even if you are driving, you still need to walk from parking to your destination. With this in mind, we can reevaluate the primary reason for getting rid of pedestrian scrambles the first time around was that they didn’t fit the auto-oriented goals of traffic engineers of the time.  Knowing that the pedestrian is the new alpha dog in Chicago, the scramble should absolutely return to cities as a traffic operations option. 

I like the scramble for downtown Chicago and this intersection in particular because of the goals of the city and the characteristics of the local area. The intersection at Jackson and State averages over 41,000 pedestrians and 20,000 vehicles on a typical weekday (Jon Hilkevitch). An intersection of this type should absolutely explore options that favor pedestrian travel over other modes since its a high traffic intersection with twice the number of pedestrians as cars. From my time living in Chicago, I know there are constant conflicts between cars (especially taxis) trying to turn and pedestrians at these intersections. If Chicago wants to reach its goal of reducing pedestrian collisions by 50% then this is a conflict that needs to be addressed throughout downtown. The scramble can be a high-profile way to fix this while advertising the new priority that pedestrians have in Chicago planning. This can be both policy and messaging, rhetoric and action. 

I’m glad Chicago is rolling this out as pilot project. There is data to be gathered and residents to educate, but I hope the city continues with the pedestrian scramble. Like many non-mainstream mechanisms, there is a significant need to be clear and forward with their implementation and enforcement. Interviews of pedestrians downtown conducted by the local news stations show both an excitement for the pedestrian scramble and a bit of general confusion over operation and effect. There will be similar confusion and a bit more frustration from downtown drivers, and the city will need to be ready to provide information, respond to feedback and keep Chicagoans invested. As an early step in promoting pedestrian-first streets, the scramble is a viable option that can be built upon in the city’s consistent and firm pursuance of a new modal hierarchy for Chicago streets. 



  1. This is a really fascinating way of imposing pedestrian infrastructure; thank you so much for bringing it to our attention. I wonder if any data is available from the 1950's, from which transportation planners and engineers could model the potential effects of this new system. I also appreciate that they are taking a clear policy stance on this by making it very clear that pedestrians will come first in future transportation planning. It will be interesting to follow the results of this experiment, and I hope Portland will be bold enough to experiment with something as pedestrian-oriented as this.

  2. This is interesting. I used to live in Chicago and walking downtown can be insane, especially in that intersection. It makes me wish it was there when I lived there. I wonder how much time passes between three lights and how many people it will reach at that interval. People are always in a huge hurry in Chicago, so I can't see people waiting that long just to cross diagonally. On Michigan Avenue, they have traffic safety officials act as crossing guards when the signal turns to "walk". That seems to me to be the most effective, but it means that there is extra personnel to pay.


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