The Portland Bureau of Transportation just flipped the switch on new traffic signals at Northwest Couch and Broadway, 10th and 11th Avenues. The signals on Broadway are on a major bike route where they were first flagged as necessary four years ago. At the intersection of Couch and 11th, PBOT has installed Portland’s first ever “pedestrian scramble signal.”
NW Couch and Broadway (photos below) has been a safety concern for PBOT for many years now. Prior to 2012 this intersection only had stop signs on Couch (in the east-west direction). With Burnside just one block to the south, traffic frequently backed up and trying to cross Broadway was often a risky gamble. In February 2012, then City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield told us the agency was concerned about the intersection because it had a high crash rate. Between 2007 and 2012 PBOT had 103 collision recorded at Couch and Broadway — seven of which involved someone on a bicycle.
By the end of March 2012, PBOT had installed stop signs as interim measure. They wanted signals but claimed funding simply wasn’t available. At the time, many people — including members of PBOT’s own Bicycle Advisory Committee — felt the interim solution wasn’t enough. Given how the intersection has functioned since then, they were right.
A reader whose office faces the intersection of Couch and Broadway emailed us this morning elated that the new signals were finally turned on. “This is a dangerous intersection,” he wrote, “and I see near daily accidents and other terrible things.”
When I observed things today all appeared relatively calm. The new signals give priority to Broadway (north-south) traffic which gets a significantly longer green cycle than Couch traffic (about 50 seconds of green versus about 30 seconds of green respectively). With just stop signs the wait at this intersection was never more than a few seconds. If you get the green, you’re in business; but as is often the case with new signals, what you gain in safety and predictability, you might lose in efficiency if you get caught at a red. I’d say it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
Head west from Broadway and you’ll notice two more new signals on Couch at 10th and 11th. This area, near Powell’s and the “Brewery Blocks,” is always busy. People on bikes, in cars, in streetcars, and on foot via the sidewalks exist in an often chaotic state as they all vye for space on relatively narrow streets.
At 11th, PBOT has installed Portland’s first-ever “pedestrian scramble signal” (wikipedia entry here). What that means is there’s one phase of the new signal where all cross traffic is stopped and people who are walking can cross in any direction — including my favorite, diagonally.
While I observed the intersection no one used the diagonal crossing. They were either unaware of it or unsure of how safe it would be. (I crossed diagonally several times and thoroughly enjoyed it.) Perhaps one reason for the lack of people in the diagonal crossing is that the markings PBOT has laid down are very sparse. Instead of the bold “zebra” striping of some scramble signals (like this one in Tokyo), PBOT has made short elbow markings that only extend a few feet into the intersection. They suggest the diagonal to people who are looking for it, but I don’t think they make it obvious enough.
PBOT has installed a-board signs at the corners to help folks understand the new crossings:
Overall, the new signals at 11th are a welcome addition. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy at these intersections and it’s nice to take the guessing games out of the equation. That being said, even with the new signals, some people driving cars were still having trouble staying out of the intersection. Right before I packed up my camera two people nearly rammed their cars into each during a scramble phase…
All these signals (and a few others) are part of a $2.4 million project that was paid for by system development charges and urban renewal area funds.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be watching the new signal on Broadway during the morning rush. Stop and chat if you roll by. I’d love to know what you think.
For more about the scramble signal, read Elliot Njus’s piece in The Oregonian.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
As usual, it takes time for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists to figure out new traffic signals and patterns. Pedestrians will have to figure out the north side only and east side only phases, in addition to the scramble phase. Drivers and cyclists ditto.
These scramble phases are used elsewhere, downtown SF and NYC for example. They work well, after a while.
It’s no big deal. They are used all over the world. Denver had them for some time until the Car Cabal got rid of them.
I’ve recently noted a marked increase in motorists illegally blocking intersections when they get caught during a signal change; most of them are oblivious or dismissive when you point out their error and discourteous behavior to them.
Realistically..what are they supposed to do once in the intersection? Back up?
How about not entering the intersection in the first place?
It’s illegal to enter an intersection unless you can fully clear it; among other things it’s to prevent gridlock and allow the flow of cross traffic when the cross traffic has the right of way. ORS 511.550(5).
You shouldn’t enter the intersection unless you can clear it, even if you have a green light.
From the Oregon Driver Manual: “Before you start through an intersection, crosswalk, or railroad grade crossing, be sure there is room on the other side for your vehicle. Even if you have a green light, do not start across an intersection if it causes your vehicle to stop in the intersection and block other traffic or a pedestrian crosswalk.”
NYC has steep fines for blocking an intersection, with prominent warning signs. I don’t often see drivers doing it there.
Don’t block the box!
In addition to that, I would add that NYC also has the unique advantage (at least in the US) of having a de facto ban on right turns on red. As a result, there’s really no reason to be encroaching on the crosswalk or the edge of the intersection. Unfortunately that is not the case in most other places in the US.
Sometimes non-turning motorists go way past the stop line and/or crosswalk at a red due to bad driving or lack of attention/care. But oftentimes, I see this happening from motorists waiting to make a right turn on red. In these cases, blocking the crosswalk is intentional as people want to be as close to the intersection as possible to see oncoming cars, etc. For people biking or walking, this is probably one of the worst decisions made, and arguably a very dangerous one. And as if impatience wasn’t already widespread enough, this just makes motorists even more so.
What do you mean by “de facto ban”? Do you mean there are signed prohibitions at every intersection, or that traffic is so dense that there is no practical way to make a right on red?
Right turns on red are banned in NYC unless there is a sign explicitly allowing it. .
I see every kind of traffic violation imaginable when I bike around NYC. It’s part of the charm, I guess.
Count yourself lucky if they are just oblivious or dismissive. Self-righteous road rage is also possible.
When you point out stranger’s errors and discourteous behavior in other areas of your life, do you get a more positive response?
Bikes should be able (and encouraged) to use the scramble phase (carefully, yielding to pedestrians of course.) Does the Portland sidewalk biking ordinance 16.70.320 apply to crosswalks?
Looks like your picture got someone turning left on red (as allowed onto a one-way) and I’m not sure what the driver of the hatchback was thinking. I’ll guess the simultaneous green isn’t going to be a good fit with turns on red.
Who thought “scramble” was a good name for pedestrians trying to cross an intersection without getting scrambled? Seems very windshield POV.
It appears the scene in the photo can be described as this: the person walking their bike towards Powell’s crossed during a stop signal as the person in the SUV was in the process of turning onto 11th which blocked the lane of the person in the hatchback going straight. In this description the people in the cars had green lights before entering the intersection. Maybe. All is forgiven?
Cyclists on the road should be required to obey the car signals. If you get off your bike and walk it, then by all means take advantage of the pedestrian scramble.
Cyclists enjoy the full legal protection of a crosswalk if they are traveling at or below walking speed.
I’m not convinced there’s a problem for bikes to cross at the same time as pedestrians. Maybe only with a lot of diagonal traffic. Or, with a lot of joggers? With turns on red, almost half of the traffic can be in the intersection anyway.
honestly not flaming, but herein is the most succinct reason why roadways are dangerous for all: as people in cars, on bikes, and on foot, we largely know the rules (here eloquently framed in the 2 posts above) yet we decide to do whatever we decide is “ok” Almost none of us ever think our action is negligent…and almost none of us wish ill will to anyone else, but we have a track record of NEVER being in an accident…and so we feel empowered to make the rules as we go along…until there is an accident, and then we are just really sorry, and didn’t see the other person…or realize that we were causing them stress…
One of the best things about riding a bike in an urban area is that we are free to choose whether we want to bike like a pedestrian, like a cyclist, or even, rarely, like a “vehicularist”.
Bikes stop for red lights in significant numbers anyhow?
Bikes stop in significant numbers at red lights anyhow?
Seems like “no turn on red” would be helpful for the scramble intersection in particular, but that doesn’t appear to be the case?
Agreed, it seems no turn on red would be essential, given the several directions pedestrians could come from on any walk signal.
I’m surprised it isn’t already not turn on red.
Unless I’m mistaken Portland has only installed no turn on red signs at intersections downtown where the turning movement will conflict with rail or bikes lanes.
Hmmm…is it really Portland’s “first ever” intersection with a ped scramble / ‘Barnes Dance’?
I would think that Portland had them back when Vancouver (WA) had them in the downtown retail zone during/ after the war boom years. I know Vancouver had one at Main Street and Evergreen Blvd (old Evergreen Highway).
When I was on the east coast, intersections had dedicated pedestrian phases where traffic in all directions was stopped, and pedestrians crossed in whichever direction they chose. I never gave it much thought after I moved to the west coast, but I guess I never really saw it here (intersection design and traffic flow is very different here than Boston in the `70’s/`80’s). Honestly, I’d never heard the term “pedestrian scramble” until this article! (I see pedestrians scramble every day here in California now, as we try to get across crosswalks safely while drivers race oncoming traffic around corners on red lights).
At this point…I would favor a ban on right on red at the state level. It is ridiculously dangerous.
My theory is that even a temporary (maybe two year) ban on RTOR would deprogram several generations of drivers who seem to have come to believe they don’t have to stop before crosswalks before turning – especially in California where ‘slip lanes’ are prevalent. I can’t think of any other country I’ve been to where it’s a legal practice (and I’ve rented cars in some pretty crazy places ;).
This intersection is adjacent to my office, and the signals were a much needed. I think the North/East phases are most confusing. I’ve watched a few cycles and noticed pedestrians being more confused than cars, but that will change over time I’d imagine.
I agree with Jonathans comments that more striping is needed to encourage the diagonal crossing. It’s great that their are signs on each corner to explain though, but when those are gone and there are tourists hard to see if it will be as intuitive.
Does the ped phase get shorted with the scramble? I would sort of hope so.
Apologies if that was already answered.
I drove through the intersection today. A sign alerting drivers to a traffic control change would have been an idea.
Their are at least one or two big orange signs in each approach to the Powell intersections. I saw them putting them up around noon.
Maybe I’m mistaken, but isn’t that why we have those giant illuminated colored lights above each lane? You know, the ones that turn green, yellow, red? If your light isn’t green, it’s probably not your turn to drive…
I agree and the contractor placed these signs for Traffic Signal Ahead and Traffic Control Change ahead on each approach. These were installed about a week ago in advance of the signal turn on and were there. Obviously, a busy location, so you may have missed them as you were at the intersection.
I’ve been commuting across NW Broadway and Couch for nearly 7 years. It took too long, but the new signal feels like an early xmas present!
When it was stop signs, easily 1 out of every 10 people operating a car would just blow right through.
Now if we could just fix the god-awful mess that is SE Ankeny + Sandy + 11th…
I’m going to spend half of Thanksgiving just going back and forth diagonally because I can.
“I crossed diagonally several times and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Why I read BikePortland.
Please tell me the other stop signs on Couch have been flipped. Because stopping every. block. keeps this from being an effective route.
I know; it’s ridiculous. My commute takes me west across the Burnside bridge to 11th and Stark. I tried taking Couch at 2nd, but as you’ve said, it’s frustrating. I now take the right lane on Burnside and turn at the Park Blocks to get on Couch. So far, I haven’t had any unpleasant interactions from motorists, and while the speed limit is 25, the traffic is dense enough that it usually moves more slowly than that.
I have a better idea.
Enforce crosswalk laws.
My shop is on SE 2nd & SE Madison, and I occasionally try to cross MLK at Main only a couple of blocks away, to go to Coava Coffee. I could be walking 6 feet into the curb lane and still nobody would stop. I’ve braved Grand doing the same thing, but I’m fearless. Iraq and Afghanistan will do that to a person.
I mentioned to the horde behind me also waiting to cross that there were several thousand dollars worth of traffic tickets that the police decline to collect at opportunities like this. It almost seems comical that this isn’t a priority for public safety.
At the same time, I appreciate doing something at all, and lights are better than nothing. What was that about good intentions paving the way?
The Grand / MLK couplet is terrible for walking and biking across. Even in marked crosswalks, people driving rarely stop.
And there’s no way for me to get downtown without crossing MLK.
There’s a scramble signal in West Seattle at the Junction; it’s pretty cool and everyone seems to get it, even the right turn on red people. I’m glad to see Portland has one, it makes sense for busy downtown cores to have these.
In that instance there are signs posted clearly: No Right On Red. And sometimes they don’t get it, but mostly they do – and in all honesty that includes me once – there was no conflict and I took my instinctive free right after stopping – I had embarrassment heat for a good 15 minutes after.
I think the issue is all road users have get out of their short-cut taking automatic pilot mindset at an All Ways On Walk intersection (not a fan of “scramble” implies to me the pedestrians are less than equal players in the equation) – no free right on red – no walking against the pedestrian signal when the [car] light turns green. And no dawdling if you plan to cross diagonally – it’s a long way to go before the light changes again…
They’re marked like normal crosswalks – with with a par of stripes from each corner to each other corner (and no markings diagonally) but every traffic light as a “no turn on red” sign and every cross walk signal has a sign saying “cross all ways on walk”
Just walked through the scramble while grabbing last minute TDay items at Whole Foods. The timing of the signals was totally off. Following the scramble phase (where all cars have red lights), there were alternating North/South and East/West car green light signals, BUT the corresponding pedestrian signals didn’t change. There was at least one person on each corner confused, and just about everybody said “forget this” and crossed when the coast was clear.
I walked through there yesterday, and thought a truck had hit one of the pedestrian signals and turned it to an odd angle. I only realized later that I had seen history in the making.
I went through the 11th/Couch scramble intersection yesterday afternoon. I appreciated that the pedestrian crossings were active on the cross streets when the auto light was green. Some scramble crossings only allow pedestrian movement during the pedestrian signal. As a result, I saw few pedestrians using the scramble because they were able to cross one direction with the light. I also saw cars assume they had the green when the other direction changed to red. It will be a learning experience for all. It’s also an area with a lot of tourists, so there will be problems if the learning curve is too steep.
Stopped by NW Broadway and Couch yesterday morning. Some southbound cars on Broadway were stopping for the stop sign that was no longer there (while they had a green) and people on bikes were doing what they do. On foot, I looked both ways before crossing Broadway (with the walk signal). I agree that a new “traffic control change” takes some getting used to.
I’ve visited two cities where there were “diagonal” crosswalks, Banff and Durango, CO. They’re used where there is very heavy pedestrian traffic.
I hope there are “No Turns on Red” signs at the newly configured intersections.
Also, from what I’ve seen elsewhere, the diagonal pedestrian markings could be a lot more “intuitive”.
Look at the ones in Japan. All the directions are shown with markings on the street in every one of the permissible directions. This intersection (and all added in the future) should have crosswalk markings extending all the way across. “No Turns on Red” signs should be standard practice at such crossings.
Wow, this is the first one in Portland? Guess I didn’t realize. IIRC there’s another one in Seattle, at 1st and Pike in front of the Market … and maybe another one at 5th and Pine by Westlake? Can’t remember for sure on that one. Here in South Minneapolis we have one not far from my house.
Not liking the “scramble” nomenclature, though … makes it sound dangerous or desperate, and maybe a little demeaning. Why not stick with the industry standard “Barnes dance?” It’s more poetic and maybe a little whimsical, and it honors the man who invented it.
Did they turn off the pedestrian scramble at Couch and Broadway? I went through there this morning and behaved like any other stop. Pedestrian traffic was given a walk sign across Couch when the Broadway light turned green.