Image by the author.

An intersection I frequently walk through has an odd combination of traffic signals. The result is that drivers often overlook the red light meant for them and instead follow a green light that's behind it.

Almost every day, I walk from the VRE station at L'Enfant Plaza to my office near the Federal Triangle Metro station. As part of my route, I often go along 9th Street SW and cross the eight lanes of Independence Avenue, using a crosswalk that gives pedestrians thirty seconds to cross the street.

A map of how I get to work. Base image from Google Maps. Image by the author.

Obviously, when it's time for people to walk north or south across Independence, the cars traveling east and west on Independence have to stop. But those aren't the only cars in play here. Just east of the crosswalk I use to get across Independence sits the exit from a garage at the Federal Aviation Administration building functions as 9th Street. Drivers are allowed to turn left onto Independence from 9th, and once they do, there's a green arrow telling them they can complete what is essentially a U-turn onto an I-395 on-ramp that sits just west of the crosswalk.

Streetview of the intersection facing west on Independence Avenue. You can see where some cars are turning out of the FAA garage and onto the ramp to 395 with pedestrians also crossing.  Image by the author.

The problem is that the light telling drivers who have just turned onto Independence from 9th that it's OK to go left onto the on-ramp is perfectly in line with the drivers stopped facing west on Independence Avenue. Even though there's a red light telling those drivers they need to stop, it's easy to miss it and only see the green light that's just beyond it.

In the last three months, I've twice seen a driver miss the near red light and proceed straight through the crosswalk even though pedestrians were in it. Maybe the issue is just with inattentive drivers who are not looking where they are supposed to and will drive poorly no matter what. Or maybe I am just unlucky. But I don't think this situation is going to lead to anything good.

This isn't an uncommon problem in DC, where the street system sometimes has two separate streets packed closely together and traffic lights are set to the side of the road rather than overhead.

Two closely spaced traffic signals. When the far signal turns green while the near one stays red, it's not that easy to understand what's supposed to happen. Image by William F. Yuraskao licensed under Creative Commons.

So what is the fix?

There might be a few options to make the intersection safer, minimizing the risk of a driver mistaking which signal they should obey or at least giving pedestrians options to cross the street without having to share the space with turning cars.

The first solution is to simply either remove or re-time the light that stays green while pedestrians cross Independence Avenue, so cars turning out of the garage would have to then wait to go through the crosswalk once on Independence. That would eliminate the risk of a driver looking at the wrong light.

Or maybe the light that tells drivers they can go left from 9th onto Independence should also be where there's some kind of signal saying they can make the full U-turn onto the on-ramp.

If those options wouldn't work, then maybe the cross walk could be moved. Right now there is one crosswalk in the middle of the intersection. That crosswalk could be removed and two crosswalks could be painted in front of where cars stop on Independence Avenue. That would make the intersection a little more predictable.

This mock up shows a set of new crosswalks to replace the current one that is in the middle.  Image by Travis Maiers used with permission.

Really, those would just be band aids on a bigger problem

The real issue is that this is an intersection meant to move as many cars as possible. Independence Avenue is eight lanes wide making it hard to cross even with 30 seconds and I'm a healthy person. Add a ramp leading to an urban interstate and you have a situation where pedestrians are an obstacle to be over come rather than a part of the streetscape. Later when I cross other streets on my walk I do not worry as much because roads are designed with the expectation that people will be crossing on foot.

I am grateful for my commute. Not everyone gets a chance to see of DC's most famous sites as a matter of routine. But we should work to minimize risks where we can so people can cross the street without worrying about if drivers will not be confused by a strange combination of traffic lights.

Tagged: dc, pedestrians

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.