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Meszaros GS: Better pedestrian signals for a safer Providence

On my short walk to campus, I cross intersections with pedestrian traffic signals where the light has burnt out, where the light never changes and where the whole light pole has been turned to face away from the intersection. While much of pedestrian safety is beyond the power of these little lighted signs, their presence stands stalwart in the fight to ensure the safety of walking traffic. Why, then, are so many in such a state of disrepair?

Providence should pay attention to pedestrian traffic signals to ensure the safety of pedestrians, taking action to fix the ones we have while also changing how they function and how we, as a society, interact with them. The campus organization Safety at Brown offers little advice on dealing with pedestrian signals. “Pay attention,” they write, “to traffic lights and signals at crosswalks,” places where traffic flow is predictable and steady. Their link to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is broken, but the intrepid internet user can find on this website pedestrian safety statistics from 2016 — the most recent year available — that indicate a 9-percent increase nationwide in pedestrian fatalities over the previous year, marking the highest number since 1990. Increasing the safety of walking traffic is critical and should be a focus for a college city with a young population and limited parking opportunities. Pedestrian signal lights that are broken should be fixed. Signs that are missing or tilted should be replaced. But more than that, we as a community need to understand the role these signals play and how to interact with them as pedestrians and as drivers.

Many issues with pedestrian signals can be addressed through physical repairs. Taking stock of lights that are burnt out, broken or otherwise damaged would allow the city to restore them to functioning order. Repair is critical because the presence of pedestrian signals at intersections suggests to those walking and driving alike that there is a pattern that should be followed. It leads drivers to assume, however correctly, that pedestrians will only be found in the intersection when the signal indicates that this is okay. Without a functioning traffic light, pedestrians will cross not necessarily unsafely or against the flow of traffic but certainly against typical traffic light patterns, placing them in potential danger from drivers who don’t expect them to be there.

Educating drivers on how to interpret pedestrian signals is also important. A few weeks ago, I had begun crossing an intersection with a “walk” signal, which transitioned to the blinking “don’t walk” signal to indicate I could finish crossing but shouldn’t start. A car turned left into my crosswalk and nearly ran into me. He gestured angrily out his window at the blinking “don’t walk” sign as if to suggest that he had the right-of-way and the near-incident was my own fault. Ensuring pedestrian safety in situations like this is less the fault of the traffic signal than it is of how drivers are taught to interpret it. But a sign is only meaningful in its interpretation; if a blinking “don’t walk” sign is assigned different meanings by pedestrians and automobile traffic, then it can’t ensure safety — it can’t do its job.

There are more difficult actions that must be taken regarding these traffic signals, however, focused on more entrenched issues. Many pedestrian traffic signals operate in a mode where they remain illuminating the “don’t walk” hand unless a button is pressed, even when the traffic light in the direction of travel is green. Sometimes pressing this button affects traffic patterns, stopping or altering traffic to provide safe crossing opportunities. Other times, this button just alerts the light to signal a safe time to walk when traffic is flowing in the same direction as the pedestrian. In either case, the pedestrian often has to wait a full cycle or more in order to cross safely. Many pedestrians know this and, rather than waiting, will take opportunities of pauses in traffic flow to cross the street against the traffic sign.

While this may be illegal action, it is not necessarily unsafe action. Crossing with the flow of traffic and at a designated crosswalk is exactly the correct, safe practice for cases where activating the pedestrian signal doesn’t change traffic patterns either quickly or at all. It becomes problematic, however, if drivers assume that the pedestrian signal means the crosswalk will be empty. Additionally, a green traffic light doesn’t always guarantee a pedestrian enough time to cross the street safely, while pedestrian signals give an indication of how much time is left. The dysfunction of pedestrian signals may therefore turn a safe crossing into an illegal action and make it unsafe.

For lights that don’t impact traffic patterns, where pushing the button for a pedestrian signal doesn’t change the traffic lights for automobiles: Automate the walk signals to change with traffic. Simply ensuring that the pedestrian traffic signal is aligned with the traffic light (instead of defaulting to “don’t walk”) will certainly increase the frequency with which the signal is obeyed. Simple changes like this can encourage pedestrians to cross with the signal, increasing visibility and predictability for drivers and making it easier to tell whether they can finish crossing before the flow of traffic changes.

For a community, school and city with a sufficient history of pedestrian accidents, taking small actions to encourage continued pedestrian safety should be an easy choice. Replacing lights and fixing broken signals should be a priority. Re-evaluating how pedestrian traffic interacts with crosswalks, signals and traffic lights is an even more important step in improving how this campus and the city of Providence can be navigable and safe.

E.L. Meszaros GS can be reached at Please send responses
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