On March 20, the Sitka Police Department page on Facebook posted the following message and photo (below) after the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities installed pedestrian crossing flags at two intersections on heavily traveled Halibut Point Road in Sitka:
SPD would like to say a big THANK YOU to Steve Bell, from DOT, for installing Pedestrian Crosswalk Flags at the Blatchley Middle School and McDonald’s crosswalks. In an effort to make pedestrians and the crosswalk more visible until the permanent paint can be applied to the roadway, Bell has installed holders on both sides of the roadway containing Pedestrian Crosswalk Flags. The idea is simple, when a person wishes to cross the road they grab a flag and wave it a bit to get the attention of motorists, and once traffic has stopped and it is safe to cross, do so and deposit the flag in the holder on the other side of the road. The brightly colored reflective flags benefit pedestrians by making them more visible to drivers and the simple act of holding one alerts drivers that the pedestrian has a desire and intent to cross the road. In addition, simply having the brightly colored flags at both ends of a crosswalk makes the crosswalk stand out more, making it easier to notice on the approach. Be advised that the flags are not formal traffic control devices but a way for pedestrians to make themselves more visible to approaching traffic.
One set of pedestrian crossing flags (also known as pedestrian crosswalk flags) was installed at the corner of North Lakeview Drive, just in front of Blatchley Middle School and the AC Lakeside grocery store next door. The other set of pedestrian crossing flags was installed at the corner of Peterson Street (in front of McDonald’s, which is just down the hill from three nearby schools — Sitka High School, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School, and the SEER School).
The basic premise of pedestrian crossing flags is simple. A set of about eight flags will be split into two holders on each side of a busy intersection. Whenever pedestrians need to cross the busy road, they grab one of the flags from its holder and wave it several times to let drivers know they plan to cross the road, and they continue to wave the flag as they cross. Once safely across the street, they replace the flag in the holder on the other side.
Even before a young cyclist was hit at the McDonald’s intersection in early February, Sitka residents had been complaining about the lack of pedestrian safety at these two intersections. After the vehicle-bicycle collision sent a high school freshman to two Seattle hospitals for a month, local DOT staff installed better signs and discussed other measures that could improve safety. That’s when the idea of pedestrian crossing flags came up. According to Alaska DOT traffic engineer David Epstein, “We have deployed them at several intersections in Juneau for that purpose, and they are performing well. We modified the flags with reflective yellow tape. It makes them much more noticeable at night.”
Pedestrian crossing flags have been around for several years, and several U.S. cities have tried them, including Seattle and Kirkland, Wash.; Berkeley, Calif.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Sand Point, Idaho; and others. The pedestrian crossing flags also have been tried in Juneau, Alaska. Of course, 150 years ago, it was the cars that needed the safety flags, before they began to rule the roads.
Some communities, such as Seattle and Berkeley, have given up on the pedestrian crossing flags, for various reasons including ineffectiveness, theft of the flags, and more. “Berkeley analyzed its flag program and issued a data-driven report about a decade ago that for crossing a major arterial at an unsignalized marked crosswalk, flags did not improve driver behavior in yielding to pedestrians. For this reason, the program was abandoned,” wrote Wendy Alfsen, executive director for California Walks.
Some pedestrians don’t like them because they feel weird having to wave them (or they feel like they’re waving a white flag and surrendering). Other walking advocates don’t like them because they feel requiring flags and reflective clothing is blaming the victim instead of addressing the real problem, poorly designed roads built for cars with no accommodations for people who walk or bike.
One reason some traffic engineers like the pedestrian crossing flags is because it’s an inexpensive solution to an increasing problem, getting drivers to notice and stop for pedestrians. It’s usually seen as a supplement to other pedestrian safety features, such as freshly painted crosswalks, flashing lights above the intersection, push-button traffic lights, and other traffic calming measures such as lower speed limits. Pedestrian crossing flags also are viewed as a temporary and not a permanent solution in many cases.
“One can debate optimal solutions all day long, but the benefit of the crossing flags is that one may act without delay, and citizens can take leadership in making something happen,” wrote Mobility Education Foundation President David Levinger of Seattle, when responding a a question about the effectiveness of the flags on the America Walks Forum email listserv for walking advocates. “In Washington D.C., there was a location on Connecticut Avenue that was quite problematic. Ped flags at that location were installed, a bit to the dismay of engineers in DCDOT. After about five years, then finally installed rectangular rapid flashing beacons and removed the flags, but they were well appreciated in the interim. My true personal feeling is that we should train drivers to recognize a pedestrian’s intent to cross the street and train pedestrians to extend their hand outward from their body as an expression of intent to cross as is taught to children in other countries. Then, pedestrians would always have a ‘flag’ with them that would be an effective tool to achieve driver yielding.”
Most communities include signage and training when they install the pedestrian crossing flags. They put signs by the holders to let pedestrians know how to use them (see example), and they work with local media to get the word out to drivers and pedestrians about the new pedestrian crossing flags and how they work. So far, the only media in Sitka explaining the pedestrian crossing flags has been the Facebook post, which had limited reach. There have been no newspaper articles or radio PSAs about them.
Also, go back up to the top of this article and look at the photo of the intersection in front of Blatchley Middle School. Do you see any paint showing the crosswalk? What about flashing lights above the intersection? Halibut Point Road is one of Sitka’s two busiest roads and it has some of the highest speed limits, but there are no real traffic-calming measures in front of the school. When school starts and lets out, there usually is a staff member who puts on a safety vest and carries a STOP sign into the intersection to allow students to cross the street and to let school buses turn onto HPR. But the rest of the day this is an uncontrolled intersection. The McDonald’s intersection is uncontrolled all day.
Epstein said last year’s HPR construction project is one reason the Blatchley crosswalk is barely visible.
“With regard to the marginally-visible crosswalk by Blatchley Middle School: as you know, HPR was rehabilitated during the 2014 construction season. The project took much longer than anticipated. By the time the top lift of asphalt had been laid down and the obligatory two-week, pre-marking curing period had elapsed, it was too late to apply permanent pavement markings. We needed more favorable temperature and moisture conditions than were prevalent at the time. The only option left was to apply paint, which (obviously) doesn’t last long under traffic conditions. When weather permits this spring, the crosswalks will be permanently delineated with inlaid methyl methacrylate, the most durable marking material we have. It should retain its visibility for several years.”
Another issue with the pedestrian crossing flags is where do you carry them if you’re carrying a big load of groceries or pushing a stroller with kids or elder in a wheelchair? Bob Planthold, who is a board member with California Walks, noted other problems with the flags and accessibility.
“Accessibility is a major flaw in this program. How can someone who is blind know where to pick it up and deposit it? How can someone who has neuro-muscular spasticity use a flag? Are these flags so highly reflective that at night a car’s headlight would pick it up far enough away for a car to stop or slow so the pedestrian can cross?” Planthold wrote. “What about a 6-year old crossing? Even if using a flag, kids strides are shorter, making it possible a deliberate crossing could be slower than a car driver expects of an adult. What about when pushing a baby in a stroller and holding the hand of a toddler? Grow a third hand? Or hold flag in mouth?”
So if you’re driving down Halibut Point Road and see a pedestrian grab one of the pedestrian crossing flags from the holder. Slow down and stop to let the pedestrian cross. And hopefully the Alaska DOT will get better markings for the crosswalks at these two intersections to make things safer.