Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stupid idea of the month: pretending to solve pedestrian signal timing issues using Pong

 Game lets you play Pong with a person on other side of the crosswalk (source)
ThisIsColossal reports on "ActiWait", which is a video game with controllers on either side of a crosswalk, allowing two waiting pedestrians to play a game of Pong.
The ActiWait is a new generation of traffic light buttons. Installed at a pedestrian traffic light with long red phases, it offers pedestrians the possibility to convert boring waiting times into positive experiences. Through a touch screen which is installed in the upper shell of the button, people can interact with each other across the street.
As a public art project, it's neat. Especially while it retains novelty value. But as a "solution" to long red phases, it's incredibly stupid and condescending. Let's get this straight: is it okay to subject pedestrians to needlessly long wait times at traffic signals, so long as you give them a 1970s video game to play? Absurd. What's the message being sent here? As near as I can tell, the message is: "You walked? Well then, your time is worth less than that of a driver. Here, play a game, instead of getting where you're trying to go."

The solution to long waiting times is not games... the solution is shorter waiting times. Engineers should respect the fact that pedestrians are people too and they don't appreciate being forced to wait excessively long times simply for the convenience of motor vehicle drivers. This is not a difficult topic, and it demands no techno-wiz solution. The answer is simple: shorten traffic signal cycle times to reduce average waiting times. And don't require the use of "beg buttons" to cross the street. Pedestrians should be given at least as much respect as drivers. If you don't make drivers press buttons or play games at traffic lights, then you shouldn't force pedestrians do that either.

Slides from Ricardo Olea, SF MTA (source)
San Francisco is known for its pedestrian-friendly signal timing. As you can see, engineers at SF MTA understand that overall cycle length is very important to the pedestrian experience.

Doubling the cycle length causes the average delay for pedestrians to more than double. In San Francisco, a 60 second cycle length is fairly standard. Unfortunately, in Boston, most signal cycle lengths are between 90 and 120 seconds. Sometimes they vary depending upon time of day -- usually lengthening during rush hour. 110 seconds is a fairly common cycle length, in my experience. All of this is firmly in the "red" according to SF MTA, leading to unhappy pedestrians. Well, actually what happens is that Bostonians quickly learn to ignore the signals because the timing is quite obviously terrible.

ActiWait is from Germany so hopefully they will stay over there. Or perhaps they can invent a game that convinces traffic engineers to treat pedestrians better. Here's an idea: perhaps a little device that can be installed in their cars. At every single signaled intersection, it forces them to stop, push a button, and wait 50 seconds on average for a green light. The fun part is that if you push the button at the wrong time during the cycle, you may have to wait an extra cycle to go around before you get a chance to proceed. That's how signals in Boston are programmed. All the fun of a slot machine, and none of the reward!

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