This article was originally published in the October 2018 Princeton Echo.
Just two years ago I had a quibble with the traffic light at the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue and Washington Road — the one controlling the busy intersection near the Garden Theater, Princeton United Methodist Church, and Firestone Library.
For months before I expressed that quibble, new traffic lights had hung over the intersection, shrouded in black plastic, while various government entities resolved operational questions. This newspaper registered several complaints about the plodding pace of change. Finally the plastic came off and the new lights were put into action. Writing in the August, 2016, issue of the Princeton Echo, I applauded the changes in the traffic light:
“The new light now gives motorists entering the intersection from Washington Road a complete green light cycle to go straight or to turn left or right onto Nassau. That traffic then is halted by a red light, while Vandeventer traffic is permitted to access the intersection.
“In the past motorists from Washington Road had a left hand turn arrow that enabled them to turn in advance of the Vandeventer traffic. Many continued to turn left even after the green arrow went off, leaving Vandeventer motorists to force their way into the intersection.”
While the new traffic signals were a big improvement for motorists, there was that “quibble” expressed by me and other pedestrians using that intersection:
“The system has buttons for pedestrians to trigger the walk/don’t walk signals. But if no one pushes the button the signal says ‘don’t walk’ through the entire cycle, even when it should obviously state ‘walk.’”
That was a quibble then. Since then the quibble has turned into a loud, shrill, angry, profanity-laden rant. So what’s all this ranting about? Two things:
One: I have walked or driven through that intersection a thousand times, or possibly more, since the new signals became operational and I have witnessed hundreds of pedestrians totally confused at the intersection. The lights change for the motorists, but they don’t change for the pedestrians. “When is it our turn to go?” the looks on their faces say. I felt it was an accident waiting to happen.
Two: Last October 10 one of those pedestrians — who may or may not have been confused by that traffic signal (and we may never know) — was struck and killed as she was attempting to cross on the Washington Road side of the intersection. Now I wonder if there is another accident waiting to happen.
It’s been a year, and my quibble has turned into an angry complaint, as well as a more careful consideration of pedestrian safety.
While this discussion falls into the “better late than never” category, it is clearly time not just for talk, but also for action. While Nassau Street is technically a state highway, Route 27, and under the control of the state Department of Transportation, town officials have called for action to improve the safety of Nassau Street. Last October, within a week or so of the fatal accident, the town council passed a resolution requesting that the DOT convert the intersection to an “all-way walk” crossing in which all traffic comes to a stop in all directions while pedestrians cross in any direction, including diagonally. In May the town sent a letter to the DOT requesting that it study safety improvements on the stretch of Nassau Street from Harrison Street to Bayard Lane. The town also asked DOT to study the pedestrian crossings on Nassau Street at Vandeventer and Washington Road, Witherspoon Street, and University Place, and it again urged the DOT to consider turning the intersections into “all-way walk” crossings.
In June the town raised the idea of an even more aggressive remedy: Would the DOT consider reducing the number of traffic lanes on Nassau Street through the heart of downtown to just one lanes in each direction? In a June 25 interview with the Princeton Packet, Mayor Liz Lempert said “if you shrink the two lanes down to one lane it gives you more space for bikes. It would give you better visibility for pedestrians that are crossing, so it has some potential advantages.”
On September 20 Lempert and town engineer Deanna Stockton met with DOT officials to renew their request to improve the safety of pedestrians. Lempert reported some progress with the state and indicated that the town may be asked to pay up to 25 percent of the cost of the new traffic signals.
Princeton is not alone in its worries about pedestrian safety. The national Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) estimates that in 2017 there were almost 6,000 pedestrian deaths, about the same as in 2016 — up 46 percent since 2009. So far this year in Mercer County there have been 16 traffic-related fatalities — 9 of them have been pedestrians. Mixed-use development with housing, retail, and restaurants creating high traffic areas for both motorists and pedestrians could be one contributing factor. The advent of dockless bicycles and rentable electric scooters will only add to the high stakes dodge-em game playing out on downtown streets and sidewalks.
In addition pedestrian injuries are becoming more serious. Earlier this year a Detroit Free Press/USA Today Network investigation reported that accidents involving SUVs account for a growing portion of the pedestrian deaths. The reporting team determined that “federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers, and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger.”
The researchers allowed for such factors as “drunk walking,” jaywalking, and “distracted walking,” and still saw a strong correlation to the surging popularity of SUVs, sales of which topped sedans in 2014 and now, along with pickup trucks, constitute 60 percent of new car sales.
In Princeton pedestrian safety is more than just a discussion of nationwide statistics and studies. Let’s take a closer look at four recent pedestrian accidents:
November 5, 2014, 7:20 p.m. Pia St. Onge, 58, of Ivyland, PA, was walking east on Nassau Street, crossing Vandeventer within the crosswalk, and was struck by an SUV that had been traveling east on Nassau and was making a left hand turn onto Vandeventer. The pedestrian suffered an arm injury and was taken to the hospital. The motorist was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
In a report filed the next day that reflected both the wishful thinking and the snail’s pace of progress on issues involving the DOT, Planet Princeton wrote that “the New Jersey Department of Transportation is currently finalizing the design for an ‘all cross’ pedestrian set up for the traffic lights on Nassau Street at Washington Road/Vandeventer Avenue. The changes are expected to be implemented by next fall. The intersection is considered by many to be the most dangerous intersection in Princeton.”
April 8, 2015, at about 9:30 p.m.: A 25-year-old Princeton University graduate student in integrative genomics, Nyssa Emerson, was attempting to cross Washington Road at the crosswalk south of the traffic light at Ivy Lane.
At that moment a motorist was driving south on Washington Road. He was working as a deliverer for Naked Pizza on Nassau Street, which promised its customers delivery within 25 minutes of ordering. In a later deposition he testified that he had taken several seconds to look at a GPS device providing him with directions.
The car struck the graduate student, who was thrown into the air, knocked into the car’s windshield, and was thrown 94 feet, according to later statements by her lawyer. She sustained two broken legs, a broken rib, lumbar fractures, and bruising to her head and body, resulting in a hospitalization of 12 days, a month in a rehabilitation facility, and her withdrawal from the university for the rest of the semester. The driver was charged with reckless driving and failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. A lawsuit was filed, the Nassau Street location of Naked Pizza went out of business, and a settlement was reached earlier this year that gave $1.075 million to the graduate student. It could have been worse: The pizza delivery man was driving a Prius sedan, not an SUV.
June 9, 2016, at 7:20 a.m.: Two Italian women attending a Princeton University meeting began to walk side-by-side across Nassau Street in the crosswalk between the university’s north gate entrance and the kiosk on Palmer Square. They were headed toward Palmer Square and the Nassau Inn, according to the police report. As the women entered the crosswalk, an eastbound car, coming from the left in the lane nearest the pedestrians, did not stop.
The woman on the left, a 30-year-old engineer named Iolanda DelPrete, was hit first. Two eyewitnesses told police that the pedestrians had reached the third white stripe of the marked crosswalk — about 15 feet from the curb line — when they were hit. DelPrete was hit first and, according to the police report, was “suddenly taken off her feet and thrust up onto the hood and then into the vehicle’s windshield.” She was then “thrust forward in an eastbound direction where she executed what was described as a ‘cartwheel’ in mid air before landing head first upon the surface of the roadway just east of the vehicle’s final point of rest.”
Damage to the vehicle, a 2010 Acura SUV, was significant. The pedestrian was much worse off, and transported to Capital Health Regional Medical Center for injuries to the face, head, and both legs. She would require multiple operations, including repair of a fractured skull.
The second pedestrian, Donatella DeSilva, 26, ended up about 39 feet from the point of impact and was less seriously injured. She was taken to the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro for minor injuries. The driver, a 52-year-old woman from Lawrenceville, was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
The seven-page report of the accident, filed by Patrolman Marshall Provost, the first officer on the scene, provides some insight into the conditions that may have contributed to the crash. The driver reported that she was very familiar with the road, since she had taken the same route to work for the past 16 years. She had not been using her cellphone, a fact confirmed by police, who inspected the phone. The driver thought that sun glare may have contributed to her inability to see the pedestrians, but another motorist following behind her reported he had no trouble with sun glare.
A diagram of the scene, prepared by Detective Don Santora of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Serious Collision Response Team, showed two taxis parked at the curb on the left hand side of the crosswalk. Could the parked taxis have prevented the motorist from seeing the pedestrians earlier, and vice versa? Patrolman Provost retraced the motorist’s drive the next day, under virtually the same weather conditions and determined that neither the sun nor the presence of the parked taxis “hampered his ability to see any potential pedestrian activity emerging from the eastbound curb.”
In addition, the report noted that as the pedestrians stepped out into Nassau Street, the second pedestrian had seen a westbound motorist — approaching from the right in the lane farther away — come to a stop and acknowledge the presence of the pedestrians. Though the police did not offer any speculation about this, the question comes to mind: Could the westbound motorist have given the pedestrians a false sense of security, causing them not to take a closer look to their left, and the imminent presence of the SUV bearing down on them?
October 10, 2017, 4:47 p.m.: Leslie Rubin, a 62-year-old professor from Pittsburgh, temporarily living in Princeton while her husband served as a visiting fellow at the university, was walking west on the south side of Nassau Street and approached the crosswalk that would take her to the corner occupied by Firestone Library. She was on her way to put some letters in the mail box. An eyewitness later told police Rubin had been walking “at normal speed and fashion, looking downward.” At that same time, a Redi-Mix concrete truck, driven by a 60-year-old resident of Tabernacle, New Jersey, was turning left from Nassau Street onto Washington Road. Rubin was struck and killed, probably instantly.
With the one-year anniversary of the case approaching, the investigation of this fatality was still not closed, and no charges had yet been filed.
Don Santora, the detective who has headed the county’s Serious Collision Response Team since 2004, noted a few factors that could have contributed to the lethal setting. First the cement truck, when loaded, would weigh more than was legally permitted on that section of road. But when empty, the truck was allowed and the driver considered the route through town a convenient shortcut. In addition it appeared that the truck was making its left hand turn at a rare moment when there was no traffic on Washington Road stopped at the Nassau Street light. The police diagram of the incident shows the truck stopped in the middle of the oncoming lane, the one reserved for traffic wanting to make a left hand turn from Washington onto Nassau, suggesting that the driver had cut the corner to make his left hand turn from Nassau. And no eyewitnesses could recall whether the “walk/don’t walk” button had been activated or not. Whether that created the same confusion pointed out by this paper back in 2016 and whether that contributed to the accident or not, Santora is sure that such buttons have to be accompanied by a sign instructing pedestrians that they must push the button to get the “walk” sign to light.
The Pittsburgh attorney representing the Rubin family, Jay Silberblatt, believes that the “walk/don’t walk” signal had nothing to do with this particular accident. “I believe Leslie Rubin was killed because of driver inattentiveness while making a left-hand turn. Vehicles turning at pedestrian crossings can be very dangerous and motorists need to be constantly vigilant.” He adds, “Turning a large truck in a heavily traveled urban setting is problematic. I’m not sure that weight should be the only limited factor. Maybe it should also be size.”
In a grim irony, October 10 is national “Put a Brake on Fatalities Day” sponsored annually by Transportation & Development Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
A town’s “walkability” and the safety of its pedestrians are important measures of its overall health. Much attention has been paid to the preference of the millennials to live and work in urban cores. As Brookings Institution economist Christopher Leinberger has reported, not only do the millennials want to live in an urban setting, but so do the baby boomers, the millennials’ parents. And they do not want to be car-dependent. Jeff Speck, the author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” points out that the number of miles driven by Americans in their 20s and the number of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses have fallen markedly since the 1970s. Speck, whose book came out in 2012, quotes a 2009 press release from J.D. Power, the market research company specializing in automobiles: “Online discussions by teens indicate shifts in perceptions regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars.”
In his book Speck lists “10 steps of walkability,” including protecting the pedestrian. “This is perhaps the most straightforward of the 10 steps, but it also has the most moving parts,” writes Speck, “including block size, lane width, turning motions, direction of flow, signalization, roadway geometry, and a number of other factors that all determine a car’s speed and a pedestrian’s likelihood of getting hit. Most streets in most American cities get at least half of these things wrong.”
Full disclosure here in Princeton: I have a personal, vested interest in making these intersections safer, since I live within walking distance of every one of them. I am also a motorist who, on any work day, drives through the Nassau Street intersections at Vandeventer, Witherspoon, and University Place at least twice and sometimes more often. I walk through them countless times in any given week.
So I can offer some anecdotal evidence as well as cite the opinions of accredited professionals. David Levinson, who earned a Ph.D. in transportation engineering at Berkeley in 1998, now teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney and also is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, where he served on the faculty from 1999 to 2016. He is co-author of “The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape.” At his blog, transportist.org, Levinson outlines how signal timing conventions usually favor driving over walking. Cities that want to be walkable and safe for pedestrians should adopt a totally different approach, Levinson writes. Here’s what he recommends:
Pedestrian time must be considered (and prioritized) in the traffic signal timing so that their weight is equal to or higher than the weight of a passenger car.
Pedestrians should get the maximum feasible amount of green time on a phase, rather than the minimum, so that pedestrians arriving on the phase have a chance to take advantage of it, and slower moving pedestrians are not intimidated by cars.
Pedestrians should get a “leading interval” so they can step into the street on a “walk” signal before cars start to move on a green light, increasing their visibility to drivers.
Pedestrian phases should be automatic, even if no actuator is pushed. Instead, the actuator should make the pedestrian phase come sooner.
Many more intersections should have an all-pedestrian phase (what is referred to as a “Barnes Dance”) in addition to existing phases so pedestrians can make diagonal intersection crossings without having to wait twice.
So how is Princeton doing on that scorecard, and what more can be done? At Vandeventer, Washington, and Nassau, the intersection gets a plus from pedestrians for giving them a three-second headstart into the crosswalk when the light changes — provided that someone has pushed that button. But the intersection loses points because of that “beg button,” so called because pedestrians have to ask before getting their turn.
I am not sure whether or not an “all way walk” signal is justified at this intersection. At off-peak times during a typical day, there is not a lot of traffic, and pedestrians understandably walk against the light based on the fact that there is no visible traffic coming in either direction.
But I am sure that the automatic activation of the “walk” signal is critical. It would eliminate the confusion that now reigns at that intersection and a “platoon” of pedestrians, as transportation experts call them, relying on the guidance of one self-appointed leader who steps out into the crosswalk when he or she has determined it’s safe to do so. Town officials have told me they are aware of the problem, but are counting on an “all-walk” signal to be implemented there, which would have to be activated by the pedestrians. If that’s the case then there had better be stern warning signs to pedestrians: Push the button or you will never get your “walk” light.
Nassau and Witherspoon, surely the busiest intersection in town, clearly would benefit from an “all-way” walk signal. Here pedestrians routinely slow down motorists entering the intersection from Witherspoon, and also motorists trying to use the left hand arrow on Nassau Street to make the left hand turn onto Witherspoon. For those cars turning left, pedestrians routinely enter the crosswalk even though the “walk/don’t walk” signal tells them not to walk for seven seconds. The all-way walk signal would eliminate that pedestrian interference and might actually make the intersection more efficient for both pedestrians and motorists.
Nassau and University Place is another intersection with a lot going on — the little extension of Mercer Street hits University just below the main intersection, and the entrance to Bank Street also here. Would it be worth an all-way walk here? Possibly. It’s certainly worth further study.
Nassau, Stockton, and Bayard Lane is an intersection lightly traveled by pedestrians. An “all-way walk” light is already in place. Because of this intersection’s light use, a “beg button” seems reasonable. But it lacks the permanent sign telling pedestrians they must push the button.
Crosswalks are wonderful, but they are never a guaranteed safe space for pedestrians. The best ones have pedestrian-activated flashing lights on either side of the road. The university put them in place at the intersection of William Street and Washington Road, on Washington Road between the traffic light at Ivy Lane and the overhead pedestrian walk, on Faculty Road between Alexander and Washington, and on University Place, near where McCarter Theater audiences would cross if they were headed for the Dinky Bar or the parking garage. There is also one on Witherspoon Street, between the Griggs Corner parking lot and Hinds Plaza and the public library — that one is solar powered and was donated by NRG Energy.
Those crosswalks with flashing lights are indeed wonderful, but the one on Washington Road south of Ivy Lane wasn’t enough to protect the graduate student hit by the car delivering pizza. What would be even better would be if the crosswalk were constructed at the same level, or close to the same level, as the sidewalks. That way the crosswalk would also be a speed bump, one of those annoying little humps in the pavement that now make you slow down. Hodge Road in the Western section already has several installed.
And a similar one has already been added at the crosswalk opposite McCarter Theater. In addition, the sidewalk on either side of that crosswalk has been “bumped out” into the roadway, giving cars a narrower lane (and causing them to slow down even more), as well as reducing the distance pedestrians have to travel to get across the street.
To me the most treacherous crosswalk in town is the mid-block crossing on Nassau Street, from the Firestone Library campus entrance to Tulane Street on Nassau Street. It’s treacherous because pedestrians have to cross two lanes of moving traffic in the eastbound direction, and one extra-wide lane in the westbound direction. As a pedestrian I make crossing the street there a two-phase process. First I edge out into the intersection and see if traffic in the nearest lane recognizes me and is stopping. Then I take a few more steps into the road and assess the traffic from the opposite direction. Once I have their attention, I then proceed (waving appreciatively to each stopped motorist).
As a motorist I try to anticipate pedestrians from either direction. Driving eastbound is especially challenging if a university-owned bus is double parked on the right, dropping off or picking up passengers at the Firestone Library driveway. The scariest moment is when I stop for a pedestrian and I am not sure whether any other drivers are also going to stop. It happened a few days ago as this article was being written. I was eastbound in the left lane. A trio of pedestrians coming from the left, headed toward the university, smiled appreciatively at me as I was stopped. As they proceeded a car passed me on my right at full speed (at least 25 miles per hour). The driver never noticed the pedestrians, though he passed within three or four feet of them.
But what if Nassau Street were redesigned with pedestrians in mind as much as motorists? Mayor Lempert probably had pedestrians in mind when she suggested that Nassau be reduced to one lane in each direction. Right now the westbound lane of Nassau Street, carrying the traffic from Vandeventer to Witherspoon, has room for two lanes of moving cars. But cars parking or double parked usually preclude two lanes of moving traffic.
The section of Nassau moving eastbound, from Witherspoon to Vandeventer, easily carries two full lanes of traffic. White dividing lines, in fact, are painted on the roadway to delineate the two lanes. Imagine two lanes reduced to one lane on that block, across from the busiest retail stores in town. Wow! Pedestrians, especially those trying to cross Nassau Street at the midblock crossing by Tulane Street, should applaud.
Some motorists, of course, would complain: You mean the traffic on Nassau Street through the heart of town will move even more slowly than it does now? Possibly yes (though you should never assume that a change in road design will automatically make traffic flow more or less quickly). But if traffic were to slow down on Nassau Street, that would be the price you pay to drive your car through the heart of a corridor that is also a prized corridor for thousands of pedestrians (and many bicyclists, as well). There might even be a safety dividend. Right now, apparently, some cement truck drivers think that traffic in downtown Princeton is light enough that it makes a convenient short-cut. Maybe a little more congestion would change that perception.
But that decision lies in the hands of the state DOT, since Nassau Street is officially state Route 27.
Departments of transportation and city planners for decades have held the attitude that “the car is king,” and that city streets and highways should be designed to maximize the flow of traffic into, out of, and through the urban area. In her seminal 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs described her battle with New York Planning Commissioner Robert Moses, who sought to build an expressway through Jacobs’ neighborhood in lower Manhattan. In 1988 William H. Whyte published “City: Rediscovering the Center,” and described how pedestrians get the short end of the stick in the design process: “In principle, transportation departments plan for pedestrians as well as vehicles. But look at how they operate: federal, state, local — they are almost wholly concerned with maximizing vehicular traffic. The pedestrian is considered, to be sure, but as a problem, and not so much to be planned for as to be planned against.”
The response to the request of Princeton officials to change the traffic lights at the Nassau Street intersections reflects the attitude: DOT spokesman Matthew D. Saidel was quoted as saying that the DOT “is aware of the Princeton officials’ request,” but, “as you know, DOT has a responsibility for providing safe pedestrian accommodations on state roads while not increasing traffic congestion and gridlock on a critical road through any town. Balancing these concerns is paramount for any road improvements DOT considers.”
That said, there is also evidence that the professional transportation community has widened its vision and realizes that traffic congestion is by no means the sole indicator of how well a transportation network serves its community. And there is also evidence that shows that putting a road on a diet — i.e. reducing it by a lane or two, does not necessarily add to congestion, just as expanding a road also does not reduce congestion but rather creates an “induced demand” that fills it up to its previous level of congestion. Canal Pointe Boulevard between Alexander Road and MarketFair was recently reduced from four lanes to three (one of them a turning lane) with no upwelling of complaints. A similar “road diet” is being considered for Route 571 through the heart of Princeton Junction.
In addition to pedestrian safety there could be other benefits. On Nassau Street a narrower roadway would permit a five-foot bike lane on either side, between the curb and the parking lane. Bicycles are now prohibited from the sidewalk in front of the retail stores on Nassau Street. But the ordinance is routinely flouted. With a bike lane there would be no excuse.
Or parking — the holy grail of downtown — could be made easier and more plentiful. With a reduction in traffic lanes, the parking could be made diagonal, instead of parallel. Angled parking On University Place near McCarter consumes about 10 feet of curb frontage per space, as opposed to 20 or 21 feet now taken up by the parallel spaces on Nassau Street. That could create a net increase of 14 or 15 spaces in the amount of metered parking on the busiest retail street in town.
Angled parking could be head-in or back-in. Absent some other information from the experts, I would favor head-in, for two reasons: 1.) Most parkers in Princeton have a reason to be there — a lunch appointment, a visit to a store or an office over the stores, etc. They are in more of hurry to arrive than to leave. 2.) When the parkers do back out into the traffic lane, motorists heading toward them may be very eager to yield to them because they are eager to take over the space being vacated. This may become more pronounced as motorists who currently view Nassau Street as a thoroughfare between two other points begin to choose alternate routes. (In addition motorists heading in will park much more quickly than the often inept parallel parkers who now tie up traffic for minutes to maneuver into a space.)
These are arguments to be made to the DOT, and they will not fall upon totally deaf ears.
The public, the people who vote with their feet and the movement (or lack thereof) of their vehicles, may already be ahead of public officials and professional planners in this area. In some cities, residents concerned about pedestrian safety place official-looking traffic cones in areas where they feel traffic needs to be slowed down. In Toronto a resident has taken traffic control into his own hands is known as the “traffic vigilante.”
Maybe some of us in Princeton who now quibble about pedestrian safety should turn into traffic vigilantes, instead.