One progressive change among transportation planners is altering the timing of signalized intersections to include Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI’s) which here in Boulder, Colorado are being branded as ‘Pedestrian Head Starts’. The change is simple: turn on the WALK sign for pedestrians to enter the intersection while the automobile lights remain RED, just for a few second to allow the person to get themselves into the intersection. Studies have shown this small change has a huge impact on intersection safety, because drivers are much more aware of people who are actually in the intersection than they are of people at the periphery preparing to step into it.
The intersection near my house, which crosses a busy road and which I use every morning, recently received this marvelous treatment. There was a magic moment the first few times I experienced the Pedestrian Head Start. As I strode into the intersection with all other lights being red and cars having to wait, there was a deep feeling of empowerment. Only I was allowed to move, and all other movements were required to wait. It was as if the ‘Powers That Be’ (the traffic engineers who made the change, the city manager who authorized the change, and at the highest level the city council who signed off on this policy change) had specifically declared that my personal safety was more important than helping auto drivers get to their destinations more quickly.
In fact, this is precisely what the Powers That Be intended.
Most of my transportation needs are met while driving a vehicle. I’d love to walk and bike more and ultimately go car-free, and I understand there are lifestyle decisions and changes that can be made to accomplish this. But in a world where my work is 11 miles away in one direction, my kids are in two different schools in the opposite direction, and multiple commitments among the three of us before and after work/school are juggled daily, driving is a requirement for now.
Yet when I’m behind the wheel as a driver, these simple Pedestrian Head Starts have influenced my driving behavior. I see pedestrians even more than I did before, whether they are in the intersection or elsewhere, and I drive more cautiously, aware that their needs as a walker are equally if not more important than my needs as a driver. They are far more vulnerable than I am encased in metal and protected with airbags. The public right of way is a shared asset. However each of us chooses to use this public space, we must keep our eyes open and look out for one another.