NEW YORK >> Even when she has a walk signal, Jane Pachuta has been cut off by cars making left turns and barreling through the crosswalk near her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“Numerous times, I’ve felt in danger,” said Pachuta, owner of an advertising and graphic design business who has lived in the neighborhood for more than two decades. “I walk relatively quickly, but it doesn’t matter when they’re turning and getting so close to you.”
But now Pachuta has a head start. The walk signal at the crosswalk on Third Avenue and East 70th Street was recently re-timed to come on seven seconds before drivers get a green light — instead of at the same time — so pedestrians can get well across Third Avenue before the cars can move.
On New York’s increasingly crowded streets, “pedestrian head starts” have become a key tactic used by city officials to reduce dangers at busy intersections by making pedestrians more visible and reinforcing their right of way. While the concept is not new, the pedestrian measure has quietly multiplied across New York City as part of an ambitious campaign — known as Vision Zero — by Mayor Bill de Blasio that aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024.
Pedestrians are now given a head start at 2,381 intersections, or seven times more than the 329 intersections in 2014 when the Vision Zero campaign began. The city’s Transportation Department is adding the measure to about 800 intersections a year, or nearly double the rate from 2015.
Even so, the head starts have gone largely unnoticed by many pedestrians. There is nothing really to point at. The head starts do not call attention to themselves like, say, the popular countdown clocks that have been installed at 7,507 intersections around the city to warn pedestrians how much time they have left to cross. There are about 40,000 intersections in New York, of which nearly 13,000 are busy enough to warrant traffic signals.
Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said the head starts “truly are the unsung heroes of Vision Zero.”
“We’ve now got an effective system going,” she said. “It’s a tool we can deploy very quickly at a modest price.”
The use of pedestrian head starts is also spreading across the country as the strategy is adopted by a growing number of cities, including Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, although New York’s program is the largest by far. In Washington, where it was introduced in 2003, it has been expanded in recent years to 185 intersections, up from 50 five years ago.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials has highlighted the measure — called a “leading pedestrian interval” by traffic engineers and urban planners — as a best practice in its urban street design guide, saying that it is one of the ways that “effectively decrease crashes and save lives on our cities’ streets.”
Unlike more costly safety improvements, such as protected pedestrian and bike lanes, it is relatively inexpensive and usually involves little more than studying traffic patterns and reprogramming existing lights, according to city officials and urban planners. Over the years, several traffic studies have shown that when pedestrians are allowed to go first, there are fewer crashes.
In a study funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center is analyzing crash data from before and after leading pedestrian intervals were installed at 100 sample intersections in New York, Chicago and Charlotte, North Carolina, from 2001-14. Daniel Carter, a senior engineering research associate at the center, said the preliminary data indicates that the overall effect “was to reduce vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes.”
In New York City, pedestrians were first given a head start in 1976 at Flatbush and DeKalb avenues in Downtown Brooklyn. But it was not until three years ago that city transportation officials began rolling out the measure on a vast scale, with priority given to intersections where there have been pedestrian-vehicle crashes, or where there are school children and older walkers requiring more time to cross.
City transportation officials said the head starts range from seven to 11 seconds, with more time allowed for wider streets. A 2016 transportation department analysis of 104 intersections giving pedestrians head starts found a significant decline in fatalities and severe injuries to pedestrians, the officials said.
Of course, as with any measure, there are limitations. The head start does not address a reality of city streets: impatient New Yorkers who insist on crossing against the light or outside crosswalks. City officials said they do not generally break down overall crash data by whether pedestrians were inside or outside of a crosswalk.
Some drivers have grumbled that the measure slows traffic, while others said it is confusing to see conflicting signals at an intersection.
But Carlos Casimro, 45, a driver for a delivery service, said that he did not mind the change because it was easier to see people crossing in front of him.
“It’s fine to wait 10 seconds for pedestrians,” he said. “It’s not a long time.”
Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, said signals that prioritize pedestrians are one way to lessen the menace of aggressive driving.
“Crosswalks should be sacred, safe spaces, but they too often are the location of crashes that kill and maim innocent New Yorkers that are trying to simply cross the streets,” she said.
At the corner of Third Avenue and East 70th Street, a woman was fatally struck by a yellow cab turning left into the crosswalk in July — two months before the planned change to the walk signal to give pedestrians a head start. The driver was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian.
On a recent morning, a stream of older couples, parents pushing strollers, delivery workers, and many others stepped across Third Avenue while the cars were stopped by a red light. Once the light turned green, the cars crept up to the crosswalk, but were often blocked by a throng of pedestrians.
Pachuta said that crossing is easier now.
“It has made a difference,” she said. “I do like it. I noticed it right away.”
Ten minutes later, Michael Cooper, 81, a lawyer, crossed Third Avenue with the aid of a walking stick. He said he appreciated having the extra time.
“I’m not terribly fast on my feet,” he said. “Nobody wants to be hit by a car.”