Thursday, December 27, 2012

Study: Countdown pedestrian crossing signals making better New Year's Eve planners out of all of us

You're ten, maybe twelve yards away from the intersection and the race is on. The countdown crossing signal is taunting you: ten, nine, eight. You break into a jog. You didn't want to go there but you had to. Seven, six, five--this is gonna be close, as the jog may not be enough. Four, three, two--by the way, have I made plans for New Year's Eve yet? One--damn, I missed the light and I really don't think I've secured New Year's plans and tomorrow is already the the Fourth of July.

The evidence is clear, countdown crossing signals, besides making pedestrians safer, have made foot travelers better prepared for welcoming in the New Year than ever before.

Urban planners admit that the latter result was very much unintended. Countdown signals were designed to replace the blinking hand, once considered revolutionary pedestrian crossing technology, which warned pedestrians to slow up, but, really was unable to clearly indicate when the blinking hand would become the solid hand (a stop sign). The blinking hand technology stranded millions in the middle of dangerous intersections worldwide.

"The countdown crosswalk has really done for street crossing safety what the parachute did for skydiving safety," said Thomas Baker, an urban planner in Queens, New York City. Baker helped develop the countdown signal during his time at Slow Technologies, Inc, a now-defunct transportation technology firm from Nassau County, NY, in the early 2000s. Baker and a coworker continued developing the device on their own after leaving SlowTech.

"The problem at SlowTech was that engineers had the timer count up, so nobody knew how much time they  actually had to cross a street. After a couple years--and a tough bankruptcy--we thought: let's make the devices count down. Then, people will know how much time they actually have to cross and can make a better informed decision," explained Baker.

The improved safety is clear, but what about making us better prepared for New Year's Eve?

It wasn't until the University of Pennsylvania began a study of the countdown crossing signals in 2011, in six major American metropolitan areas, that the link between the signals and better New Year's Eve planning was confirmed. Dr Beverly Hillshire, a professor in UPenn's department of streetscape design, who secured grants from the Fat Crosswalks Fund, a non-profit that advocates for painting wider crosswalk lines on the street, and, Walkin' Not Talkin', a group that seeks to ban walking while talking, had a hunch about the link.

"In 2010, I went with my husband and a group of friends for New Years Eve to the Pyramid Club in Center City [Philadelphia]," explained Hillshire. "I hadn't done anything for New Year's in, well, years. It had literally been ten or fifteen years since we made plans for the holiday. And, the funnier part was, I organized the entire outing, get this, in June. I just had this urge to plan NYE."

It was this night out that really began the whole study. And, what she found was jaw-droppingly eye-opening.

"When people see the countdown crosswalk signals, whether they want to admit it or not, it gets them thinking about New Year's Eve. It may be deep, deep in the back of the brain, but they are subconsciously thinking about it. The thought may be hiding out in one of those nooks and crannies that closely resemble an English Muffin, but it's there. And, if you live and work in an area with these signals, you think about planning your end-of-year celebration ... a lot. Simple as that," said professor Hillshire.

She went on to explain that "it's not rocket science" and that individuals link the counting down to counting down to the new year. Crossing a street can bring instant flashes of the ball dropping in Times Square or Dick Clark wearing a dickie, but it also causes a strong desire to better plan for the holiday. The restaurant industry can vouch for this.

Janice Reilsberg, owner of the popular Oven Knob in Philadelphia's Fitler Square neighborhood, an upscale American cuisine eatery where patrons bring their own food and drink, cook the food, then serve themselves using cups, silverware, and plates they also bring along. "Since [Philadelphia] has been installing the countdown signals we have people making reservations for New Year's Eve as early as February. Right now, we're booked through 2018," beamed Reilsberg.

Roebling's Roost, a new restaurant atop the Brooklyn Bridge's Manhattan-side tower named for the structure's chief engineer, is booked solid for the night of December 31 through 2025. "I don't know if we'll be in business that long, but we just kept getting so many requests. So many of the callers, out of the blue at the end of the conversation, told me to 'cross safely.' I didn't know what that meant," said general manager Gail Saint James, "until the UPenn study was published,"

So, cities across the globe should be forewarned: if you install countdown pedestrian crossing signals, be prepared for fewer pedestrian injuries at intersections, but also a possible rise in hospital visits resulting from raucous celebrations on the final night of the year.

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