Greater City Providence

DC – pedestrians


I spent the weekend in Washington, DC. I have many photos and things to share, but this photo was the most exciting thing about DC for me (yes, I’ve stated it before, I’m a big geek). That’s a 63 second countdown on a walk light. Now in Providence, we are lucky to even have a walk light, and when we have a walk light, we are lucky if it works, and if it has a countdown, we are lucky to get 20 seconds. 63 seconds! We found ourselves trying to come up with things to do during those 63 seconds, like stop in the crosswalk and have a tea party or something.

Not every light in DC gives you 63 seconds (although a couple gave you more, I failed to snap a pic of the 73 second light), but unlike Providence, all give you ample time to cross (at least in Capitol Hill, Mall, Dupont Circle, and Downtown areas I was in over the weekend), and all of the walk lights I saw had a countdown. Giving people ample time to cross and an indication of how much time they had seems to cut way down on jaywalking in the District. With the pedestrians playing by the rules, drivers did too. Drivers always yielded for us whenever we had the light.

It was so civilized.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • As a native RI’er living in DC, I must agree: the countdowns in DC (which are all over the city) are incredible. Except occasionally, a countdown will suddenly skip from 12 to 0, or something like that. Not cool, especially when you are crossing a road that suddenly gets a green light.

    However, the real issue in DC is that, due to the prevalence of countdown crossings, drivers almost never stop for pedestrians who have the misfortune of being in an unsignalized crosswalk. Somehow, if you don’t have a countdown and a stoplight, it’s not a “real” crosswalk to DC drivers. I always found RI’ers to be better about stopping at unsignalized crosswalks.

    In addition, the countdowns usually count down to a red light, and are visible to drivers. In effect, this turns the countdowns into “advance yellow lights” for drivers. As a result, many DC drivers will gun it up a block to beat the clock, leading to some pretty dangerous speeding. (Unless, of course, there is a red light camera!)

  • I wonder how big the disparity in time limits is when you factor in the scale of the streets being crossed? I like the countdowns but it would be nice if they were better shielded from drivers.

  • These can be a big help if you are frail and slow on your feet.

    However, I question the enthusiasm for high-maintenance techie solutions to problems that are better solved at a human level. These gizmos embody the assumption that rude driver behavior is immutable. Stephen’s observations confirm that drivers do indeed live down to low expectations. Setting higher expectations for driver attentiveness and courtesy should be the goal.

  • DC also has some of the greatest bike paths I’ve seen and automated speeding tickets on 395! I’m also amazed that they have HOV as 3 plus people per car, I can’t imagine actually finding TWO people to carpool with me!

  • I just visited Chicago for the first time, and I can say the same things about that city. Plenty of time to cross and nobody crosses without that little green man telling them it’s ok. Plus their public trans is pretty fantastic (I mean seriously, the bus comes by every 3-5 minutes! Wait and a stop, and it will come. None of this schedule nonsense)

  • Once, I saw a countdown light in DC (L’Enfant Plaza SW, specifically) which gave you 58 seconds for the Walk signal countdown, but only 5 seconds to cross during the flashing hand. That road was only 80 feet wide. Frankly, 5 seconds to cross a distance of 80 feet (luckily, they have a median) is too short to cross the street. And, as Stephen says above, “it’s not a ‘real’ crosswalk to DC drivers” without a signal and a countdown below it. What DC really needs is tactile crosswalks. It helps slow down the drivers, especially at unsignalized intersections. At least in Boston they paint their crosswalks and give them countdowns (which are ill-timed, but that’s another story.)

  • And by the way, that “Walk” Man’s head looks like it will either fade out or fall off (hopefully not the signal itself.) Also, in new signals in DC they don’t include Walk countdowns, just regular man and flashing Don’t Walk hand with countdown. Such as Jefferson Drive and 15 St SE; it used to be a Walk countdown (actually, the steady hand had a 0 alongside it through the entire light), but now it’s a regular signal and only one of the signals has the steady 0. Speaking of which, in RI they still have steady 0’s along steady hands (ha ha ha.)

  • Alex, there are additions to the signals, called “screens”, which only show the display of the pedestrian signals to the pedestrians. They are prevalent in most of the 50 states (but not easy to find in Illinois, Alaska, Michigan, and/or New York.)

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