Greater City Providence

Video: Stroll Federal Hill? Walk lights FAIL

Over the last month or so, much work has been done to the signals along the Service Roads on the west side of Route 95. At first it was pretty good, new LED walk lights with countdowns went in, and though they only give you 9 seconds to cross, they were brighter and worked well. Lately, I’ve noticed they don’t work anymore. Well, they don’t work like they used to.

Now pedestrians have to press the cross button to get a walk light. Before the walk lights always turned appropriately automatically when the corresponding traffic lights changed. Cars got their regular signals and pedestrians got to cross regularly, traffic turning had to wait for pedestrians crossing. Crossing the Service Roads has always been daunting, but traffic would generally yield to pedestrians. Though the walk lights no longer change automatically, I’ve continued to cross as if they did, it never occurred to me to push the button, I really just assumed the walk lights were broken, as a pedestrian in Providence, that is the assumption you reach when walk lights aren’t functioning right, very few of them do.

So why the switch to button activated walk signals? Pushing the button does not prompt the light to change, it still goes through its normal cycle giving you the light at the next appropriate phase in the light cycle, it does not turn traffic red and allow people to cross. Why not just leave it the way it was, turning to walk when the street you’re crossing goes red? Drivers don’t have to push a button to get a green light, why should pedestrians?

It seems to me, this is a way to keep auto traffic moving at the expense of foot traffic. I can no longer legally walk at each light cycle, I need to push the button and wait for the lights to cycle through. If I don’t push the button and just walk when the cross street turns red, I’m now jaywalking since the light walk light stays red. Turning traffic now has the right of way.

Federal Hill’s tagline is “Stroll.” The merchants association wants people to walk the street. The walk lights make pedestrians second class on the city’s streets, an after thought to the convenience of autos. As I was taking the above video, a couple who were a bit older, appearing to be out-of-towners, simply stood at the corner with a look of fear in their eyes. Apparently unaware of the button that needed to be pushed to allow for the walk light they needed to feel safe to cross.


Atwells Avenue at Dean Street | Photo by Jef Nickerson

At the end of the video (which you of course watched all the way through, I worked hard on that video!) are some stills of the Dean and Atwells intersection. A wide area that strollers need to cross to get to the west end of Atwells. Here, where there are walk lights, they don’t work. I mean, they don’t work at all, it is not a matter of pushing buttons, the walk lights are just dead, and have been for years.

Most of us familiar with the city know how much traffic speeds through that intersection, and the confusion of the two sides of Dean having different greens (most people familiar with the city avoid that intersection at all costs). Without a walk light, it is perfectly reasonable for a pedestrian to think when Dean Street southbound turns red, they can cross. Ah, but no! Then Dean Street northbound turns green and all the traffic tries to run you down. It’d sure be nice to have some sort of indication that that traffic was coming before getting halfway into the intersection. It would make Federal Hill a slightly better place to stroll, don’t you think?

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.


  • I rarely if ever use the walk signals. I just use the traffic signals. If my direction of travel is green I walk. Otherwise if yellow or red I know I don’t have right of way.

    The ITS walk signals are nice when they work. But you’re right, the time limits on some of them (and their corresponding traffic lights) is too damned tight. They give you what, 20 seconds to cross Memorial Blvd.

  • I have never once pushed one of those stupid buttons. If it does not turn on my very own green light, or a full 4-way stop where they don’t just blow through right-on-red anyway, why bother? The sort of driver who sees me crossing with a green light but a red walk signal and therefore feels entitled to run me over is just as likely to run me over when I have a green walk signal.

  • Only pussies need a light to tell them when it’s safe to cross. I can tell by using my eyes. Seriously, if there are no cars, you can cross, tell them I said it was ok.

  • Also, you can just walk around the car that is parked in the crosswalk. You won’t die if you step outside of the painted lines, I sweear. I tried it. You pussy…

  • I’d like to see them change to the system the use in D.C.

    It just sets all directions to red and gives you full minute to cross.

  • I’d love to see a system like that in certain parts of downtown (Memorial Blvd, North/South Main, and anywhere around the mall). For most areas it doesn’t make sense and isn’t necessary, but those high speed streets need it. The Dean/Atwells intersection is another spot that would be good for one because of the size of the intersection (though I’m sure it would cause more people to run the light).

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