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Posted by on Feb 23, 2010 in Uncategorized | 24 comments

St Pete and the RRFB

Color me green, with envy, that is.  Today I visited St. Petersburg with Mighk Wilson and Keri Caffrey.  Keri and I were tagging along with Mighk whose purpose was to check out installations of the RRFB, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon, on pedestrian crosswalks.  The envy part came about when I saw just how pedestrian friendly St. Pete is, and the level of commitment the Sunshine City has to becoming even more friendly to the lowly pedestrian, the lowest member of the transportation food chain.

I knew St. Pete had a reputation for being pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and I had experienced some of it first hand, but after spending time with our friendly host, Michael Frederick, I learned the breadth and depth of the city’s commitment.  Michael is the Manager, Neighborhood Transportation, and has been instrumental in formulating and implementing the city’s bicycle and pedestrian plan,  Since the start of implementation in 2003, bicycle and pedestrian crashes have declined steadily while usage increased.  St. Pete has installed pedestrian crosswalks, created bike lanes, and rebuilt streets incorporating traffic calming in hundreds of locations throughout the city.  Crosswalk enforcement was funded and has been key to obtaining high driver compliance with un-signalized crosswalks.  Each city neighborhood has its own traffic plan that is approved by the residents.  The city’s proactive approach and thorough planning process have enabled it to obtain funding to move ahead aggressively with its plan which is near completion.  Overall very impressive and envy inducing for a Metro Orlandian living in the most dangerous place to walk in the country.

But back to the purpose of today’s visit.  As you can see from the photograph, the RRFB is a rapidly flashing amber strobe crosswalk signal placed just above driver eye level.  The signal is activated by a pedestrian pressing a button at the crosswalk entrance.  With most installations the signal begins immediately, although it can be coordinated with adjacent traffic signals if desired.  Driver compliance levels, that is drivers yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks with the RRFB, is high.  The installations we observed were very impressive.  I couldn’t suppress a big grin when traffic actually slowed and stopped after I pressed the button and stepped into the crosswalk at the installation on 4th Street.  You can see a video of me skipping across the street here.  This device looks very promising for use in Metro Orlando.

We’ll be discussing pedestrian safety tomorrow morning at the Citizen’s Advisory Committee at Metroplan Orlando, and it will be discussed also at the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting in the afternoon.  I hope to have more stuff and progress to report on this important subject in the future.  In the meantime, become a pedestrian safety advocate and let us know your ideas for making Metro Orlando a safer place to walk.

24 Comments

  1. I like toys and painted crosswalks, but these make motorists think that unless a crosswalk is marked with paint and signs and now a flashing light, they don’t have to yield.

    • I agree, that’s why you can’t do this with infrastructure alone. St Pete’s year of crosswalk enforcement created better yielding at all crosswalks not just the highly-decorated ones.

      • Apparently, toys win out. A quick read of the magazine 5 page article has this as an aside, “In addition, a system wide enforcement program was introduced with weekly operations by the Police Department.”

        Probably not very popular. Flash always wins over boring and unpopular education.

        • Sadly, the difficulty of enforcement is that there is no funding source for it. Infrastructure has dedicated funding, enforcement doesn’t. The PD wouldn’t do it with on-duty officers, so they had to pay for overtime details. The state wouldn’t pay for it. The enhancement money that buys infrastructure doesn’t pay for it. St. Pete had to find federal grant money to do the police operations.

          • Jeepers, I would have thought that the ticket collections would have paid for the cost.

            I realize that the cities don’t get the hefty percentage that they used to get when they split the money with the officer and the city judge, but I thought they got something worthwhile.

          • The first few months of a ped sting operation involves warnings — it’s a better way to encourage behavior change because the warning can be given along with information. The recipient is more likely to read the info and change his behavior with a warning than if he suddenly gets a ticket for doing something everyone has been getting away with forever.

            Our current joke of a traffic justice system allows a person who receives a citation to game the system by requesting court even when they are clearly in violation. They then wait to see if the officer shows up. If the officer does not show, the ticketed scofflaw gets off. If the officer does show, said scofflaw goes to the window with his checkbook and pays the ticket. Either way, the officer is often being paid overtime to go to court.

            My friends in the PD have told me the city often loses money on traffic stings.

    • Eric,

      Where do I start…

      First, it was my pleasure to host you in St. Petersburg and I’m very pleased your blog has generated such back and forth discussion.

      Second, I’m sorry I’m so late into this discussion, just having found your blog google searching “RRFB” to see what’s new. It wasn’t that many months ago there was nothing, so YES – I think education is required.

      Third – just a few thoughts….

      Yes, I am from Toronto and I was shocked when I moved to Florida to see how bad mid-block motorist yielding compliance was here. I recall the “Point Your Way To Safety” rule and actually tried it here as an experiment. Believe it or not I did manage to receive 70% motorist yielding compliance and 3 calls to the Police Department about the idiot stopping traffic on a busy road. No mention at all that I was in a crosswalk…so I do believe that the “Toys” are required as part of a full Triple – E Program. That is what we did here in St. Petersburg, starting first with the Engineering. That got us over 80% compliance right out of the gate, from a base rate of 3%, as you can read in the report. That was sustained for 2-years before we even started the Enforcement component. Believe it or not, even with the funding the police were reluctant to go out. So, I brought in an FDOT program to train them and to date we have not lost one appeal in court. Yes, we started out with a lot of citations, but even today on a 3-hour operation we are averaging only 10 to 12 citations with monthly, rather that weekly operations and only at new RRFB installations.

      Yes, we have seen spill over compliance at other non-RRFB crosswalk, but that compliance rate there is still low. So, we are continuing with the Engineering at high volume crossings as well as the Enforcement and Education. After all, its taken years for the motorists to behave so poorly against the most vulnerable roadway users, we’re not going to change that over night with only one of the “E’s”.

      Hope that this gets back to your readers and helps with a bit of the background. I’ll check back and answer any questions as well. Keep up the good work.

  2. Several of those high-visibility, walker-activated signals have been installed in and around Miami in the past year. They’re doing a great job! Too bad it takes such garish lights to get drivers to stop, but this appears to meet a real need.

  3. I don’t think of the RRFB as a toy, but rather as a “real time education tool”. In lieu of inadequate enforcement, it is a very visible reminder to motorists to yield to pedestrians, or the next flashing lights they may see will not be amber, but red and blue.

    • If it was portable and only left there for a few weeks, I might agree with you as to the education benefits. This would be much like the flashing lights used at new traffic lights to draw driver’s attention to something unusual. The “Your Speed is: ‘ ‘ ” signs are such an education tool.

      I think flashing lights, even yellow ones, should be reserved for unusual situations, else we should have flashing lights on every stop sign. Following your logic, since people like to run red lights, wouldn’t a flashing red light work better than a solid one?

      I don’t even like flashing white leds on the front of bikes because a bike driving down the street is not unusual enough.

      In fact, it would not be wrong to use a traffic light to stop the traffic while a pedestrian is crossing, rather than a flashing yellow strobe light.

      If we don’t stop using flashing lights for routine things, soon they will lose their attention getting power, just like the use of international orange has become so ubiquitous that it has lost it’s shock value.

      • Eric, you make a good point about excessive use of flashing lights. In principle, I also agree that we should not need such an alert to get motorists’ attention at a crosswalk.

        In this case, it is a mid-block crossing, so it’s somewhat unusual in the streetscape. Also, the advantage to this set-up vs a red light is that once the pedestrian crosses, the motorist can go. OTOH, a red light, like at Bennett, remains red and the motorists can’t go until it turns green. This may extend the delay 20 seconds or more after the pedestrian is across. As a result, the signal would not be set to respond on demand, but would have a time interval that the next pedestrian would have to wait to cross. Then you’d have the problem we see at the Rollins crossing on Aloma where the peds get tired of waiting, use a gap and then the light changes and there is no one there to cross.

        • First, I don’t agree that a mid-block crosswalk reaches a high enough threshold to qualify as needing much more than a sign or raising the crosswalk.

          Second, “This may extend the delay 20 seconds or more after the pedestrian is across. As a result, the signal would not be set to respond on demand,”

          That’s because the light is “dumb” and is on a timer without sensors.

          Two ways modern technology can deal with it. One is use the new video camera sensor to detect people rather than vehicles as it is presently used. An alternative is to use IR sensors, the same way that they are used as burglar detectors.

          The way is the use of a sensor in the road. After the button is pressed, and the light changes on demand, it waits the time it needs for a pedestrian to cross, then changes to allow the cars to go, but then it is used to detect the absence, rather than the presence of cars.

          In the absence of cars, it resets so that the next pedestrian can use it by pressing the button. This would allow the cars to clear without having to wait long and allow the pedestrians to have on demand.

          If there are so many pedestrians that this really causes a traffic backup, then we need to be looking at sky bridges like they are building at Florida Hospital.

        • I’m so glad you brought up the Bennett crosswalk. I commute on bike along Cady Way just about every day. The first couple of times I was using the signal, but then I noticed that after I crossed, the signal stayed on for way too long and I started feeling bad for making all those drivers have to wait for one person, me, to cross the street. Lately I don’t use the signal anymore, but make use of the median to stop, if needed, for traffic on the other side to go through. I’m probably risking a ticket, but I also don’t want to inconvenience a handfull of drivers who have to stop way after I already crossed the street. Bennett doesn’t get that much traffic anyway, so I generally don’t have to wait long to cross. I’m all for medians in the cross walk, but sometimes having a light there is not necessary. I think it works just fine for me on Forsyth and Cady Way, unless someone else has a different story at this location.

          Btw, somewhat off topic. There’s a huge bush or tree or weed on Bennett that makes it hard to see oncoming traffic when crossing west bound. Can someone remove it…lol.

          • Agreed, Carlos. There is probably only a short time each day that the Bennett light is useful. You made a good point about risking a ticket. Probably no one would ticket you, but a red light crossing does make it technically illegal to cross, whereas the RRFB is an optional activation.

            There have been a few times I would have liked a light at Forsyth. But overall, the refuge median makes crossing much easier.

            That bush is only part of the problem westbound. There is a driveway on the other side of it. Twice I’ve had motorists come out of that driveway on two wheels and blow through just as I was about to cross. Both times I had activated the light, so they ran the red.

            They do need to do something about sight-lines looking south. I think that’s in the domain of the City of Orlando, but you can probably report it with Metroplan’s spot improvement form.

  4. In Toronto, the crosswalk law is that pedestrians point into the street and cars are legally required to stop. Compliance is generally very good; law enforcement is a regular Police duty and they routinely lay charges against the small minority of motorists who fail to stop when a pedestrian is pointing into the street.

    The fine is up to $500 for failing to stop when a pedestrian is pointing into the street. If the pedestrian has started to cross, then driver behaviour that endangers a cyclist, pedestrian or other vulnerable road user is automatically deemed Careless Driving, good for up to six months in jail.

    I find it absolutely bizarre that Florida police would refuse to uphold and enforce the law. And I am somewhat curious – which other laws do the police refuse to enforce?

    • Speed limits, running red lights and stop signs, no right turn on red, passing cyclists < 3 ft, not using turn signals, tailgating, distracted driving, …

      • The 3ft law could only be enforced with a sting and some sort of measuring equipment (laser) and video. In my experience, close passing is so rare, it would be hard to justify the cost and manpower to try enforcing it.

        It would be easier to catch people using their horn illegally to harass cyclists. After this incident we knocked the idea around as a possible component of the civility initiative.

    • Kevin,

      Michael Frederick is from Toronto. He said it was a shock to the system to move down here and see how peds are treated.

      The police enforce the law in the line of duty. Especially now with the priority placed on ped safety in St Pete. But that’s random… if an officer witnesses a violation, he tickets the driver. Stings are a whole other thing because they require numerous officers, especially downstream to line up the offenders.

      When St Pete first started the ped operations, it was all they could do to keep up with the volume of motorists being pulled over. That’s how it would be here, too.

      You can’t correct embedded bad behavior in one or two sessions, it has to be done continuously over time.

      • “You can’t correct embedded bad behavior in one or two sessions, it has to be done continuously over time.”

        And consistently, which is why I have a problem with holiday traffic law enforcement. It sends the message that it’s okay to speed all the other times of the year, but not on holiday weekends.

  5. We need something like this in S. Chickasaw Trail where I will have trouble getting over to Wal-Mart without jaywalking. When I watch for a green traffic light using my monocular, motorists who came out of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Shopping Center (or stores nearby) did not really care to stop for me and that all the motorists who got the green light turn left into S. Chickasaw Trail (southbound). Read it again: they don’t care to stop for me to cross through the S. Chickasaw Trail.

    Note that I mostly find pedestrian signals to be ineffective even if I wait, because if I don’t have my monocular with me, I’ll have a hard time for telling whether I can go or not. Looking at the pedestrian signal is also not that easy to see if I stand too close to it but I cannot stand in the crosswalk in the middle of the street. I did not have any choice but to not trust the pedestrian signals since I use my best judgment as much as I can, due to my visual impairment.

    • I don’t know what the laws are for the disabled anymore.

      I do know that I saw a few pedestrian crossings with noise makers being installed in the late ’80′s(?) or early 90′s, but since then I have seen no other new ones installed.

  6. Here in Europe a common fix is the positioning of large humps on the road some 10-20 yards from pedestrain crossings. This forces drivers to choose between slowing down or making expensive repairs to the underside of their vehicles. Is this simple and cheap solution not applicable in Florida?

    • Unfortunately, these marked crosswalks with or without the RRFB’s are mostly on multi-lane collector or arterial roadways. We have not allowed any speed humps on these facilities for obvious reasons. Crosswalks are however required because of the Florida development practices of urban sprawl and signals set so far apart.

  7. I traveled 12 miles each way on the Pinellas Rail Trail between Seminole and St.Petersburg, (except for the downtown St. Petersburg segment where it becomes a two-way sidepath) on January 18, 2011 and encountered a couple of the RRFBs where the path crosses major streets.

    The ones I saw are slightly different from the RRFBs shown in the video at

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrYjlD14qIU

    as there are also beacons facing the path users waiting at the ends of the crosswalk.

    Unlike ordinary traffic signals or the HAWK beacon, the RRFBs if used alone, as at these crossings, do not offer anything equivalent to a yellow-to-red sequence for the traffic in the cross street, and also there is no traffic signal or ped head for the path. The beacons facing voth the road and the path turn on immediately when a path user pushes a button. The beacons don’t give an indication of when the motor traffic actually is expected to have stopped, as a red traffic signal or ped head does. I found this confusing and I think that other path users and some motorists also did, due to the lack of a transition interval.

    There is a recorded voice message in the box with the pushbutton indicating to wait until the cross traffic stops, but it is only audible from nearby.

    I shot a short video clip at one of the crossings. The clip begins shortly after I pressed the button to turn on the beacon, as a pedestrian finishes running across the street. Then a couple of motor vehicles fail to yield and another stops halfway across the crosswalk. My video is online at

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nKL0PYNBrA

    The intersection is this one, at 22nd Avenue North (Google Maps satellite view). I was standing at the north side of the intersection (toward the top of the picture).

    http://tinyurl.com/6dpqf4f

    Of course, this is only one example, and it may be that my standing and not entering the crosswalk influenced the behavior of the drivers in the nearer lane, but I don’t think that it could have influenced those in the other lane. There was alreayd a pedestrian in the crosswalks, and a cyclist was approaching and waiting to cross.

    I think that the application of RRFBs at path crossings is very different from the use of flashing beacons at intersections where motorists also have a traffic light and the purpose of the RRFB is to alert them to the need to yield to parallel bicycle traffic when turning. I am curious as to which application was the one studied in the recent research which reported a high rate of compliance.

    The excess delay mentioned in other comments on this post is a control problem. Traffic signals create excess delay because controllers are so primitive that they cannot determine that nobody is crossing any more. Neither, often, do they detect bicyclists approaching intersections. These problems can and should be addressed through improved technology – in particular, video and ultrasonic detection.