On a chilly mid-December morning, an oversized, slow-moving vehicle rattled to a halt in front of my house. As I ran outside to see what all the racket was, a smiling man wearing a brightly colored vest emerged, cradling a large red octagon.
“Merry Christmas,” he said. And it was. After four years of asking the city to make my street safer, I finally had four-way stop signs installed on my corner.
Intersections are where streets physically come together, but they’re also symbolic crossroads for our communities, the places where we negotiate a shared space with people every single day. On any given week I’m making multiple multimodal trips through my local intersection: driving in a car, pedaling on a bike, pushing a stroller, buying raspados from a sidewalk vendor, or helping a neighbor with groceries make their way from the bus stop.
Unfortunately, most U.S. intersections are also a terrifying part of daily life. Before our new stop signs were installed, cars flew past our house at gasp-inducing speeds just feet from where my young children puttered around on scooters. After witnessing a half-dozen crashes in the first two years we lived there, my neighbors put up signs by their curb warning people to drive more slowly—which were promptly knocked over by a driver that crashed into a parked car, shoving the vehicle past the signs and onto their sidewalk.
Our intersections can be so much more than crosswalks and traffic lights. Improved intersection design makes movement safer and more predictable for everyone. An intersection can also provide all sorts of localized benefits, from saving lives to increasing accessibility to creating public space to improving air quality. I asked experts ranging from engineers to advocates for advice on how to make our little corners of the world even better.
Don’t be prescriptive
Sure, you might have your heart set on a lushly planted roundabout fringed with polka-dot painted pavement. But if you’re heading into the process with a solution already in mind, you can make it harder for the city to address your concerns.
“Unless you’re an expert, start with a clear definition of the problem you’re trying to solve, not a specific solution,” says Jeffrey Tumlin, the recently appointed director of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency. “It’s easy to have your request dismissed if you unintentionally focus on a technically problematic design solution.”
Instead, try to express the challenge your block is facing. Does the intersection experience a high rate of crashes? Is visibility troublesome for drivers, particularly at a certain time of day? Is the crosswalk countdown too short for people to get across the street? Do large numbers of cyclists use the intersection and need better protection? Are cars traveling at speeds that feel dangerous to others walking or biking?
Plus, if you avoid specifics, you won’t get trapped into defending details that don’t exist yet, says Doug Gordon, host of the podcast The War on Cars.
“There are going to be people who resist change by arguing and asking questions that aren’t really questions,” he says. “‘You can’t put a bulb-out there! How will trucks make turns? And what about the parking? How will stores receive deliveries?’” Being open to ideas makes it easier to win over detractors.
Gather good data
Cold hard facts, especially when it comes to safety, will be key as you take your concerns to your local government. States have databases where you can track crash data to confirm your suspicions that your intersection is dangerous. If your city has a Vision Zero initiative, you may have a real-time dashboard that plots serious crashes on a map, or designates specific intersections or corridors as particularly dangerous.
Transportation planners likely have very accurate information on the number of vehicles that use an intersection. What they might not be counting are the number of people on foot or on bikes, or recent changes to local traffic patterns. The opening of new shops and restaurants in particular create what planners call pedestrian magnets, adding more people to streets and sidewalks.
Start by documenting the experience of using the intersection so you can tell a story about what changes are needed. Videos are great for illustrating details like insufficient crosswalk countdown times. A variety of apps can be used to track the number of people or vehicles using the street. Radar guns can be purchased or borrowed to measure vehicle speeds. When crashes occur, definitely take photos, but be aware that your observations may not match up with official data—many crashes are never reported to city and state agencies.
But data alone doesn’t always tell the whole story. When residents of a Seattle neighborhood kept asking the city for speed bumps around an intersection that engineers considered “safe,” Toole Design’s Kristen Lohse learned the request was actually in response to gun violence which was happening nearby. “It turns out 21st Street is pretty much the only street in the area that doesn’t have any traffic calming,” she says. “Everyone who lives nearby knows it’s a perfect getaway street.”
Taking an empathetic approach to street design can help align your campaign around solving the issues you’re facing as a block—even if they end up going beyond street design, Lohse says. “If we fail to understand and value the viewpoints of the people who live in the communities we serve, our projects will exclude them and even generate opposition.”
Similarly, you’ll want to demonstrate that the call for change is broadly popular. Before you start plotting your campaign, talk to your neighbors and business owners, particularly the ones who have been there the longest. Institutional memory is powerful, and you might learn of a similar effort that failed in the past—or that a current effort is already underway for a different fix. For smaller interventions like speed humps and stop signs, some cities require residents to do the outreach legwork to get consensus before they’ll even consider surveying the site.
Find the decision-makers
Navigating the chambers of your local governmental offices might be the toughest part of your intersection journey, but it’s critical to learn where to submit your request, how best to propose it—and who will ultimately say yes.
A smart place to start is by reaching out to local advocacy groups for pedestrians and cyclists that have been successful in bringing change to streets and can offer advice on which department or people to approach. Then you’ll need to put together a database of all the elected or appointed officials who represent the area, from community boards to city councils to county supervisors.
I just shared this photo I saved some months ago when I was doing research on designing bike infrastructure in a rural setting. I could totally see this in the area where my grandmother lives. Her options for movement and mobility would be enhanced. pic.twitter.com/39BBKEjMQk— Courtney Cobbs (she/her) ♂️ ⭕️ ♀️ ️ (@CourtneyCyclez) February 5, 2020
In the meantime, try to find your city’s Dongho Chang, the Seattle traffic engineer who has become well-known throughout the city for surveying streets on bike and documenting changes his department is making on social media. Chang says he relies on his fellow Twitter users to share photos of intersections that need help. “If you don’t know about [those little issues], no one will ever get to them, so it’s nice to hear there was a corner we can fix.”
Finding a transportation leader who will listen to your concerns may result in an ongoing dialogue. In St. Louis, writer Steven Patterson encounters plenty of intersections missing ramps, which make them completely inaccessible to him as a person who uses a wheelchair. “About five years ago, St. Louis’s streets director said I could just email the city’s asphalt employee directly for requests,” he says. Fixes are deployed quickly now when Patterson shows that an intersection is unsafe.
Courtney Cobbs, a Chicago-based biking advocate and contributor to Streetsblog, has seen success reporting troublesome intersections directly to the city’s alderpersons. She uses her Twitter feed and Instagram videos to amplify her message, encouraging her fellow street users to contact their representatives as well.
One piece of advice here: The people who hold your intersection’s fate in their hands may be public figures, but remember that they are people. Don’t angrily tag every city department head in every photo of your bad intersection. (I mean, you can, but it’s not likely to endear you to the people who can help you.) Engage and contribute. If you see a nice bulb-out in another neighborhood, don't get mad—share it.
Learn the lingo
Wait—what’s a bulb-out? If you want to see a change in your intersection design, it’s time to learn how to talk like the people who design those intersections.
The transportation design resources created by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) are designed for city decision-makers but are written in an accessible way. You’ll glean a lot of knowledge about what types of changes are most effective at a variety of scales, learn crucial terminology, and see illustrations that can help you understand how various solutions might work for your intersection.
“Our job as designers is to design a street that reduces the impact of human error as much as possible,” says Zabe Bent, design director at NACTO. “A lot of the guidance is slowing people to the point where we can dramatically reduce severity when and if there is a collision.”
The Urban Street Design Guide—note the entire sections on intersections and intersection design—and the Urban Bikeway Design Guide are immensely helpful for visualizing potential solutions for troublesome intersections. A newer NACTO publication, “Don’t Give Up at the Intersection,” offers particularly relevant information for how to advocate for infrastructure that helps protect bike networks as they travel through intersections, the places where most vehicle-bike crashes happen.
Think about the kids
About 4,000 American kids die per year as the result of car crashes, making traffic fatalities the most common cause of death for children and young adults age 5 to 19. Many cities that have dramatically decreased roadway deaths, like Oslo, have accomplished this by focusing on safety improvements around schools. If your intersection is near a school or daycare, it may already be prioritized as part of your city’s safe routes to school program, a national movement to ensure all kids can safely walk and bike to school.
Cobbs points to a busy Chicago intersection that she avoided, even as an experienced cyclist, because she was too scared to bike through it. But once a local school got engaged, changes got pushed through—in fact, now it’s getting bulb-outs.
“This intersection was improved due to the work of the students and parents of the school that borders this street,” she says. “There’s power in numbers.”
Beyond empowering schools, Tumlin recommends that parents actively engage their kids in advocacy work—what better way to teach them how government works, right? Bring them to meetings and even encourage them to give public statements, he says: “There is no more powerful force than a 10-year-old plaintively describing the experience of trying to walk to school in an auto-dominated neighborhood.”
Be open to cost-saving ideas
Safety improvements cost a lot of money. But a life-altering change might not require a massive investment from a city, says Chang, who recommends looking at empty or underutilized space in roadways.
Chang has been experimenting with low-cost intersection fixes all over Seattle that take advantage of empty spaces in roadways. “These can be opportunities for community engagement that create momentum for broader changes for the neighborhood and the city.” he says.
One example Chang gives is using the no parking zones found at every intersection, usually marked by a red curb that ends 20 to 30 feet before a crosswalk or stop sign. These spaces can be turned back to spaces for people using paint, posts, and planters to create bike parking, seating, or tiny parks (called parklets).
Not only does filling in unused space make wider intersections easier to cross, just getting more people into the street can help increase foot traffic enough to make the case for bigger changes, says Chang. “More people feeling comfortable crossing will encourage more use and meet the federal guidelines for additional treatments like crosswalks and stop control.”
Show up (and show up and show up)
You’ve rallied your neighbors. You’ve launched your campaign. Now comes the really hard work: enduring the multiple rounds of community meetings that may be required to make your intersection fix a reality.
As you start your world tour of council hearings, school board meetings, and presentations to local business groups, you’ll need to prepare yourself for how your government functions. Tumlin suggests watching or listening to a meeting ahead of time—many of them are recorded and available as audio or video files—so you know how public commenting will work, and how much time you might have for a presentation.
Next, make sure your neighbors will also show up. This might not be easy given the inopportune times and inaccessible locations of meetings. Coordinating child care and transportation for some of your intersection’s stakeholders will ensure their voices are heard, too.
“Many streets don’t get changed without the proposal first being aired at a public hearing or town-hall-style meeting,” says Gordon. “If the only people who show up to such meetings are those who resist change or see no problem with the status quo, then change won’t occur. So if you want that stop sign, bulb-out, or other safety improvement, you must be in the room where it happens.”
Make temporary changes
If you’re not making headway with the decision-makers, or the city is delaying implementation, you may want to try a technique known as tactical urbanism. Please note that I’m in no way endorsing breaking the law or doing anything dangerous in the roadway—but little attention-getting stunts that demonstrate how changes might work do seem to get results.
“Tactical urbanism can be a great way to test out an intersection redesign and demonstrate the benefits,” says Jill Locantore, executive director of Walk Denver. In cooperation with local officials, Walk Denver implemented a temporary makeover of one of the most dangerous intersections in the city, which ended up leading to permanent changes.
“This was a pretty large-scale demonstration that involved a lot of intensive planning with the city,” she says, “but neighborhood groups can do more scaled-back versions that still can be very successful at bringing attention to problems and build support for solutions.”
Showing the potential for change can be as easy as setting out a few traffic cones and using your phone to record video of drivers slowing down as they turn, says Gordon: “I did this on my block and successfully showed that even with a bulb-out, drivers of UPS trucks, school buses, and other big vehicles were still able to access the street without endangering pedestrians.”
Even if you’ve exhausted every avenue and haven’t seen change, don’t be discouraged. Few U.S. cities have prioritized these types of improvements, and a groundswell of reform is unlikely to happen without a major shift in the country’s leadership—which offers another window of opportunity.
“If all else fails,” says Tumlin, “put yourself up for planning commissioner, or run for city council.” Traffic engineers might be the ones you see out there on the corner implementing small fixes—but when it comes to implementing more systemic change across the city, it’s elected officials who hold the power.