Mixed Signals for City Pedestrians

New Yorkers are famous for crossing streets whenever they feel like it, taking a blasé attitude toward crosswalk signals. But the signs tend to capture the attention of pedestrians when the "walk" and "don't walk" icons are lit up at the same time, which is the case at intersections all over the city.

At the corner of Spring and Greene Streets in SoHo, the orange "don't walk" hand is illuminated. But so is the "walking man" icon. Latonya Turner and her husband Otis are visiting from Arkansas. What would they have done if they'd been left to their own devices?

"We probably would have stood here and thought, 'Okay, what do we do?'" "I guess you have a choice then, you can either walk or not walk," Otis said.

"I guess you can just take your chances," Latonya added, laughing.

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The mixed-up signals are no laughing matter, according to New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer. Nearly a year ago, her office did an unscientific survey in her Upper West Side district and counted some 13 broken signals. "It is confusing to people, I think particularly for tourists and visitors and seniors, who are always frightened to cross the street no matter what, because you never know what car or bicycle is coming at you," Brewer said.

Some people have speculated that the lights stop working when it gets cold, but the city's Department of Transportation says that's not the problem. The issue, a spokesman says, is that the lights have a life span of roughly seven years. When they reach the end of that period, many of them begin to malfunction. They display the walking man and the orange hand simultaneously.

Officials say if you see a crosswalk signal doing that, call 311. The DOT replaced about three percent of the city's crosswalk signals last year, some of them identified by pedestrian complaints. But Brewer said there are still a lot of broken signals out there. She recommends that the city use its 311 Scouts, inspectors who ride around town in small orange vehicles looking for things like potholes.

"This should be one of their mandates," Brewer said. "It should not be complaint-based."

Until a more comprehensive approach is taken, here's one tip from the DOT: the malfunction, when the walk and don't walk icons light up together, happens only during the time when you actually can walk. But if you see the orange hand illuminated all by itself, that really means don't walk.