How Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons Make Our Roads Safer

How Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons Make Our Roads Safer

As demand grows for more walkable cities and neighborhoods, transportation engineers like myself must consider how to keep pedestrians safe.  A great tool in our arsenal is the Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon (PHB), a traffic control device used to increase motorists’ awareness of pedestrians crossing marked crosswalks at uncontrolled or midblock locations.  Adopted into the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) in 2009, after an interim trial period for the device since 2000, PHBs have proven to reduce pedestrian crashes up to 69% and reduce total crashes by 29%.

The original PHB was created in Tucson, AZ, and was referred to as a HAWK signal (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK).  This HAWK configuration and operation was adopted from the European PELICAN (PEdestrian LIght Control ActivatioN), with the bird name acronym being a nod to that relationship. 

The main differences between a PELICAN signal and a HAWK signal is that the PELICAN “rests” in green, or the signals show a green indication to the mainline traffic, while the HAWK signal rests in “dark”, or has no active signal indication shown for the mainline traffic.  Once activated by a pedestrian pushbutton, the PELICAN gives motorists a normal yellow then red indication like a typical traffic signal.  The HAWK signal, however, goes through a series of indications flashing yellow, solid yellow, solid red, “wig-wag” red then back to dark.

Pedestrian Hybrid Operation
The signal heads used for PHB consists of two horizontally arranged red ball indications above a single yellow ball indication. The signal heads rest in “dark” until activated by pedestrians. As the vehicular signal heads rest in “dark” the pedestrian signal heads will display the “DON’T WALK” indication. Once the PHB system has been activated by an accessible pedestrian pushbutton, the vehicular signal heads will begin to flash yellow to warn motorists that the PHB system has been activated. The brief flashing yellow interval will be followed by steady yellow interval. Approaching vehicles should begin to slow down and be prepared to stop. The steady yellow interval is followed by a steady red interval, and motorists should come to a complete stop and wait at the designated stop bar. During this steady red interval, the “WALK” indication will be displayed for the pedestrians. This is the period in which pedestrian can begin crossing the road and is typically set to 4-7 seconds. This time can be increased depending on location and pedestrian volume. The pedestrian “WALK” phase is followed by the flashing “DON’T WALK” or countdown sequence. This notifies to pedestrians that they should not begin crossing and the time remaining to complete crossing. During the pedestrian “DON’T WALK” phase, the PHB signal heads will display alternating, or “wig-wag”, flashing red lights to drivers. The flashing red indicates to drivers that they are to stop and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk and can proceed once pedestrians are clear.

Location and Design
PHBs can be most effective at multi-lane, high-volume, high-speed roadways that pose mobility problems for pedestrians. Crossings can be placed at locations for mid-block crossings where there are large distances between adjacent signalized intersections or they may be located where large numbers of pedestrians are expected, such as transit stops. Schools, parks, trails or locations with potential short periods of high volume pedestrian crossings are also good candidates for PHBs.

Chapter 4F of the MUTCD contains provisions for how PHBs are warranted and recommends how and where they should be located. Warrants for this type of device is based on speed limit, major street vehicular volume, crosswalk length, and the number pedestrians crossing. For example, a high-volume, multi-lane road may only require 20 pedestrians crossing per hour to meet warrants for the installation of a PHB device.

PHBs may also be constructed as a two-stage crossing.  In this configuration, pedestrians will cross to a median refuge island while only crossing opposing one direction of traffic.  Once they get to the median island they actuate the other half of the signal and cross the other direction of traffic.  For this type of two-stage configuration, the median islands should be constructed in such a manner that pedestrians are guided to turn to their right and face oncoming traffic.  This type of two-stage crossing also decreases delay for the mainline vehicular traffic.

The MUTCD recommends that PBHs be located at least 100-ft from adjacent intersections and driveways.  PHBs are not configured for side street control, and placing them at intersections can potentially lead to the operation of “half signals” which are prohibited by the MUTCD.  To help promote adequate sight distances for pedestrians, the MUTCD also recommends that on-street parking should be restricted within 100 feet of the crossing for approaching traffic and 20 feet from the crossing on the departure side. Where installed on a roadway with coordinated signals, the MUTCD recommends the PHB be coordinated with the other signals.

Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons in Georgia
The first PHB installed by GDOT was in Suwanee, GA, on SR 13/Buford Hwy at the Suwanee Town Center.  This was installed during the FHWA interim period while research into the device operations and recommendations was still ongoing.  Soon after that HAWK was installed, DeKalb County converted a total of eight midblock crossing with flashers only – four on SR 13/Buford Hwy and four on SR 155/Candler Rd – to HAWK beacons during the FHWA interim approval period.  Shortly thereafter, the MUTCD formally adopted the PHB into the most recent version of the MUTCD. 

Prior to the introduction of the PHB, SR 13/Buford Hwy in parts of DeKalb County and SR 8/Ponce de Leon Ave in Fulton County had been identified as the top two roads in Georgia with the most pedestrian accidents and fatalities.  Since its approval in the MUTCD, seven more PHBs have been installed on SR 13/Buford Hwy in DeKalb County.  Four PHBs are being installed on SR 8/Ponce de Leon Ave as part of projects associated with the road diet, streetscape and pedestrian projects, as well as the Beltline and Ponce City Market development.  Another prominent PHB is on North Ave on the Georgia Tech campus, helping students and gameday patrons cross safely. 

PHBs are a great tool to increase pedestrian safety as our communities continue to trend towards more walkability, and we look forward to seeing these signals become more commonplace across the U.S.

About Stevie Berryman

Website: www.fg-inc.net
Email address: sberryman@fg-inc.net

Stevie Berryman, PE is a Transportation Project Manager for Foresite Group’s Transportation Division in Peachtree Corners, GA. Stevie graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Master’s degree in Construction Management. In his spare time, Stevie is a coach for a youth travel baseball program.