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Intersections

Article

Intersection physical and functional areas
Source: FHWA

An intersection is defined as the area where two or more roadways join or cross, but also includes elements of the functional area, such as intersection approaches, medians, sidewalks, bike lanes, and other roadside features.

The image at right highlights the physical and functional areas of an intersection.

Intersections on great streets must serve all modes of travel.

Automobiles, transit vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists should all be given adequate time, space, and directional cues to safely proceed through intersections and continue traveling along the arterial. Balancing the needs of all users at multimodal intersections, while maximizing substantive safety is a complex and important challenge.

Intersection diagram
Source: FHWA
  • Intersections are points of conflict where modes of travel converge, as illustrated in the image at right.
  • Intersections should be carefully designed to include and prioritize the most appropriate place-specific design elements.
  • Intersecting roadways should cross at an angle of at least 75 degrees, ideally 90 degrees. When the angle of intersection is less than 60 degrees special design treatments may be needed to ensure a reasonable level of safety.
  • At intersections, medians can be used to provide separation between opposing traffic, channelization for turn lanes, and refuge for pedestrians.
  • Medians with landscaping and tree plantings can also be used to improve intersection (or roadway) aesthetics, although care should be taken not to affect driver or pedestrian visibility and sight distance.
Landscaped median
Credit: FHWA

Movement through intersections is controlled using yield signs, stop signs, roundabouts, and traffic signals. The appropriate type of control for a given intersection depends on the place type and the amount of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

The MUTCD provides guidance for selecting the appropriate type of control for various intersection conditions (see the following links for general information and specifics about signal warrants). 

Different traffic control devices impose varying degrees of delay on pedestrians and vehicles passing through the intersection. The overall efficiency and capacity of a roadway is limited by the delay experienced at its intersections.

Some agencies and municipalities continue widening intersections by adding exclusive, dual, or even triple turn lanes in an effort to minimize delay along the arterial. While these improvements do increase an intersection's vehicular capacity, they also render the intersection more difficult for other modes of travel (especially pedestrians) to navigate. Because turn lane additions are typically retrofit projects they can significantly impact surrounding residences, businesses, and land parcels.

Designing intersections for great streets requires balancing competing needs, interests, and values, and responding to the unique circumstances of each street. Planners, designers, policy makers, and local stakeholders should collaborate to develop a community vision which can be used to guide the design and construction of intersections and roadway improvements.

Intersections along Neighborhood Shop Thoroughfares

Pedestrian at intersection
Credit: CH2M HILL

The following is a list of characteristics influencing intersection design for neighborhood shop streets:  

  • There is a significant pedestrian presence; and
  • Multi-modal travel accommodations are needed.

The primary challenge in designing intersections in neighborhood areas is meeting the needs of pedestrians while maintaining an adequate level of efficiency for motor vehicle traffic. Pedestrian traffic is a primary mode in neighborhood shop areas. Thoroughfare and intersection design should reflect this need for a safe, attractive, and comfortable pedestrian environment.

AASHTO's Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities offers the following as characteristics of good intersection design:

  • Clarity - Motorized traffic should be alerted to the presence of pedestrians; pedestrians should be able to easily identify crossing locations; both goals can be achieved using appropriate sign placement and design.  Noticeable textures and colors can also be used to emphasize crosswalks for pedestrians and drivers approaching the intersection.
  • Predictability - Place pedestrian crossings in expected or predictable locations. In unexpected locations, use clear and visible signing, flashing lights, or beacons to alert drivers and pedestrians of the crossing.
  • Visibility - Providing adequate sight distance and appropriate lighting can improve visibility for both pedestrians and motorists. The sight distance required at an intersection is based on the design speed of the facility and constrained by various objects along the roadway (e.g. bus stop shelters, street furniture, utilities, building corners) as well as the thoroughfare's curvature. Although most neighborhood shop thoroughfares have relatively low design speeds, thoroughfare planners and engineers should consider selecting sight distances for higher speeds to further increase visibility.
  • Short Wait - Minimize the time pedestrians spend waiting to cross an intersection.
  • Countdown clock
    Credit: ?

    Sufficient Crossing Time - Signals should be programmed to ensure that all users, including the elderly and individuals with disabilities, have adequate time to safely cross the intersection. Newer pedestrian signals, such as the one shown in the image at right, provide countdown clocks which clearly communicate to pedestrians the time remaining to complete the crossing.

  • Limited Exposure - Reducing crossing distance, providing refuge islands, and reducing conflict points can minimize a pedestrian's exposure to traffic while crossing an intersection.

    Intersections should be as compact as possible in order to minimize crossing distances for pedestrians. For larger intersections, mid-street refuge islands allow pedestrians to cross one lane or direction of traffic at a time.  Right-turn-on-red restrictions can also be used to reduce pedestrian exposure in the crosswalk.

     

    Curb extension
    Credit: Charlier Associates

    On thoroughfares with curbside parking, curb extensions can reduce the required crossing distance. Curb extensions, as shown in the image at right, can also make pedestrians more visible to drivers.

  • Clear Crossing - The crossing path, including sidewalk ramps adjacent to the thoroughfare, should be clear of all barriers, including utility poles, fire hydrants, and signalization equipment. The crossing path must also be ADA compliant. Compliance is generally an opportunity to enhance intersections with amenities that are both inclusive and attractive, as shown at right.

Consider pedestrian presence when selecting the type of control at intersections. Traffic signals, signs, and markings are used to guide and regulate the multi-modal interaction and movements at intersections. Chapter 2 of the MUTCD discusses the merits of several control measures and describes the warrants for each. For example, stop signs are typically used on minor roads intersecting the major roadway in neighborhood shop environments. Although stop signs can also be used on major roadways, intersections must be carefully designed to ensure that pedestrians waiting to cross are clearly visible and motorists yield the right-of-way when pedestrians are present.

The MUTCD signal warrants can be used to assess the appropriateness of a traffic signal along a neighborhood shop street.

Effective warrant evaluation necessitates the use of current, comprehensive data for vehicular and pedestrian traffic and direct field observation by the individuals ultimately making the traffic control recommendations.

Meeting some or all of the eight warrants outlined in the manual does not mandate the use of a traffic signal, but this information should be used by local leaders, planners, and designers in decision-making. Warrant 4, in particular, focuses on pedestrian demand and should be given special attention in neighborhood shop environments.

Roundabouts are not appropriate in neighborhood shop areas, where there are high volumes of pedestrian crossings. Roundabouts create a constant flow of vehicular traffic and impede pedestrian movement across the thoroughfare.

Restrict turning movements during peak traffic. If traffic signals will be used at a particular intersection along the thoroughfare, several signal timing regulations can be implemented to improve vehicular and pedestrian operations. For example, limiting or prohibiting left turns, either throughout the day or at peak periods, can free up more "green time" for through traffic and improve vehicle operations. Prohibiting right turn on red helps maintain the primacy of service for pedestrians during walk intervals that correspond with red-light phases.  

Provide improved pedestrian facilities. Intersections are points of conflict and pedestrians are the most vulnerable users. Directional signage and pedestrian indicators should be used to safely and efficiently guide pedestrians through signalized intersections in neighborhood shop corridors. Countdown clocks are a specific type of indicator using an active countdown display to communicate to pedestrians the time remaining to complete the crossing maneuver.

Include Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APSs). APSs provide various types of information to pedestrians with vision impairments. APSs can help create great streets that are accessible for all users. Chapter 4E of the MUTCD provides additional information on APSs and their application. 

AASHTO's Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities, describes several types of APSs, including:

  • Audible at Pedestrian Signal Head: a speaker on top of the pedestrian signal head emits a bell, buzzer, cheep, spoken message, or some other audible tone during the walk interval, alerting pedestrians of the appropriate time to cross.
  • Audible at Push Button: a locator noise is constantly emitted from the push button to identify its location. When the button is pushed, it triggers the emission of a voice message or other noise signal when the walk interval begins.
  • Vibrotactile: the push button or arrow vibrates during the walk interval, allowing those who cannot see to feel the vibration and know that the walk interval is active.
  • Transmitted Message: pedestrians wearing a special receiver can hear intersection-specific information, such as the announcement of walk intervals, which is transmitted from an infrared or LED device on the signal head.

Keep curb radii small. Transit vehicles and users are typically more prevalent along neighborhood shop corridors, and their presence should significantly influence the design of intersections, particularly curb return radii. Consistent with ITE's Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities, this guide recommends that curb return radii be as small as practicable in urban settings. 

Consider channelized right turns when necessary and appropriate. In neighborhood shop environments, the turning radii of buses should be used to select curb return radii only for intersections along designated bus routes. In these locations, additional design elements, such as channelized right turns, should be considered to enhance and protect pedestrian activity. 

Chapter 10 of the ITE publication Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities provides additional information and guidance about channelized right turn lanes. While this treatment is not typically favored in areas with a significant pedestrian presence, well-designed channelized right turns can improve crossing conditions if and when large vehicles need to be accommodated. A well-designed channelized right turn should:

  • Reduce vehicular speed (5 to 10 mph is desirable) through the right turn movement.
  • Reduce the amount of information that pedestrians must process; this treatment allows pedestrians to examine the right turn lane first, then evaluate through traffic upon reaching the channelized island.
  • Offer a landing that protects pedestrians from through-moving vehicles; these landings are especially helpful for slower pedestrians that may not be able to make it across the entire thoroughfare in one cycle.
  • Provide push buttons that are easy to access.
  • Improve signal timing for the intersection by reducing the pedestrian crossing distance.

When these channelized turning radii requirements are not feasible, an alternative is to keep curb return radii small but offset sidewalks, light poles, street furniture, and other streetside amenities, allowing the occasional large vehicle to ride over the curb to negotiate the turn without conflicts.