Where the Lafitte Greenway crosses busy New Orleans streets like Claiborne and Carrollton avenues, there are yellow signs with pedestrian and bicycle icons. When activated by a pedestrian or bicyclist, the small panel of yellow lights below the sign will flash, signaling vehicles to stop.
But a study published earlier this year and conducted by researchers in Tulane University’s Department of Epidemiology showed that not only did many vehicles not stop when the lights flashed — but that the vehicles actually were less likely to stop for cyclists who did use the signal than those who did not.
Among pedestrians, the study found no relationship between signal activation and vehicle stopping behavior. While researchers found that fewer unsafe crossings did occur when the crossing signals were activated, they say that the safer crossings were not due to the signals influencing vehicles to stop.
Chris Anderson, a doctoral candidate in the department who helped conduct the study, said these findings could be partly related to the underuse of crossing signals by users on the 2.6-mile trail — particularly among cyclists, who are traveling at faster rates than pedestrians.
Researchers found that only 14% of cyclists researchers observed used the crossing signal, as compared to 23% of pedestrians.
In 2014, I was hit by a car while riding my bike on Orleans Avenue in New Orleans. I was wearing a helmet, had lights, and was riding as far t…
“If cyclists used them more consistently, perhaps we would see a similar pattern to what we saw with the pedestrians where there's no relationship,” Anderson said. “Or perhaps if everyone was more consistent in their signal activation, the motor vehicles would get the picture and understand that when this is activated (they should stop).”
Jeanette Gustat, an associate professor at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine who led the study, said that she personally does not find the small signals — also referred to as rectangular rapid flash beacons (RRFBs) — to be noticeable.
“They are vertical, so what I think makes it difficult is, for example, on Claiborne you have the support for the expressway that's above Claiborne Avenue. Well, these poles are sort of vertical like those poles, and they don't stand out to me as a driver,” Gustat said.
“And they're yellow lights, which in our bright daytime, it may be harder to see them than another color,” she added.
Studies on the effectiveness of the signals in other cities have shown mixed results. Anderson said they tend to be more effective on lower traffic streets, unlike the ones perpendicular to the Lafitte Greenway.
Gustat said that the results of the study indicate that motorists, pedestrians and cyclists alike could benefit from a public awareness campaign related to the crossing signals.
“It is a law that motorists have to stop when someone's in a crosswalk,” Gustat said. “Perhaps the Greenway's kind of new, maybe people aren't realizing that that's the crosswalk, or that people could be there or what those lights mean.”
“Perhaps it can be an indication that we need a little more education on that we should use the signals and then that drivers should stop when the signals are activated,” she added.
Another possible solution could be investing in automatic triggers, so that cyclists could activate the crosswalk signal without stopping and getting off their bikes, but the city would need to be able to afford that infrastructure cost, Gustat said.
As the group Friends of Lafitte Greenway pushes to expand the greenway — which opened in November 2015 — all the way through to Canal Boulevard, these crosswalk signals could be something to consider moving forward.