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I have had multiple scary experiences crossing streets and highways with fast moving traffic in the US. My impressions are that the traffic system is not designed particularly with pedestrian safety in mind, or it is my ignorance and I would like to learn more. The following is one of my experiences.

I walked across McLean Blvd i.e. NJ 20 (a state highway), between 18 and 17 St (see Google map and 3d navigation initially looking to the south at the traffic light) , first from the west side to the east, and then back. In both directions, I walked in front of the north-bound traffic when they stopped to the traffic lights.

When I walked back from the east side to the west, the traffic light suddenly turned green (it was red when I stepped into McLean), and I was still in the middle lane of the north bound traffic. Both cars in the slower and faster lanes were started moving, and I had to walk back to the east side, and was scared by the car in the slower lane fast approaching me.

Questions:

Was it a bad decision to walk back? What should I have done when being stuck in front of the middle lane?

I was wondering how to walk across McLean i.e. NJ 20 safely between 18 and 17 St? What signs could I have looked for as crossing instructions?

For example, I noticed there was a jughandle on north-bound McLean. I saw some north bound cars used it to turn around at the traffic lights. Would it be safer to walk in front of the south-bound traffic than the north-bound traffic, in order to avoid those north bound cars which turned around? Is there a sign near the traffic lights indicating to pedestrians to cross McLean only in front of the south bound traffic, not in front of the north bound traffic? (There is no sidewalk or waiting area on the east side, which would have helped to guide pedestrians to walk across McLean.)

Walking in front of the south-bound traffic might be another option, but

  • When I crossed from west to east, I walked slightly to the north at the traffic lights, and I couldn't see which traffic light was on, because my line of view was almost parallel to the traffic lights. The pedestrian signal equipment was less visible than the traffic lights hanging in the air, and I didn't notice it.

  • When I crossed from east back to west, there was a panhandler checking on every car waiting in the jughandle. While I was a bit emotional when my empathy came, I didn't have anything to give him. So I avoided eye contact, when he looked in my direction. I am not sure if he is still the person in this screenshot. Moreover, I didn't think the outside of the jughandle was walkable

Thanks.

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You need to watch the pedestrian crossing light: enter image description here

You should only cross when it indicates "walk", which in this case will be indicated by an image of a walking person. Very old systems might use the words "DON'T WALK" and "WALK" instead of the hand and walker icons.

Depending on the design of the intersection you might have to press a button (circled in foreground) to make the system recognize your presence and give you the walk signal (which will probably also make the red light for the cross traffic last longer to give you time to cross.

In comments you said,

I assumed it is always allowed to cross right in front of traffics at all directions, unless there is a sign telling do not cross here.

Technically you may be allowed to cross the road anywhere. In practice it might be very dangerous to do that. If a pedestrian crossing signal is provided, you should use it.

Also, I paid more attention to the traffic lights hanging in middle of the road, than the pedestrian signals on the sides. So I normally crossed street where I could see the traffic lights.

If you are a pedestrian, you should pay most attention to the pedestrian signals and less attention to the signals meant for drivers.

For a busy street like this it is not wise to try to cross at a location without a pedestrian signal.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Willeke Aug 26 at 8:03
  • When the comments have been moved to the chatroom, go there to add more. We can only move comments once and all that are posted after the move may get deleted. (And likely will.) The reason for that is that newly posted comments are often duplicates of what already has been discussed. We move the comments to keep them available without making the whole of the page impossible to read. – Willeke Aug 28 at 18:40
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USA traffic systems are build for cars, other modes of transport are an afterthought if you are lucky, completely ignored if you are unlucky.

If there are pedestrian crossing lights, use those. If using those involves you crossing more lanes of traffic, going from where you are might be an option.

The best way to cross the street from where you stand is to watch at least a full cycle of the lights before you start walking and then start as soon as the longest period with no cars on the part you need to cross.
This does not mean that you will be safe, it will be the least unsafe option.

You will always have to watch out for cars coming from behind you who use the 'right on red' right to go (allowed in much but not all of the USA) or coming towards you when you near the end of the crossing, and you will have to judge how long the 'safe' period is against the width of the road.

There are junctions/roads which are so hard to cross on foot, and to cross from one side street to one on the other side of the main junction that people are reported to prefer to drive a mile or two rather than risk their life on foot or by trying to cross the main traffic stream in their car. I heard that story from a friend, it was in Mobile, Alabama, 1980.

This video compares Dutch to USA (and other) crossings with traffic lights, at 5.42 starts a section about an American junction.

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    Great video - thanks! :D – user2121 Aug 25 at 16:02
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    2x small nitpicks - 1) The first sentence appears to be opinion rather than factual or useful. 2) "allowed in much but not all of the USA" I think this would be more accurate if you said it was allowed almost everywhere in the USA (with a few exceptions). Other than those comments I think it's a good answer – Midavalo Aug 25 at 17:58
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    @Willeke, since Right on Red was at one point a requirement for receiving federal highway funding, it's legal nearly everywhere in the US unless marked. Wikipedia mentions that it's legal throughout North America, except in Montreal, Mexico City, and New York City (the one notable exception in the US). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn_on_red#North_America – Andrew Ray Aug 25 at 20:00
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    @Midavalo As an American I have to agree with Willeke on this. American roads have been built for motor vehicles and nothing else for over a century. That's changing in the present day, but very slowly. Try walking or cycling around the average European city and then around the average American city and you'll see and feel the difference clearly. The average American city will have long distances, high speed limits, no bike lanes or bike paths, often no sidewalks, and frequently not even any reliable public transit. – Kyralessa Aug 26 at 8:28
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    @phoog NYC is an exception in the USA, not the only one but one of not too many, as a city where walking is still common. Much of the USA is car centric and walking is unusual and sometimes impossible. – Willeke Aug 26 at 16:19
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NJ 20 is a vital connector between Interstate 80 and NJ 4. It is a divided highway with a "Jersey barrier" down the middle the whole way, except for that intersection. The Jersey barrier is effectively uncrossable on foot. There is a jughandle intersection between 17th and 18th. OP is not trying to cross mid-block.

6 lanes on a paltry 80' right-of-way (should be 240' for that traffic count!) goes to show it's less about "America doesn't care about pedestrians" and more about "way too much road crammed in too small a right-of-way". This is one overstressed piece of road; it's not usually this hard. And they crammed the Micro Center on some barely-accessible land on the far side.

First, to address a few misconceptions

Under my subconsciousness, (1) I assumed it is always allowed to cross right in front of traffic at all directions, unless there is a sign telling do not cross here.

No no, the duty to avoid an accident falls equally on your shoulders as theirs. At the very least, if you set up a situation where a prudent driver would find it difficult to avoid an accident, that's all on you. And not least, for them it's a ticket, for you it's 50 years in a wheelchair begging for painkillers and barely holding onto a dead-end job because you need the health insurance.

The law gives you some protection, but it's cold comfort to know you're right from your hospital bed. Traffic is people, and they don't behave like robots, and even the robots mow down pedestrians.

When I walked back from the east side to the west, the traffic light suddenly turned green (it was red when I stepped into McLean),

OK, that happened because the signal has loop detectors, so it can sense traffic approaching or waiting, and can quickly flip the light to serve the most needy traffic (so people aren't sitting at a red light for nothing). In this case, since the road is a practical freeway except for this light, I would particularly expect this on the "jughandle" so the thru lanes can stay running whenever the jughandle is not needed. Where loop detectors exist, pedestrian pushbuttons also exist. You really need to push the button. Pushing the button guarantees you a long phase so you can cross.

Sometimes not being able to see or tell traffic lights from certain angles convenient for pedestrians has been a problem for me.

Not just for you; in complex, busy intersections they use Fresnel lenses to aim the traffic lights at the lanes of traffic they control and obscure them from other angles. It's good to be situationally aware of highway signals, but regardless, if you can see pedestrian signs aimed at your crosswalk, those control you.

Now to your questions.

What to do when you're stuck in the middle?

Both cars in the slower and faster lanes were started moving, and I had to walk back to the east side, and was scared by the car in the slower lane fast approaching me. ... Was it a bad decision to walk back? What should I have done when being stuck in front of the middle lane?

You should have run for your life to a safety zone the instant you realized you were losing the light. I.E. when you saw it turn yellow, because you know what happens next. On a highway of that volume/speed, they probably set the yellow lights to 5.5 seconds. Lanes are 12' wide so you needed to move no more than 18 feet. That's an easy walk in that time, but you need to maintain situational awareness.

In the middle of the highway on the both sides of that gap I see a "safety zone" 5 feet wide; not great, but it's an emergency refuge for pedestrians who mess up. If you were crossing in the fairly vast open asphalt area, that would be a serious blunder.

How do I cross properly, then?

I was wondering how to walk across McLean i.e. NJ 20 safely between 18 and 17 St? What signs could I have looked for as crossing instructions?

Your responsibility is to examine the whole intersection carefully.

Once you have done so, you notice a few things about crossing on the south side of the intersection: First it leads nowhere: to an empty balloon of land surrounded by jughandle. No way out except to come back to this intersection. Second, as you approach the light, you are observing its phases. It has two: North-south traffic, and jughandle traffic. All the phases send traffic onto the southbound lanes. There is no phase which leaves southbound lanes clear on the south side. Therefore a south side crossing is inherently stupid, and the only crossing that makes sense is on the north side of the intersection.

Et voilà, what do we see on the north side? Pedestrian pushbuttons and walk signs.

So our sussing out of the intersection reveals "intelligent design" to have pedestrians cross on the north side. Indeed, Google's walking instructions (which you linked) specifically say to use the north side.

So that was easy: cross on the north side.

Would it be better for them to prohibit it as a crosswalk and sign both sides accordingly? Yeah. But they have no place to put warning signs/barrier on the west side because there's a driveway there. That's typical of the east; they don't "dumb it down" for you, you are expected to use your brain and/or know your territory.

Was that even a crosswalk?

The US shares a "model" traffic code that most states copy mostly verbatim with only a few local changes. For instance NYC outlaws right-on-red. It's possible that NJ made a local amendment... but the model code says crosswalks are on every side of every intersection unless marked. As such, most crosswalks are invisible/unmarked.

Having looked at it from every angle on Google Street View, it looks like a legal crosswalk to me.

Unfortunately, people treat invisible crosswalks with about the same respect as they treat invisible viruses. When there is an obvious or marked crosswalk on the other side, drivers tend to disrespect people trying to use the unmarked crosswalk.

When you factor in that the south-side southbound lanes will always be hammered with traffic, and the sight lines for jughandle traffic are just awful, I would flag that crosswalk as "Do Not Use".

enter image description here

Was it legal to use this poor crosswalk? Yes. NJ Law speaks rather clearly on the issue of using a poor route when a better route is available, at 39:4-36.1 and 39:4-32(f) both of which describe what most places call blatant jaywalking. So this would be legal even if it was jaywalking, which it isn't, because this is an unmarked crosswalk. The latter ref's language specifically acknowledges the existence of unmarked crosswalks. 39:4-32(c) places OP in the right, and (e) and (h) support this further; however that is the "cold comfort" I mentioned earlier.

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    Assumptions that you were just opposed to: "You also seem to have the impression that once you set foot in a crosswalk, all cars must stop and yield, even if they have the green light." "That's an easy walk; but I gather you consumed most of that time fiddling in indecision or indignity... or lacked the situational awareness to know the light was changing (nose in your phone??) ". I didn't assume the former. I paid attention to moving myself and the cars, when crossing the street, and no way I could turn my head 90 degree and up to check the traffic lights. I had just walked 12 miles. – Tim Aug 26 at 18:43
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    "Unfortunately, people treat invisible crosswalks with about the same respect as they treat invisible viruses": It seems that most people in the US don't know about unmarked crosswalks. I certainly never learned of them until about 25 years after I learned to drive, despite having learned to drive in the US. – phoog Aug 26 at 19:42
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    Thanks. I just looked at this screenshot, and instantly remember why I didn't look further north when I was on the east side on my way back. There was a panhandler checking on every car waiting in the jughandle. While I was a bit emotional when my empathy came, I didn't have anything to give him. So I avoided eye contact with him. I am not sure if he is still the person in the screenshot – Tim Aug 26 at 19:50
  • I wasn't certain that the outside of the jughandler was walkable. (I strongly opposed moving comments to chat). What do you mean by "Returning from Micro Center, the hint would've been the inability to enter the jughandle interior without playing Frogger"? (I went there not to buy anything) – Tim Aug 26 at 20:08
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    Holy smokes, you're not kidding about the poor pedestrian access @Tim ... I can't believe it... Must be a barrel o laughs in winter... this was definitely a tough intersection and you really needed to be on your toes. Best way to avoid "move to chat" is delete any no-longer-needed comments... – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 26 at 20:17
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according to https://www.nj.gov/oag/hts/pedestrian.html

PEDESTRIANS MUST obey pedestrian signals and use crosswalks at signalized intersections. Both carry a $54.00 fine for failure to observe the law. (C.39:4-32 and 33)

so what you did crossing that side of the road was illegal in the 1st place. You have a path across the road using the pedestrian signal. You would be in a nasty spot if you had an accident as you would be at fault

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    I didn't notice there was pedestrain signal on the north and it was hard to notice, when walking from the south on both sides. – Tim Aug 25 at 20:52
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    I wish I could argue but unfortunately you're probably right; American judges have a distressing tendency to assign blame to the individual breaking traffic laws without considering that the greater care should be exercised by the individual driving the more destructive vehicle. It's astonishing how often "He darted right out into the road" or "I didn't see her" is considered a valid defense when killing someone with a car. – Kyralessa Aug 26 at 8:31
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    I would note that most US traffic codes if not all define unmarked crosswalks at every intersection, so if one crosses at an intersection one probably is using the crosswalk, even if it does not appear that way to the uninformed. – phoog Aug 26 at 16:42
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    You are claiming the south side is not a crosswalk, but you haven't supported that claim. All three sides (east included) have equal pavement markings (i.e. none) but that is legal in NJ. They also have no prohibitive signage. Searching the Code proper at 39:4-32 et.seq. I see nothing that downgrades unsignaled crosswalks when signaled ones are also present. Indeed, NJ law seems to explicitly allow the lousy route when a good one is available (39:4-36.1 disregarding pedestrian tunnels; 39:4-32(f) jaywalking). – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 26 at 18:18
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    @user3067860 I think I see the problem. "There is a crosswalk on every side of every intersection, unless prohibited by signage" true or false? (hint: Phoog and I know the answer) You seem to be assuming that crosswalks do not exist unless "provisioned"... – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 26 at 19:49
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Pedestrian safety considerations in the US are highly dependent on where exactly in the country you are. Not far away from you in NYC they are paramount, but in suburban New Jersey, not so much. I've done a lot of walking in other parts of the country and to be honest, if it doesn't look like there's much infrastructure for pedestrians then drivers will probably not be paying attention. So regardless of following the laws, you need to exercise caution and watch carefully for cars as they are likely not watching for you. In this case there was a pedestrian light. But if there isn't, remember that intersections have different flows and you may need to wait for a full cycle of traffic to figure out when the safest time to walk is.

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Use a car instead, that's the best solution i suppose.

Other answers maybe preferred depending on one's need.

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    You can't expect everyone to have a driverse license and a car. Maybe that is very normal in the US, but for tourists, that might be different. – Mixxiphoid Aug 26 at 18:13
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    @Mixxiphoid it's normal in the US, but by no means universal. – phoog Aug 26 at 19:39
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    You expect people to call an Uber to cross the street?! – Michael Hampton Aug 26 at 21:28
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    @Tim people who can't afford cars and driver's licenses are precisely among the main reasons why car ownership and possession of a driver's license are not universal in the US. I don't understand your comment. – phoog Aug 26 at 21:46
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    @Tim between 1959 and 2014, the proportion of households with cars ranged from roughly 78% to 92%. Car ownership is definitely normal in the US, but not universal. See After decades of decline, no-car households are becoming more common in the US. – phoog Aug 26 at 22:32

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