Power to the pedestrian: new HAWK signal in University Circle lets walkers tell cars to stop

Amid concerns about pedestrian safety in the University Circle area of Cleveland, an innovative HAWK traffic signal allows pedestrians to give vehicles a red light.
A new HAWK pedestrian signal on East 105th St. in University Circle, shown here on its first day of operation on November 21, is the result of collaboration between the city of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University. (Photo by Lee Chilcote)

This week, a new traffic signal was installed on East 105th St. between Chester Ave. and MLK Jr. Dr. in University Circle. The new HAWK signal (which stands for high intensity activated crosswalk) gives pedestrians the ability to press a button to signal for traffic to stop so they can cross. The crosswalk and HAWK signal are being added because of increased foot traffic along the Nord Family Greenway that connects the eastern and western parts of Case Western Reserve University, as well as to create a better link to the Maltz Performing Arts Center. 

The city of Cleveland also has plans to install two HAWK signals on Clifton Boulevard at W. 112th St. and W. 116th St., according to Marie Zickefoose, a city spokesperson. There’s no word yet on when those signals will be installed. 

It’s all part of Mayor Bibb’s and the city’s ongoing efforts to create safer streets for pedestrians throughout the city, as part of Cleveland’s Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities. 

“This location is a major pedestrian crossing across a busy road (higher speeds and traffic volumes than many local streets), and HAWK beacons are a safety measure to increase yielding by drivers to keep pedestrians safe,” said Zickefoose. Case Western Reserve University funded and designed the project, and the improvements are part of the Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Pedestrian Safety Improvement Program. 

CWRU director of planning, design and construction Chris Panichi said the crosswalk and signal were a response to increased use of the Nord Family Greenway – and an invitation to the neighborhood.

“Having a traffic signal when crossing major streets like East 105th Street will help students and faculty travel from the eastern to the western parts of campus and encourage the surrounding neighborhood residents to use the Nord Family Greenway as a safe passage to the many institutions located within University Circle,” he said. 

UCI’s Cameron Roberts crosses East 105th St. after activating the HAWK signal on November 21, its first day of operation. With the pedestrian’s push of a button, the red overhead lights tell vehicles to stop. (Photo by Lee Chilcote)

How HAWK signals work

The HAWK signal on E. 105th will be the city’s first (Lakewood, Euclid, and a few other places in Northeast Ohio have HAWK signals, but there were none in Cleveland until now). What makes a HAWK signal different is that it gives pedestrians the ability to trigger an overhead red light to make cars stop, unlike the curbside pedestrian-activated yellow-flashing lights (known as rapid rectangular flashing beacons or RRFBs) that are common at other pedestrian crossings in the city. Ohio drivers are required to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk whether or not these enhanced safety lights are present, but many do not. 

Here’s how a HAWK signal works: First, pedestrians push a button to activate the signal, which flashes yellow before turning red. Then cars stop, and pedestrians can cross. After that, the signal flashes red, giving pedestrians time to finish crossing. During this time, vehicles are required to stop first – Ohio law treats a flashing red light like a stop sign – and then proceed with caution. If no pedestrian presses the button, the signal remains dark and cars may proceed as usual. 

Image courtesy of University Circle website

A push to protect pedestrians

Cameron Roberts, associate director of transportation at University Circle Inc., said University Circle has seen a reduction in the number of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists since it implemented Project Yield, an educational and signage program, a year ago. He said the addition of a crosswalk at this location will help continue this trend. 

“Since beginning our Project Yield initiative, there have been no fatal pedestrian or bike crashes in University Circle,” he said. “We have also seen a reduction in both the total number of ped/bike crashes and the severity of crashes involving a pedestrian or bicyclist.” Roberts said that the HAWK signal is part of Project Yield and the larger Nord Family Greenway project, which provides better pedestrian connections not only through campus but also to surrounding neighborhoods like Hough, Little Italy, and Glenville. 

This chart provided by University Circle Inc. shows the number of crashes in University Circle involving a pedestrian or bicyclist by year. As of August 31, there were 10 crashes involving a pedestrian or bicyclist in 2022.

The new HAWK signal and Project Yield are also part of Cleveland’s Vision Zero initiative, an international push to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries. Since Project Yield launched, Roberts said UCI has seen marked improvements in cars yielding to pedestrians. He cited the following yield rates for intersections that received educational signage as well as markings, RRFBs and other treatments. The data was collected from visual observations. 

Euclid Ave. & E. 117th St. 

  • Yield rate prior to installation: 5% (data collected in June 2021)
  • Yield rate after installation: 39% (data collected in August 2021)

Mayfield Rd. & Uptown Ave.

  • Yield rate prior to installation: 44% (data collected in June 2021)
  • Yield rate after installation: 63% (data collected in August 2021)

The Nord Family Greenway is a project that began in 2013 and was designed by Sasaki Associates Inc. as the result of a design competition. The resulting 15-acre park not only created better connections between CWRU and surrounding institutions and neighborhoods, but also enhanced the natural landscape with new trees and greenspaces. CWRU’s website calls it “a world-class civic space in the heart of University Circle that will link the historic Hough neighborhood to the west and is intended to have significant positive social, economic, and environmental impacts.”

Panichi said the cost of the new signal was about $150,000. Some Cleveland Public Power lines needed to be relocated in order to accommodate the signal and ADA accessible crosswalk. 

Signage at the East 105th St. HAWK signal explains to pedestrians how the signal works. (Photo by Lee Chilcote)

HAWK signals: ‘A more commanding presence’

Roberts views the HAWK signal as a possible solution to the problem of midblock crossings, which are spots where pedestrians cross but there’s no street intersection. HAWK signals add a traffic signal. “This is a way of creating a more commanding presence for that pedestrian,” said Roberts. “They’re able to activate the red light for vehicles to stop for them.”

Pedestrian traffic increased in the area with the completion of the Nord Family Greenway, and there was a need to create a safer crossing for pedestrians, Zickefoose stated. She cited research showing that HAWK beacons, also called Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (PHBs), result in a 55% reduction in pedestrian crashes, 29% reduction in all crashes, and 15% reduction in serious injury and fatal crashes (details are available here and here). 

Pedestrian safety advocate and planner Angie Schmitt, who lives in Detroit Shoreway, said she thinks the HAWK signal is a great idea. “It’s the right thing for that location because it was very dangerous,” she said. “Cars really fly through there and visibility is bad because it’s on a downhill slope.”

Jacob Vansickle, director of Bike Cleveland, said his organization supports HAWK signals at the right locations and that Mayor Bibb is making moves in the right direction when it comes to pedestrian safety, but more is needed. “The Bibb administration has done a lot in one year to begin to make our city more pedestrian friendly,” said Vansickle. “This work is incremental and we appreciate it, but we need more priority to be put on expanding these programs so they improve safety citywide. This will be crucial to the city reaching their goal of eliminating serious injury and fatal crashes by the year 2032, which is the city’s stated goal in their Vision Zero Action Plan.”

Zickefoose said the results of the mayor’s 2022 speed table pilot initiative will be available in January 2023. Roberts said UCI, University Circle police, Case Western Reserve University, and other partners will be monitoring how the HAWK signal works and are installing signage to educate drivers and pedestrians. They’re also communicating via their website, ugointhecircle.com; email newsletters and social media; and community meetings. 

“I definitely think it’s going to be a learning experience, that’s really why we’re pushing a lot of communication,” said Roberts. “We want to make people aware of how it works ahead of time and what it is.” 

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