A new traffic signal system intended to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety has been installed on Ashby and Hillegass avenues, but it’s not working yet. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
A new traffic signal system intended to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety has been installed on Ashby and Hillegass avenues, but it’s not working yet. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A traffic signal designed to help pedestrians and cyclists cross the street has been installed at the busy intersection of Ashby and Hillegass avenues.

As of Friday afternoon, though, the new lights were covered in caution tape and not functioning. City representatives had announced the system would be activated Thursday. But Interim Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen said, shortly after publication, that work continues and staff members “hope to have it operational next week.”

When the “pedestrian hybrid beacon” (PHB) is up and running, people walking across the street will be able to push a button to prompt a signal that warns drivers to stop. Cyclists should not need to do anything to activate the lights, thanks to a motion sensor. (See a video demonstrating how the signal works.)

The color code is similar to that of a traditional traffic light, but the PHB signal only comes on when sensors are activated or buttons are pushed.

“The signal, the first of its kind in Berkeley, increases safety and convenience for those on foot or bike,” said the city in a press release this week. “Previously, people on foot or bike waited at stop signs for a break in traffic on Ashby.”

Photo: City of Berkeley

The new PHB was funded by Caltrans, as part of a $2 million settlement with a citizen group over the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore project in 2009. Oakland got $8 million in a separate settlement.

Caltrans could not legally pay the settlement funds to the citizen group, the Fourth Bore Coalition, so the funds were allocated through Regional Measure 2, and eventually made available to Berkeley for transportation projects along the Highway 13 corridor. In 2011, the City Council approved a list of projects, based in part on public input.

The PHB is the latest of those Caltrans settlement projects to come to fruition, the city said. Other completed efforts include bike lanes on Tunnel Road, a flashing beacon to improve pedestrian safety at Tunnel Road and the Uplands, and several other intersection improvements along Ashby.

The city did not respond to questions about the remaining projects or money by press time. Caltrans could not be reached for comment Friday either.

According to the city statement this week, the Ashby and Hillegass intersection was chosen as the first location for this sort of traffic light for several reasons.

“Ashby Avenue is a major state route, there are a high number of pedestrians and bicyclists, and Hillegass is a bike boulevard,” the release said. Berkeley has a network of such “bike boulevards,” low-traffic streets that are safer for cyclists.

Over just 15 minutes Friday afternoon, several cyclists crossed Hillegass where the new system should soon be active. Some drivers hit their brakes just in time to avoid colliding with them.

Online, some people reacted to the city’s announcement positively, and others said they were skeptical that the PHB would make the intersection safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“These are awful,” said Twitter user PatPannuto. Ann Arbor, Michigan “installed one years ago and I never witnessed anything but confusion, as both driver and pedestrian.”

“[In my opinion] it’s pretty obvious what’s happening when there’s a red light above a crosswalk,” countered Chris Dzombak.

Greg Magofña, a candidate for Berkeley City Council in downtown’s District 4, said he’s worried the non-activated lights will send the wrong message, since they look similar to regular broken traffic lights.

“The vehicle code says to treat non functioning lights as stop signs,” Magofña tweeted. “These are meant to look like lights and won’t be lit most of the time. Are we training people to run stoplights with no power? This makes me confused and wary.”

Berkeleyside will update this story if more information is provided by the city, and when the PHB is functional.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...