Why can’t pedestrians just cross the street?

I am not like most people in the City, but I am similar to a large minority in the centretown and west side neighbourhoods in that I walk places. I walk a lot. I do not, and never have had, a car. Yes, it is perfectly feasible to raise kids in the city without a car. And yes, they turned out just fine.

According to the city, 45% of trips to work are done in single-occupancy cars. The city responds to this ‘demand’ by constantly improving the road system. It isn’t out building obvious new freeways; often this is done in subtle ways. A turning lane here, a longer light there. It doesn’t require any permission to “adjust” the road network to allow the cut-through traffic in a residential neighborhood to double or triple or quadruple, over time. But it throws up enormous barriers to anyone who dares suggest we need not sacrifice everything to the demands of people commuting to Pointe Gatineau, Greely, or McKeller Park.

One of those little, incremental things it does to “facilitate” traffic movement is to “regularize” intersection movements, to make them “safer” by making them “predictable” (for motorists). Thus pedestrians see their environment slowly erode year after year as it becomes more difficult to simply cross the street at an intersection. The mechanism for discouraging pedestrian movements? Make walk lights unpredictable and/or “on-request-only”. The City seems to have decided that ALL intersections are to have push buttons installed, regardless of need.

I do understand that it is sometimes desirable to have pedestrian activated signals, for example, at a half-light, where pedestrian traffic exceeds vehicular traffic and vehicular traffic will not change the light.

However, I am distressed at the number of signal installations that have pedestrian push buttons for no apparent purpose. For example, someone walking along Preston crosses several signalized intersections at which the pedestrian lights activate automatically, even though there are push buttons. But then, when arriving at Albert, the pedestrian light does not turn green unless the button is pushed. If the pedestrian misses pressing the button, there is a four minute or more wait as the signal cycle is extremely slow here. This results in pedestrians crossing the street against the light. This sort of inconsistency in whether or not the button is useful would never be tolerated for automobile traffic, and I see no reason for it to be in effect at this – or any other – intersection.

Consider also a pedestrian arriving at an intersection one second after the light turns green, it is not possible to push the button to get the remainder of the light. The traffic engineers PRESUME that the pedestrian will simply wait an entire cycle of the lights … when in fact, pedestrians are just being taught to ignore the pedestrian  lights as being useless,  inconsistent annoyances. The result is increased crossing against the lights, not less.

Consider the second or subsequent pedestrian arriving at an intersection. Peds are again  faced with an uncertainty: do they push the button (again) or assume the first arrival pushed the button?

Nor are the push-the-button intersections limited to low-pedestrian volume corners. There are always large volumes of pedestrians at McRae and Richmond by the Westboro Loblaws but the pedestrian light must be manually activated. The crowd sees the traffic light go green, the pedestrian light stays red, people hesitate, wondering if it is some sort of delayed walk signal. Cars begin to turn through the intersection, some motorists being alert and uncertain as to whether the peds are going to walk. Then the peds lurch across the intersection against the light, between the turning cars. This whole situation is so inconsistent and DUMB  it frustrates any attempts to make pedestrian crossings logical, predictable, and safer.

And don’t get me started on “countdown signals”.

Furthermore, we see pedestrian signals being installed in unnecessary situations, such as for the north side of Albert at Preston, where there is no street crossing the sidewalk but peds are offered a button and flashing ped lights simply to keep walking on the sidewalk! Is this the start of something new … are city engineers trying to train us that we will have to push buttons and get their permission  just to walk on a sidewalk parallel a road?

when pedestrians and motorists collide...
  • All intersections that have pedestrian lights should change to green for every cycle of the traffic lights.
  • There should be active, usable push buttons only where necessary, for example, at half lights, or where pressing the button activates a noise signal to aid visually impaired pedestrians, or activates a longer crossing time. Buttons where necessary, but not necessarily buttons.
  • Unused buttons should be removed to prevent sending conflicting messages to pedestrians as to whether or not they need to push the button.
  •  We should not be asking pedestrians to push a button when the pedestrian light is going to change anyway.  

I believe that this increased consistency will aid pedestrians in navigating the streets and sidewalks, will promote safety and greater respect for the signal phase, and reinstate pedestrians as first class users of the public right of way and not afterthoughts to be put up with. This is, after all, what our Official Plan calls for.

19 thoughts on “Why can’t pedestrians just cross the street?

  1. I agree about the inconsistency. The light at Primrose and Booth is one often ignored by drivers, especially in rush hour. Along Parkdale, you can press the button at Ruskin and wait forever, or walk up to Inglewood and press the button and it changes right away. However, like Primrose, cars often ignore the stop line during rush hour.

    And congrats on living without a car. We only have one, that we don’t use often. But it does come in handy during bus strikes and driving our pet around.

  2. I agree with all of the comments made as I find these signals (and don’t get me started on countdowns either) incredibly confusing and dangerous. I alos hope there is a way that the city engineers can get peds to obey the signals. Making them less confusing isn’t all that important if people are going to cross against the don’t walk anyway.

  3. these “must request” intersections drive me nuts. There is one near my home that I cross at least 2x a day – you must press the button to get the pedestrian signal, but other than turning on the “walk” light, it doesn’t do anything! No change in frequency or duration of the light. Why bother? Do you think vehicles are looking to see if pedestrians have walk lights? Nope – they’re looking at their traffic lights.

  4. I can’t see the logic with the planned new countdown light at Bronson – is it to let motorists know the time remaining to hit a pedestrian? And don’t get me started on the light at Christie!

    We have a kid and don’t own a car. It’s totally doable downtown.

  5. Look at Roosevelt and Byron. In typical brilliance, they installed a pedestrian light – Good news! – on only one side. Then they let builders on Westboro Station block the sidewalk on that side for their construction.

    The city needs to make it city policy that all road planning decisions must be made with pedestrians as the priority. Imagine what could happen…

    (That or charge $5 per day for single occupancy cars in the downtown core on weekdays; when I lived downtown I’d count the ratio of single occupant cars; it was closer to 70%. Imagine if all those drivers had to pay – carpooling would go up, traffic would be reduced, and public transit use would increase.)

  6. I have a related beef. You’d be hard-pressed to find an intersection anywhere in the entire city that doesn’t have some sort of pedestrian-specific consideration (even if it is the placebo button, or signage telling you not to walk here).

    Try and find a single non-urban intersection that has any cycling-specific signalling. A classic one is Innes and Blackburn Hamlet Bypass. I can’t imagine there’s more than one pedestrian there per hour, and maybe not even one per day. This is a major cycling route, and yet there’s not one bit of consideration for cyclists.

    To add more about Roosevelt and Byron:
    This is totally inconvenient (and perhaps unsafe) for cyclists. This seems like such a low-traffic area, but I suppose there was a reason to do away with the stop signs.

    I don’t have any problem with pedestrians getting attention; the transportation master plan does correctly prioritize that as a form of transportation. But new construction does always prioritize in the following order: drivers, pedestrians, cyclists.

    – A

  7. I am another non-car owner living in the hood. I walk everywhere and love it.
    One thing I have noticed about push button cross walks is they have 2 models for the buttons. The black rubber buttons ones suck. Half the time no indicator light comes on to tell me it has registered my push. I can’t tell if this is because they are broken, the indicator light is broken, or if a motorist has poured a cup of coffee on it to short circuit the thing.
    Then other kind has a silvery aluminum buttons. They are great. They work every time, and quickly.
    I like the idea that the city operate on the working assumption that all intersections are mixed, unless designated otherwise. All streets with mixed use would have to be built to certain standards, including something that makes sense for pedestrians.

  8. I have no problems with buttons if they are ONLY used at intersections where any vehicle must also trigger a green light and there is no timed green light. But I think it’s completely wrong to force pedestrians to press them to get across a street ewhen there is a regular signal phase for vehicles. That signal phase should be long enough for pedestrians and should automatically include them. It’s particularly disgusting that these buttons have been installed all over downtown, and the Glebe and Hintonburg and Westboro — places where pedestrians should have priority.

    If a signal phase shows green before I could get to the pedestrian button I just cross regardless of what the ped signal says. It is wrong to force pedestrians to wait for another phase.

    At all signalized intersections, there should be *working* detectors in the road and the three yellow dots indicating where cyclists should place their bikes to trigger the signal. This does not exist in many intersections — for example left turn and through lanes at Baseline & Fisher. Why was money spent on unnecessary ped buttons but not on technology that’s been standard practice in Ottawa-Carleton for decades?

    The priority at every intersection should be to create safe crossing conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, and then for cars but all over our city the opposite is true.

  9. The black rubber ones totally suck. They do not “work” in cold weather, assuming they do anything at all. (I am not convinced that the buttons at Beechwood/Putman/Marier, or Bank/Holmwood, actually do anything.)

    And really, why am I not entitled to a walk light when the traffic going in the same direction gets the green? I asked my former city councillor about this, and never did get a response. (This is, in small part, how he became a former city councillor.)

    This is totally against the pretty words in the official plan about the hierarchy of transportation and the place of pedestrians in it. Why won’t the anti-intensification people, who are always so very concerned about official plans and such, get up in arms about this issue?

  10. I couldn’t agree more about this. It is a total pet-peeve of mine.

    I have no problem with a button if it actually has an impact on the flow of traffic, but otherwise I think they do more harm than good.

    Another problem I see with the ‘no-impact’ buttons is that they cause pedestrians to ignore ALL pedestrian signals at ALL intersections, because they simply don’t trust what they are telling them. A good example is at Booth and Albert, where there are no buttons (good), but people don’t really believe it when the signal says not to cross as they are so jaded by other locations. I have seen many people almost get hit by left turning vehicles here due to ignoring the pedestrian signals here.

    Another west-centre-towner without a car.

  11. What do you have against countdown timers?

    I love them. More information. Now I can make my own judgement as to whether I can walk across in the time remaining rather than have to rely on the City’s judgement in the guise of a flashing hand. I have yet to be caught out with the time run out crossing an intersection where there are countdown timers, whereas with the flashing hands it happened on occasion because most of the time the City pads the cycle with so much extra time in the flashing hand portion that you can start across against a flashing hand and still make it to the other side with time to spare… but every now and then you’d get it wrong. No more.

    As a cyclist they’re handy to for much the same reason, and even as a motorist. Should I pick up the pace a tiny bit, carry on as I am or start slowing down/coasting (on a bike) since I’m going to get a yellow/red anyway? Now I know, both as a cyclist and as a motorist. Is that guy waiting to make a left turn going to have enough time if I go through without leaving him stranded on a red or should I stop now?

    This kind of information helps everyone… we could do with more such examples of helpful information, like GPS data on where the buses are so I can show up when the bus is about to arrive rather than when it is supposed to arrive.

    1. In India, countdown timers are there for the drivers (pedestrians are second-class citizens) to tell you how much time is left on the red light. People (motor cyclists in particular) turn off their engines until ~5 seconds left on the timer.

  12. The other one that gets me is when the flashing hand comes on way too early. It’s walk on one side and already solid hand on the other side. Baseline/Merivale used to do this all the time when I lived near there. Not sure if it still does it or not.

    When I know the way the lights work, I use my own judgment to cross and ignore the pedestrian signals. It bothers me when I see other people standing at intersections assuming that the pedestrian signals are giving them the best service. If you’re typing on your crackberry and not paying attention to the actual traffic patterns, then you loose.

    On the other side of this, as a driver I’m annoyed when I have to wait 2 minutes at 1am when there is clearly no traffic. California does this better: set the lights red in all directions and change it to green it when a car arrives or a pedestrian pushes the button.

    1. I can recall in Calgary that they put some intersections into either all-flashing-red or flashing-yellow and flashing-red. That basically turns the intersection into one of those rural intersections with a single overhead light fixture where the intersection operates on either all-way stop or two-way stop, respectively.

  13. I also like the count down timers (as a pedestrian). I wrote about how road construction is backwards here:
    The basic culture has to be changed and that is going to take some time. But the more we pedestrians talk about it, the more it will get done. Keep up the good work!

    1. The city’s planning department has been “talking about it” for decades, and then doing, or allowing, the exact opposite. I wish I was as optomistic as you are.

  14. There are lots of good points here. Pedestrians have the right of way when the red hand is flashing but I believe a lot of car drivers assume ANY red hand means they have the right of way. This causes me grief so often. I even had a motorist shout at me once about it. I had to explain to him about the flashing hand and he grudginlgly admitted his ignorance. I actually like the countdown. I find it helpful as a pedestrian a cyclist and a motorist. Not sure what the problem is. The flashing hand may have one or two more flashes before it goes solid but with the countdown I know where I stand. And nosyneighbour touched on a big peeve of mine. The stop line and why motorists seem to think it is a mere suggestion. The Pretoria Bridge and Queen Elizabeth Driveway has a left turn (going south on QEW) and that pedestrian crossing is blocked more times than not. Grrrrr

  15. I do have a car, but I use it as little as possible, and walking is my main form of exercise. I live in Stouffville, just north of Toronto and all the traffic signals were recently changed so that pedestrians are supposed to wait even when the light is green for cars. If you get to the intersection just as the light turns green and push the button you have to wait through an entire cycle before you can legally cross. If the vehicle light is green I cross anyway but the confusion this system causes is ridiculous and dangerous. It’s all about serving motorists and ignoring pedestrians. That’s pretty rich when you consider how all levels of government are constantly nagging us to get more exercise, take the stairs and walk instead of driving. However I think the countdown system is a real improvement over the flashing hand.

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