Pedestrians will have to push a button to cross at fewer intersections in the municipality later this year following a vote on Thursday by council’s Transportation Standing Committee.
There are 278 signalized intersections (those with traffic lights) across Halifax Regional Municipality, Taso Koutroulakis, the city’s manager of traffic management and traffic authority, told the committee in a presentation during its virtual meeting on Thursday.
At 80 of those intersections, mostly in downtown Halifax, pedestrians don’t have to push a button to cross the street in any direction; the walk sign comes up when the light turns green. At another 25, pedestrians don’t have to push a button to cross the side street.
At the remaining 173, if a pedestrian reaches an intersection too late or doesn’t push a button, the light turns green for drivers and the hand stays red for pedestrians.
More than two years ago, the committee asked for a report on eliminating the requirement for those buttons.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in September, the resulting report recommended keeping the status quo, with Koutroulakis arguing that allowing pedestrians to cross without pushing a button would mean longer waits for everyone. Unsatisfied with the response, the committee voted to ask for a new report on converting the buttons in urban and transit-serviced suburban areas to only activate audible beacons for accessibility.
Koutroulakis hasn’t really changed his mind on the push buttons, telling councillors their removal would result in traffic delays, increased vehicle emissions, driver frustration, and in some cases, delays for fire trucks. He said the municipality can’t use a “cookie cutter” approach to the buttons, removing them everywhere.
But he brought a compromise to the committee, removing the requirement for pedestrians to push a button at more intersections.
The committee voted unanimously in favour of that staff recommendation, to direct Koutroulakis to change the buttons at 23 intersections to no longer require the push button in any direction, and at another 71 to only require the button to cross the main street.
“Once this is implemented, we’re going to have to review and determine whether it’s still appropriate, but at this point, based on looking at all the intersections, we believe this is a reasonable approach going forward,” Koutroulakis said.
Additionally, the motion directs staff to adjust 145 the intersections to only require the buttons to be pushed overnight, between midnight and 6am.
For accessibility, the committee directed staff to reprogram the buttons to make it easier to activate the audible signal, just requiring pedestrians to push the button, rather than hold it for three seconds, as currently required.
Koutroulakis said staff will place decals on buttons no longer required to activate a walk sign to indicate they only activate the audible signal.
Councillors on the committee were happy with the compromise.
“Staff have done exactly what we asked for,” Coun. Waye Mason said. “That doesn’t mean we have to stop there.”
Mason moved both the initial request for a report and the new one in September. He agreed with Koutroulakis that the push buttons can’t be eliminated everywhere.
“It makes sense that on busy corridors you have to press a button, but in the busiest pedestrian areas, you never have to press a button until after [midnight],” he said.
Mason suggested there could be more areas where councillors should advocate for automatic pedestrian signals, but they need to prove that there are people walking there or that people will walk there if the changes are made.
“What we don’t want to do is make it so cars are waiting and there’s no pedestrians, all the time, everywhere. I don’t think that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Coun. Shawn Cleary isn’t on the committee, but signed into the meeting to speak to the item. He said he feels like Koutroulakis and transportation and public works director Brad Anguish still aren’t really on board.
“I almost feel like we had to drag them kicking and screaming,” he said.
Whether he wants to do it or not, Koutroulakis said the work will all be complete by the end of September.
Buttons at mid-block crossings, like the one pictured below, will not be affected by the changes.