A pedestrian push button at an intersection in the north end of Halifax. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

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.

Crosswalk with pedestrian button and flags
Pedestrian push button and crosswalk flags at the corner of Isleville and Kaye. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. I sure hope they remove the beg buttons in front of Alderney Gate. As traffic has to stoip for red lights anyway it makes no sense not to have an automatic walk signal for pedestrians. These are, by the way, often the same pedestrians who do not have to press a beg button on the other side of the harbour, I speak of ferry passengers. Why the difference?

  2. If walking were given a higher priority by the car-obsessed city traffic management folks, there might be fewer cars on the road, resulting in fewer traffic delays, decreased vehicle emissions, less driver frustration, and quicker service by fire trucks. ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’

  3. So when they disable those 23 beg buttons then they can use that as a test to see if it really does cause “traffic delays, increased vehicle emissions, driver frustration, and in some cases, delays for fire trucks”.

    Why do politicians accept these laundry lists as part of the policy discussions? Those bringing policy to council/cabinet supposed to do it in a relatively unbiased way, expressing all sides of discussion in research. The traffic people have an agenda. I’ve seen that in how they present to council. Its not their job to promote one position over another. That’s why we have elected members.

  4. I’d like to know how much longer the the wait time is for cars when the walk button is pressed versus when it is NOT pressed at certain intersections, like, say, South and Queen. Is there any way to dig this information up? Is there a longer wait time? And, if so, by how much? Pedestrians are there most of the time, so I would hope this intersection is one that will no longer require the stupid beg button.

    Just the other day, I ran into this myself–one of the few times there were no pedestrians at the intersection. I came upon the light just as it was turning green for cars, but I didn’t get the Walk sign. I was so irritated, I stepped out of the cross walk and crossed the street that way, since that isn’t technically breaking the law. How much time was saved for cars by doing that? Just curious.

    1. Every intersection is different of course because the pedestrian crossing time is determined by the width of the crossing – but it’s probably in the neighborhood of 10-20 second less with no pedestrian signal, is my guess.
      The other issue that drives me bonkers and I wonder if the committee discussed this is at intersections like Young and Agricola (east-west-bound) where there *is* an automatic pedestrian signal but it runs out about 15 seconds before the green light does. so if you arrive a bit late, you miss your chance to cross – and yet the cars get to carry on for what seems to be an interminably long time. This issue is more difficult to describe to the traffic folks but is almost as maddening as the push button issue in my view…