On January 24, 2011, there was a tragic accident at the corner of Coburg Road and Edwards Street. A 63-year-old woman walking across Coburg from north to south was hit by a vehicle, and killed. That day, police went out to measure the street, to determine if the unfortunate woman was within the “unmarked crosswalk” or not, and whether the driver should face charges. As police spokesperson Brian Palmeter told Metro:
A crosswalk can be either marked or unmarked. So what we will do in the course of our investigation … is determine whether or not she was in an unmarked crosswalk.
The Nova Scotia Drivers Handbook explains that:
Every intersection has a crosswalk. Many are unmarked. Drivers must yield to pedestrians at all intersections, whether crosswalks are marked or unmarked.
(h) “crosswalk” means that portion of a roadway ordinarily included within the prolongation or connection of curb lines and property lines at intersections or any other portion of a roadway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface [The part I bolded concerns “unmarked” crosswalks, and the rest of the definition concerns marked crosswalks]
I don’t know what happened in the case of the 63-year-old woman. I asked police this morning, but they haven’t yet gotten back to me. I’ll update this post as soon as I know. But I started thinking about her case again in 2012. That year, the city repaved Waverly Road, and repainted the three existing crosswalks at the intersections of Garden Court, Applewood Lane, and Rocklin Drive. Then, a few days later, city crews showed up and “erased” them, painting them black. Along a few feet of the un-repaved cross streets you can still see the faded paint of the old crosswalk lines, but for all practical purposes the crosswalks are invisible to people driving on Waverly Road.
I wondered: If the intersections are crosswalks whether or not crosswalk lines are painted on them, what purpose does removing the lines serve? The issue has come up again because the city has “removed” a crosswalk near my house in Dartmouth, at Victoria Road and Park Street. In this case, however, the crosswalk wasn’t painted over; rather, the faded crosswalk lines weren’t repainted when the city installed zebra stripes at such intersections, and the crosswalk sign that marked the intersection was removed.
I walked over to take a picture of the disappeared crosswalk and just as I arrived a runner and a car were both approaching the non-crosswalk-but-still-a-crosswalk at the same time. The runner broke stride, and the driver stopped for her, and no blood was shed, thankfully.
But I wonder again, what was the point in removing the painted and signed crosswalk? If there’s a marked crosswalk, drivers have to give the right-of-way to pedestrians. But if there’s not a marked crosswalk, it’s still an intersection and so an unmarked crosswalk exists, and therefore drivers have to give the right-of-way to pedestrians. So, what does removing the painted crosswalk actually achieve? I mean, legally, what does it achieve? Obviously it’s just another social cue that drivers are more important than pedestrians, but why on earth are we removing the marked crosswalks? What’s the philosophy behind that?
I put that question to Taso Koutroulakis, the city’s acting manager of traffic and right away, and he was kind enough to give me far too much of his valuable time. Koutroulakis told me the city reevaluates all crosswalks when the roads they’re on are repaved. I told him that Victoria Road hasn’t recently been repaved. He didn’t know how to respond to that. In any event, “You want to provide a traffic control device only where it’s needed,” he said. “If you have too many, there’s less awareness.”
Koutroulakis’ claim is that if drivers see painted crosswalks too often and there aren’t any pedestrians at those crosswalks most times, then drivers will subconsciously start to ignore all crosswalks, even the ones with pedestrians at them, making the overall situation less safe for pedestrians. But aren’t all intersections crosswalks, marked or unmarked, I asked?
And we talked around the issue for 10 minutes or so—he’d say that too many crosswalks breed indifference, and I’d point out that all intersections have crosswalks, to which he’d say too many crosswalks breed indifference to crosswalks, to which I’d say… Eventually, I gave up the hunt.
Koutroulakis did tell me that a few years ago the city had conducted a survey, and only about half the respondents knew that all intersections had unmarked crosswalks. He hopes to have the same question on a survey this fall. I thought about pointing out to him that if half of all drivers don’t know about the unmarked crosswalk rule maybe it’s a good idea to mark at least some of them, but I feared getting into another pointless conversational loop, so I resisted.
I tried a different tactic: What about zebra crossings? I asked. They seem to have raised awareness. In case you somehow missed it, about 500 of the mid-block marked crosswalks have been repainted in the broad zebra-like paint, like on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover.
Koutroulakis said the response to the zebra crossings has been overwhelmingly positive, although a few malcontents (my word, not his) complain the city shouldn’t have spent the money on the paint. Well, I asked him, if people were ignoring 500 crosswalks and now they’re more aware of them, doesn’t that suggest unmarking crosswalks would lower awareness?
We wasted another 10 minutes.
Koutroulakis eventually told me that guidelines for painting a crosswalk, and I guess for de-painting them, come from the Transportation Association of Canada. Those guidelines used to say that a crosswalk shouldn’t be painted unless there are more than 20 pedestrians crossing the street in an hour. But a few years ago the guidelines were revised downwards. The new guideline is 15 pedestrians for each hour over a seven-hour period, but kids and old people count as two pedestrians each. Even at that point, no crosswalks are to be painted until vehicular traffic exceeds 1,500 vehicles per day.
“I need to stress those are guidelines,” Koutroulakis said. “If it’s near a school or a senior centre we”ll go lower.”
Since I had him on the phone, I asked Koutroulakis about the push-button activated pedestrian signals that have popped up since 2007, when both city and provincial policies were changed to, well, to screw pedestrians. As I explained two years later:
On the city side, when new crossing lights are installed at intersections, they are now programmed such that the pedestrian don’t-walk/walk signal only changes if first activated by the pedestrian pushing a button.
On the provincial side is 2007’s Bill 7, which amended the motor vehicle code. That bill is most famously known for its Clause 13, which criminalized Halifax’s squeegee kids, but its Clause 6 affects far more people—that piece of the legislation states simply that “pedestrian traffic facing [a don’t-walk] signal, either flashing or solid, shall not start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal.”
In many cases, the pedestrian arrives at an intersection with plenty of time to cross, but just after the traffic light has turned green; in order to get a “walk” signal, the pedestrian must wait an entire light cycle, but cars arriving after the pedestrian are free to proceed…
In effect, the changes have taken the right-of-way away from pedestrians and given it to vehicular traffic instead. Further, many additional minutes are added to a pedestrian’s commute.
Koutroulakis said that none of the push button activated lights have been installed on the peninsula. This didn’t sound right to me—what about at Bell and Trollope Street? I think there are several more in the west end… Koutroulakis said that a few push-lights have been installed on the peninsula to help people with visual disabilities, but none downtown. The pedestrian lights in the downtown core, he said, come on no matter what, so there’s no need for buttons. All the push button-activated lights I’m complaining about, he said, are in Dartmouth.
What about replacing the flashing yellow lights at mid-block crossings with flashing red lights? I asked.
In fact, parts of western Canada have experimented with flashing red lights at pedestrian crossings, Koutroulakis said, but such lights presents “yielding behavioural issues.” For some reason motorists wouldn’t stop, or those approaching on a side street thought the red light didn’t apply to them.
“Flashing lights are reserved for railroad crossings and fire stations,” he said.
I don’t know what to think of all this. Koutroulakis was kind to patiently give me so much time. I do appreciate that, and wish more public servants would be so willing to talk to the press. Still, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt like there’s an unbridgeable divide between traffic engineers and those of us who want more active protection for pedestrians.
But there’s hope. I found myself in Rivière-du-Loup this weekend (don’t ask), and happened to come across this crosswalk in the old downtown, with lights powered by a solar panel, flashing around the sign marking the crosswalk: