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

Nearly two years after he asked for a report on eliminating pedestrian push buttons in Halifax, what Coun. Waye Mason got back doesn’t even answer the question he asked.

And it’s one of multiple information reports to council on Tuesday that Mason and other councillors believe show the municipality needs to change the way it handles transportation.

In December 2018, Mason brought a motion to council’s transportation standing committee asking for a staff report, “regarding the elimination of the requirement to press a pedestrian push button to trigger a walk signal at fully signalled intersections for pedestrians throughout HRM.”

The problem Mason is trying to solve is one familiar to anyone who walks around the urban areas of Halifax Regional Municipality: you get to an intersection just as the light is turning green, and even though you press the button, it’s too late to change the pedestrian signal. That means you have to wait for the full cycle of the light to legally cross the street, even though the light is green.

“And you know what? No one does that. They just walk. There’s a green light for the cars, there’s nobody coming, and they walk,” Mason said in an interview Tuesday. “And if they get hit by a car, they’re at fault because the green walk guy wasn’t up and that means they walked against the signal. And that’s dumb.”

Report defends buttons

On Tuesday, an information report on the matter came to council. Information reports carry no recommendation, and are not debated unless a councillor brings them forward to the next meeting.

The report, written by traffic engineer Roddy MacIntyre, details the different kinds of traffic-controlled intersections in Halifax and includes a list of where there are and are not pedestrian push buttons.

There’s also a jurisdictional scan, declaring that “the use of push buttons as part of traffic signal operations is a common approach widely used by many jurisdictions.”

The report says:

In comparison to those jurisdictions who responded to the survey, HRM’s current approach to the use of pedestrian push buttons would be consistent with that found across the country. For example, there are many signalized intersections that have push buttons, but where it is known that pedestrian demand is high, the signals are set to automatically bring up the pedestrian signal during the high demand pedestrian times, whether the button is pushed or not. Since it is known that the demand for pedestrian crossings will be consistent, this approach is typically used in the downtown core or near high pedestrian generators.

But Mason notes the scan didn’t include Calgary and Edmonton’s downtowns, where Mason said you don’t have to press a button to cross at a signalized intersection.

He tweeted a photo on Tuesday of a button he saw in Edmonton, adding, “This is what I want in urban areas where data shows most people walk rather than drive. 24/7/365.”

The push button in Edmonton. Photo: Twitter/@WayeMason Credit: Twitter/@WayeMason

Mason is not trying to rid the city of lit crosswalks, where you press a button to turn on the light and the audible signal. And he wants to keep buttons at intersections so people with visual impairments can activate the audible signal.

But he doesn’t believe pedestrians should have to push a button to get the same light given to drivers.

In the staff report, MacIntyre argues that pedestrian push buttons reduce delays for all road users — even pedestrians.

“Operating a traffic signal where the pedestrian phase always comes up automatically for all approaches, even when there is no demand, forces all users to wait because the traffic signals will cycle between the main street and side street continually, regardless of demand,” MacIntyre wrote.

“Use of push buttons to activate low demand pedestrian movements helps to reduce unnecessary intersection delay for all users, including pedestrians.”

The report says staff are committing to take five steps to review the use of pedestrian push buttons, including at which intersections they’re used and whether the municipality could adopt technology to automatically detect whether a pedestrian is present.

That will take another two years, MacIntyre wrote.

Along with four other information reports tabled on Tuesday, council voted to refer this one to the transportation standing committee. For the first time since March, standing committees including transportation are going to start meeting again later this month, Mayor Mike Savage said Tuesday.

At that committee, Mason said he plans to make a motion recommending that council direct staff to remove pedestrian push buttons at all intersections in the regional centre — peninsular Halifax and Dartmouth within the Circumferential Highway — and some suburban areas.

“I expect that will pass council and then the traffic authority has to decide, are they going to ignore it on principle because we can’t tell them what to do, or are they actually going to deal with the fact that that’s what we want?” Mason said.

“And that’s where the crisis is.”

Traffic authority issue comes up again

The traffic authority is the municipal staffer in charge of the roadway, or as we described them in a May article, the “ruler of roadways, sultan of streets:”

“If you want to put up signage or change signage, if you want to have a stop sign installed, if you want to mark a crosswalk, all of that has to be approved by the traffic authority,” [Coun. Shawn] Cleary says.

“Council can’t put anything in the roadway without the traffic authority’s agreement and authorization, so it’s a very powerful position under the Motor Vehicle Act.”

The municipal traffic authority gets their power — including control over signage, crosswalks, and street closures — from the Motor Vehicle Act. Council appoints the traffic authority based on a recommendation from staff, approving amendments to an administrative order.

According to the latest amendments, Bruce Zvaniga — former director of transportation and public works — was appointed traffic authority in June 2015. At that time, Taso Koutroulakis was re-appointed deputy traffic authority, though he’s been deputy traffic authority since 2000.

Koutroulakis has served as acting traffic authority since Zvaniga left the municipal workforce in September 2018.

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé brought a report to council on Tuesday recommending the appointment of current transportation and public works director Brad Anguish as the traffic authority. Council passed a motion from Mason against Dubé’s advice to defer that vote, pending a report requested by Cleary on creating a new appointment process for the traffic authority.

Councillors like Mason and Cleary want the ability to pick a more progressive staffer for the job because they’re tired of being told no.

“They’re not outrageous choices that we’re asking them to make, they’re not outrageous changes because we see them in so many other cities where they have … all of the same conditions,” Mason said. “They’re making different choices than us and I don’t understand why. I think we’re just too conservative.”

Staff want to keep right turns on red

Another one of those choices came to council on Tuesday in a report on barring right turns on red lights.

In September 2019, the transportation standing committee asked for a report to, “assess the potential benefits to vulnerable road users of restricting right turns by all or various vehicles on red lights at either all intersections or intersection at and/or near areas of pedestrian concentration including, but not limited to, pedestrian-oriented main streets, schools, community and recreation centres, libraries, parks, and other significant public spaces.”

The information report came to council on Tuesday, like the pedestrian push button report, with no recommendation.

“The idea of restricting right turns on a red signal as a means of improving safety for vulnerable road users at all or at a select group of signalized intersections has been put into effect in other North American jurisdictions,” engineer Jill Morrison wrote in the report. “There is, however, limited data evidence to support the need for, or to quantify the effectiveness of, such restrictions on a system-wide basis.”

Montreal is the only place in Canada “where a blanket right turn on red prohibition exists,” the report says.

Morrison wrote that there are 23 intersections in Halifax where right turns are prohibited on red lights, including recently added ones around the South Park bike lanes.

Collision data between 2015 and 2019 indicate “that right turn vehicle maneuvers at signalized intersections account for approximately 9.4% of all pedestrian-related collisions,” but that’s all right turns, not just on reds.

Aside from the data, Morrison lists reasons including the need for more signs and potential traffic delays for maintaining the status quo.

Road safety framework report contains incomplete data

That report will head to the transportation standing committee for debate, too, along with the pedestrian push buttons, and others on a proposed crosswalk in front of an elementary school (staff say it’s “not appropriate at this location”), one on leading pedestrian intervals, and an update on the city’s Strategic Road Safety Framework — the document staff originally called a plan but that wasn’t actually a plan.

As advocacy group HRM Safe Cities for Everyone notes in this Twitter thread, that update says Halifax is “performing well with respect to all casualty collisions.” But the data it’s basing that assertion on appears to be incorrect.

HRM Safe Cities for Everyone noted that the municipality said there were 14 fatal collisions in 2018, but a provincial road safety manager said there were 19, with 21 total fatalities.

Because the comparator used with other cities was fatal collisions plus collisions resulting in injuries, the difference between 14 fatal collisions and 19 doesn’t significantly change the number of such collisions per 100,000 population — 177.4 vs. 176.3 — but the incorrect figure calls the others into question.

“Halifax is not addressing this crisis with sufficient road adaptations and cash to increase safety & reduce speed,” HRM Safe Cities for Everyone tweeted.

It’s unclear when the transportation standing committee will meet, or whether the meeting will be publicly live-streamed. There were no meetings scheduled as of Tuesday.

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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. The pedestrian button is a cultute shift that gives drivers a false sense of ownership and pedestrians loose their priority to cross as we do at crosswalks..we need consistency.

  2. As a pedestrian in downtown Dartmouth it’s way past time to get rid of the beg button at the foot of Portland Street outside the ferry terminal. A similar light on Water Street at the other end of rthe ferry route does not require the pedestrian to press the button. If I miss pressing the button by a split second I jaywalk – after all traffic is stopped anyway,

  3. This is a frustrating response by the traffic authority. I understand why council decisions have to be approved by the traffic authority but this case in particular is political rather than technocratic. A technocrat shouldn’t have the final say in things like this.

    “Reducing unnecessary intersection delay” is a political mandate. There are values that need to be weighed against this objective. Is safety more important than intersection delay? Does intersection delay improve the livability and community feeling in a neighbourhood? Would the people living there and the elected officials that represent them prefer more traffic and no beg buttons? It’s a values judgement, not just a “how do we make cars go faster” judgement.

    Good reporting, Zane!