You know that feeling when you arrive at an intersection just as the light turns green? That feeling like the traffic gods have smiled upon you, and that maybe you won’t be late for work after all? Well, it happens way less often when you are on foot, and at some intersections, unless there’s another person walking just ahead of you, it never happens at all.
That’s because of the way we program our traffic signals.
Many of HRM’s traffic signals will not automatically put up a pedestrian walk signal along with a green vehicle light, since a pedestrian walk signal requires more time than a vehicle green on its own. Instead, these signals are equipped with pedestrian activation buttons (less charitably, but just as accurately, called beg buttons), which when pressed put in a request to the main controller of the signal, asking for a walk signal next time around. (Car drivers have their requests automatically sent in via sensors in the pavement or overhead radar.)
In theory, the system is more efficient, as light cycles are shorter when there are no pedestrians, so drivers who pull up to a red light will save on their wait times. And pedestrians arriving to cross in the other direction will also save some seconds, because when they press the button their request can get answered slightly faster. It’s those who arrive to a red hand on a green light that take the hit, as they wait many more seconds for a signal cycle to be completed in order to be legally entitled to cross.
And many, many of them, like the guy in this video posted online by planner TJ Maguire, will just proceed with the vehicle green, not even realizing it is a shorter signal than a pedestrian walk signal.
This is so anti #PedestrianFirst, and in a busy, walkable part of Halifax. Please change so people walking get a walk signal @hfxgov. The guy at the end would techinically be at fault if hit, for not ‘begging’ to cross the street. @CrosswalkSafety pic.twitter.com/qFszI7SHOT
— TJ Maguire (@tjhfx) May 24, 2018
Maguire is a member of Walk and Roll Halifax, and a staunch opponent of the beg button, which he says give “people driving priority over people walking.”
“And often people don’t push the button,” says Maguire. “There are people that just go up and wait at the curb edge like any other intersection, and then when the cars stop, they go. And they are already two steps off the curb when they realize the Don’t Walk sign is still there. I don’t think people expect it.”
Then of course there’s the fact that buttons are often difficult to reach, particularly in winter, when walking or rolling on Halifax sidewalks is already very challenging. “There are examples in our city where the buttons are down a slope of grass, and someone in a wheelchair would never have an opportunity to hit that button because they would never be able to reach it,” says Maguire.
“If you want to benefit everyone, take the minimum crossing time and just make it the default,” says Maguire, adding that buttons could still be used for controlling audible signals (the chirps and cuckoos that let visually impaired people know which direction the walk lights are signalling) and maybe even to actually add some time to walk signals, for the slower walkers and rollers among us. Ultimately, Maguire would like to see buttons disappear altogether and be replaced by sensor technology on par with what’s used for vehicles.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), of which Halifax is a member, agrees with Maguire, at least about default timing.
“Fixed-time signals are recommended in all downtown areas, central business districts, and urban areas in which pedestrians are anticipated or desired and speeds are intended to be low,” reads NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. Fixed-time signals cycle through pre-set timing, without responding to buttons and sensors. NACTO says fixed time signals cost less to install and maintain, and provide gaps in traffic that can actually help vehicle flow on nearby intersections that don’t have signals.
“Fixed-time signals help make pedestrians an equal part of the traffic signal system by providing them with regular and consistent intervals at which to cross,” reads the NACTO guide, while actuated signals (the ones controlled by sensors and buttons) “prioritize movement along the primary corridor and can present obstacles to cross traffic and pedestrians if timed to prioritize vehicle movements only.”
Up until about a decade ago, Halifax was full of fixed time signals, while Dartmouth, Bedford and, Sackville were home to actuated signals and beg buttons.
But as the city started to make intersections more accessible and install audible crossing signals, pedestrian buttons started popping up in Halifax, so that the loud chirps and cuckoos of audible signals would not sound 24/7.
Along with the buttons came full actuation, and the dreaded red-hand-on-green. Back in 2015 when I first wrote about these lights for The Coast, councillor Waye Mason rather succinctly described the reaction to a newly actuated intersection in his district: “People flipped out.”
In reaction to the public outcry, actuated signals in many parts of Halifax are set to have pedestrian signals to come up automatically for most of the day, from 7am to 7pm. But on long summer evenings at corners like South Park and Spring Garden, or Queen and South, plenty of pedestrians still, sadly, come upon a red-hand-on-green.
Sadder still is downtown Dartmouth, where there are only a few locations with synchronized pedestrian and vehicle signals, and where all others do not include automatic walk signals (what they call “pedestrian recall” in the traffic engineering world). If you’re wondering why people don’t “flip out” in Dartmouth, it could be because beg buttons have been around there for about 30 years. If anyone flipped out back then, it didn’t seem to do any good. [UPDATE: A reader reports that at least two signals along Wyse Road have been changed in recent months to avoid red hands on green lights.]
“We do the best we can to balance the needs of everybody out there,” says Roddy MacIntyre, during a long phone call explaining the intricacies of actuated signals to me back in March. MacIntyre is senior traffic operations engineer with the city, a walker and transit rider himself, and he tried hard to convince me that the way the signals are currently working is actually more efficient for everyone.
“Everybody, vehicles or pedestrians, are required to wait at some point,” says MacIntyre. “We’re moving towards actuation because they are far more efficient,” he says. “They’re able to respond to pedestrian calls and traffic much, much better.”
Depsite MacIntyre’s best efforts, I remain skeptical. Not so much about the efficiency for the vehicle network, which seems intuitive and obvious, but for the efficiency of the pedestrian network, which seems highly dubious. Surely the full-cycle wait times accrued by pedestrians staring at a red hand on a green light must outweigh the tiny bit of time saved by those pressing a button on an actual red light? And surely the aggravation accrued by those pedestrians must count for something? If we bothered to measure these things, we would know. But we don’t measure much, particularly when it comes to pedestrians.
For actuated signal changes, the city doesn’t even measure the time savings to people in vehicles, much less people on sidewalks. “We don’t typically because it’s the accepted practice that an actuated signal will operate and does operate more efficiently than a pre-timed signal,” says MacIntyre.
But then there’s NACTO guidelines, telling us that wherever “pedestrians are anticipated or desired” we should probably be using fixed time signals. And if we’re not, then NACTO recommends that we can still reduce pedestrian delay by “setting the signal to recall on the pedestrian phase,” which means telling the walk light to come on every cycle, with no need to push a button.
And there’s the de facto policy in downtown Halifax, where according to MacIntyre, “signals all run on fixed time.” Meanwhile elsewhere on the pedestrian-dense peninsula we pursue actuated signals, and over in Dartmouth we leave most waiting at traffic lights like it’s 1990. In a city which just passed an Integrated Mobility Plan, we seem awfully inconsistent when it comes to traffic signals.
We need consistency across the regional centre, and we also need to see evidence of the re-prioritization that’s been called for in the Integrated Mobility Plan. Programming our traffic signals to prevent red hands on green lights seems like a cheap and easy way to start.
Addendum: Two other ways to get a red-hand-on-green in Halifax
Yes, even with pedestrian recall switched on, you can still get a red hand on a green light in Halifax.
Some signals are equipped to extend vehicle greens as long as there is still traffic coming. But due to the brevity of these seconds-long extensions, the corresponding pedestrian signals do not extend. So you get situations like at Young and Agricola Streets, where the flashing hand might convince you to stop and wait for the next light cycle, but then the vehicle green is extended, and so you are left staring at a red-hand-on-green, vowing never to pay attention to the flashing hand crossing Agricola again.
A third new situation has come up on North and Gottingen, where the routine disregard for yellow and red lights by drivers turning left onto Gottingen from the bridge has actually caused an extra wait time for pedestrians, and another instance of a red-hand-on-green.
After the advance green signal for those driving off the bridge finishes, people in cars coming the opposite direction on North get a green for several seconds before the pedestrians waiting on the corner. “We adjusted the phase so that the vehicles would just come in prior to the pedestrians in order to create that kind of blockage so that the left turning vehicles aren’t rushing the light and conflicting with pedestrians in the crosswalk,” explains Roddy MacDonald.
But in this an attempt to protect people from illegal left turns, we have instead put them at risk of legal right turns. It’s the polar opposite of a leading pedestrian interval, if you will. And it’s also one more instance of the confusing and confounding red-hand-on-green. Although the idea behind it is to increase pedestrian safety, the cost is pedestrian convenience, consistency, and predictability.