There’s been a lot of positivity surrounding the release and unanimous council approval of our new Integrated Mobility Plan. There’s a lot to love in the plan, and if it starts to be implemented by staff and council over the next couple of years, it will mark a turning point in how we invest in our transportation infrastructure and how we build our city.

The IMP even went as far as to mention Vision Zero, a global initiative originating in Sweden in the late 90s, which gets its name from the rather bold goal of zero deaths and serious injuries caused by traffic accidents.

Vision Zero has some basic shifts in thinking behind it: It expands the responsibility for traffic collisions beyond the walkers and drivers directly involved, to include the regulators and designers of roadways and sidewalks. It starts from a point where human error is accepted as inevitable, and claims that streets and sidewalks must be designed to account for those inevitable errors while still protecting against death and injury. And it shifts the focus from finding fault, to finding ways to reduce actual harm.

Vision Zero is taking off in North America, with conferences and initiatives in various cities, most famously New York City, which has reduced speed limits, redesigned intersections, and is now investing in something called “leading pedestrian intervals,” where pedestrians are given a green light in advance of cars, in order to reduce conflicts from cars turning through crosswalks.

Unfortunately, although the Integrated Mobility Plan introduces the term “Vision Zero,” it then takes the much less used and less well-defined term “Towards Zero” as its action item. There’s little to no detail on what the IMP means by Towards Zero, so likely we will have to wait until May 2018 (when HRM’s Strategic Road Safety Plan comes back to council) to find out how much of the Swedish way of thinking it embraces. (For a great intro to Vision Zero thinking, check out this Citylab interview with Swedish traffic safety strategist Matts-Åke Belin.)

The “Vision Zero” to “Towards Zero” switch has the air of a cautionary downgrade about it, an attitude that HRM seems to cultivate when it comes to pedestrian safety initiatives.

A case in point: Halifax’s community-based crosswalk flags program, which will be up for discussion yet again at council today.

Last May, council put a hold on new crosswalk flag installations, and gave city staff about seven months to “begin a pilot of various treatments to enhance the visibility and safety, with relevant high-quality data collected pre-treatment and post-treatment, including at least one treatment of crosswalk flags and also consider solutions that other jurisdictions have implemented based on evidence.”

Now, as the update report on that “pilot” returns, councillors are being asked to extend the moratorium on flag installations indefinitely, as staff continue with their pilot testing “as part of their on-going practice.”

I wrote about the flag issue back in May, saying I had a “love-hate relationship” with crosswalk flags, loving what they did for visibility in intersections, but hating the possibility that they could one day become enforceable, like button-activated overhead lights are in Nova Scotia. (That’s the kind of nightmare scenario that can see a person in a marked crosswalk hit and then ticketed by police, like Halifax’s latest pedestrian casualty.)

But here’s the thing. Outside of people taking them too seriously and trying to legislate our use of them, I just don’t see what we are so afraid of when it comes to crosswalk flags. The more I read about them, the more it sounds like staff and council are being cautious to the point of absurdity when it comes to the orange flags.

First of all, let me just say that I would much, much rather have intersections designed in such a way that no-one would ever think, “gosh, I need an orange flag in my hand in order to feel safe crossing here.” Streets designed to maximize visibility and to keep cars going slow enough not to kill are the most desirable. But even if all of our traffic engineers fully embrace Vision Zero, err, I mean, Towards Zero, tomorrow, HRM is years and likely decades away from transforming all of its intersections into safe crossing zones.

And so here we are, stuck with intersections that have people asking for more little orange flags.

Norm Collins, Halifax’s chief advocate for crosswalk flags, says he probably gets about 50 or so requests a year. He doesn’t seek out the requests; they come to him. A few days before Crosswalk Safety Action Day in November, Collins received a request for crosswalk flags at Main and Dunbrack Streets, an extremely wide, fully-signalized intersection in Fairview. The request had been forwarded to Collins from the city’s 311 information department.

Collins had to inform the requestor, who said she needed flags to wave at cars because she’d been almost hit dozens of times crossing that intersection, that not only was the flag program on indefinite hold, but HRM would likely not allow flags to go in at Main and Dunbrack since it had an existing traffic light.

The intersection at Dunbrack and Main, where crosswalk flags would not be allowed even if there were not a moratorium on their installation. Google Street View

Crosswalk flags are also not allowed downtown, so the two request Collins received for flags at the southern end of Lower Water Street (Hollis Street and Terminal Road) had to be turned down, even without the current moratorium.

In May, the talk around the council table was that we needed proof that these orange flags not only worked, but also that they didn’t inadvertently make our crosswalks more dangerous.  (This “caution” reasoning sounds dangerously similar to the erroneous reasoning behind why we actually mark so few of our crosswalks. Engineers tend to believe that markings can “desensitize” drivers, though I have yet to see a study to back up this belief.)

Let’s put this in some perspective.  What do crosswalk flags actually do?  They give pedestrians the option to pick up something brightly coloured to aid in being seen.

This November HRM paid a marketing firm to run yet another year of Heads Up Halifax, a campaign where the city hands out brightly coloured (and, mysteriously, also darkly coloured) toques and advises people to make themselves be seen before crossing the street.

Crosswalk Safety Awareness Day 2017. Photo: / Tyler MacLeod, @Tyler_MacLeod

And then, at the same time, HRM has stopped further installation of bright orange flags at crosswalks, meant specifically for people to use to make themselves be seen.

I mean, which is it? Do bright colours and pedestrian engagement help make us safer, or not? HRM seems to want to have it both ways, here, and I’m just not sure why.

Maybe it’s the sheer embarrassment of knowing that the city’s intersections and other crosswalks are so badly designed that people feel they need the option to wave an orange flag around as they cross. If that’s it, then I say bring them on. Let the city become dotted with orange flags at every intersection where pedestrians feel unsafe, if only to shame our planners, engineers, and politicians into embracing Vision Zero and actually prioritizing human safety on our streets.

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  1. Desensitization IS a well-established phenomenon in various design-related fields, including user experience. For example, users will click “ok” to make most any computer security warning go away. I’m not aware of it being studied in the context of crosswalks; while I wouldn’t expect to be, I assume if Erica can’t find it, it’s not been done. Like all things, the application of the principle is the challenge. One must signal important information in a way that signifies it is important. Serious situations need emphatic signals, minor situations need little/no signal. In short, you can’t have false alarms.

    To apply it to some of the examples above, painting fire trucks bright red works unless every car is bright red: then we’d be desensitized. But for now, a bright red truck is a fire truck. Painting lines with bright reflective paint works because 100% of the time, that signals something vital to driving. Start splashing that paint around wily-July and it loses effect.

    High viz vests work because you see them infrequently relative to less-visible objects, and every time you do, it is attached to a person. Start draping those on every shrub, and the effect wanes.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if traffic engineers learn about this in the context of road signs: too many, and people ignore them all. Too few, and you lose the chance to communicate vital information.

    For the crosswalk example, if a driver encounters empty painted crosswalks 9/10 times, they are going to stop taking that painting seriously. I’d buy that outcome at least as a fair hypothesis.. But if a painted crosswalk is indeed likely to signal the presence of walkers… no desensitization

  2. I’d like to see the city adopt a policy where every crosswalk is a button-operated traffic signal, like the one in front of the McDonald’s on Quinpool. I have never understood why we have the flashing crosswalk lights which no on pays attention to anyways instead of proper traffic signals. Why the difference? I’m sure everyone on council can agree that traffic lights tend to stop cars and make things safer for traffic moving perpendicular to them, right?

    Make the cars stop and wait for the light to turn green again. This seems like a no brainer.

    Also, on a related note, wouldn’t it be great if all motor vehicle infractions were punishable based on momentum of the offender? For example, a 2000 lb truck driven by a 250 fatso would get a fine of 2250 for driving through a crosswalk while the light is red, while a 30 lb bike ridden by a 150 lb average person would receive a 180 dollar fine

  3. Do the flags make me feel secure? Somewhat, especially when it starts getting dark. I do support having them for the majority of pedestrians. However, in my ongoing situation of avoiding being run over, I do not feel in the least secure crossing any streets be it one with lights, one with stop sign, one with a lit crosswalk, one with just a painted crosswalk or one with flags. Maybe I’m just an unlucky person; similar to those other unlucky people who come up against a vehicle occasionally.

    My recent run-in with a car was with one coming down Thomas Raddall with young people in it, I assume from the high school. I was in the midst of one of my frequent walks to and from the Keshen library. So, I was crossing Stratford which brings me directly to my building. I had the green light with the walking thing-a-ma-jig. I was almost halfway across, thankfully not quite half, when this car drove through their red light and I could feel the whoosh of it going by me.

    I can’t talk about this much any more because I’ve become, as my mother would have said, a broken record. And people say: You have to be careful! If I yell at them as loud as I would like “I AM CAREFUL!” I would have no friends left. And, yes, I still drive a car sometimes and I am not perfect. Hopefully that does not cancel out my complaint.

    I’m 75 now and I walk up and down this hill that I live on, and walk many other places, and am a strong walker but I dread crossing any street. The only exception is when I jaywalk. Only then do I feel in control. Maybe the city would approve flags for jaywalkers?

  4. I am in a wheel chair and rely on the flags for my safety in winter when snow banks hide me from traffic because of my low profile. I hope Council has the common sense to retain this community based safety program!

  5. Perhaps HRM Council will ban high-viz vests for construction workers and for City public works staff at the same time. Surely they desensitize drivers near constructions sites, putting the workers at greater risk. And let’s get the reflective strips off of the clothes of walkers and runners and those kids out on Hallowe’en before they are all run down in the streets.

    And brake lights. What’s up with them?

    1. I’ve been arguing for years now that the biggest impediment to improved crosswalk safety in Halifax is senior staff who’ve stated publicly that “improvements will give pedestrians a false sense of security”. This is absurd and backwards thinking. I’m glad Erica shares my view. The bigger problem, of course, is that our mayor and council are being lead around by the nose by these same senior staffers who are really making all of the decisions at city hall, through their version of ‘guided democracy’.

    2. And what about those annoying yellow or white stripes in the middle of our roads? Some of them of very reflective. Just thinking about them densensitizes me. And ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Are they crazy putting all those bright colours on their vehicles? Staff need more time to tackle this. Apparently no city has tackled the flag issue before, so a literature review would be a waste of time, unlike doing our own pilots.