Crosswalk flags at a formerly marked crosswalk at Waverley Road and Applewood Lane (via Google Street View)
Crosswalk flags at a formerly marked crosswalk at Waverley Road and Applewood Lane (via Google Street View)

You may have noticed the increasing presence of buckets of bright orange flags placed on either end of crosswalks throughout Halifax. Since council passed its Pedestrian Safety Action Plan in 2014, community members have been allowed to set up crosswalk flags “with input from HRM staff to help ensure programs are carried out appropriately and safely.” There are now, according to city staff, “approximately 154” crosswalks with flags in HRM, a small fraction of our total number of crosswalks, but a growing and significant number.

Last week council considered passing new regulations to create a formal approval process for crosswalk flags. The new rules would have seen flags removed at about 56 current locations. After a couple hours of discussion, council rejected staff’s proposal, opting to leave current flag locations alone, but to suspend further installations indefinitely, while asking staff 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,” with a progress update due in December.

I both love and hate crosswalk flags.

I love that they are a cheap, simple, grassroots answer to a classic problem facing pedestrians: drivers who just won’t yield. But I hate that they are essentially one more way to shift responsibility for the behaviour of said drivers onto pedestrians.

In some places, crosswalk flags are not so much a safety measure as a necessity for ever being able to cross the street. Take some of the T intersections along Waverley Road, where traffic might never yield to a pedestrian without being actively flagged down. A bucket of orange flags in those cases is more about establishing basic access than increasing safety. In low-pedestrian count places where the city won’t put up lights or even in some cases mark the crosswalk, they provide a way for the infrequent pedestrian to get across the street.

But there’s resistance to crosswalk flags from Halifax’s traffic services staff, dating back to when former Traffic Authority Ken Reashor simply refused to follow a council recommendation to implement them based on his legal jurisdiction over the matter.

It’s this resistance that I don’t quite understand, especially considering where it comes from. The crosswalk flag system is essentially perfectly consistent with the predominant messages that come through pedestrian safety campaigns in Halifax: wear bright clothes, be seen, make eye contact. My kid learned, presumably at school, to stick his arm straight out to indicate when he’s crossing.

Well, crosswalk flags directly enable all of this. With a crosswalk flag in hand, even the most funereal dresser is suddenly donning hazard orange. And the simple act of picking up the flag means you are actively engaging in “getting noticed” as Halifax’s Heads Up campaign advises. And as Councillor Stephen Adams charmingly pointed out at last week’s council meeting, “If someone has a flag in their hand, at least they’re not texting.”

And that brings me to what I don’t like about crosswalk flags: ultimately, they are one more method for putting the onus on the pedestrian to “get noticed.”

If flags were to become ubiquitous in Halifax, there’s a distinct possibility that in a few years some provincial government will even decide to make them mandatory, just like they did with pedestrian-activated lights at crosswalks. (You can actually be ticketed if you fail to press the button at a crosswalk. If Nova Scotia ever requires me to carry a flag to get across the street legally, well, then my Nova Scotia days will be numbered.)

All these concerns aside, what councillors really wanted to know last week was, do they work? Do crosswalk flags make pedestrians safer? Because we don’t really know. Most of the research out there focusses on marked versus unmarked crosswalks, and even when it is expanded to include different types of markings, I couldn’t find much that addressed flags directly. And flags are a distinctly different kind of marking, designed to move along with pedestrians.

Our own city reports to date have included limited data collected by city staff during “data collection season” from May to October. But the numbers are small. Staff observed 131 pedestrian crossings at 12 different crosswalks over the course of months, to come up with a flag usage rate of just under five per cent. And then 413 cars passing through 24 different crosswalks over the course of months, to determine average yielding rates from 89 to 95 per cent.

But as councillors Cleary and Austin pointed out, the data doesn’t reflect who the five per cent are (i.e., are they seniors and/or kids?) nor does it tell us the differences in behaviour at a crosswalk before and after flag installation. In short, the data we have is not much to go on.

Which is why it’s great that council is asking for more. But it’s a tall order, and all that data collection and analysis isn’t free. I know councillors would like to get back some solid evidence in December on which to base a yea or nay on crosswalk flags, but the reality is, they probably won’t. Read between the lines of last week’s motion for a “pilot of various treatments to enhance visibility and safety” and you find a much longer term, more comprehensive research project that could inform all of our street design and traffic tool decisions.

And why shouldn’t we go for that? If the urge to make informed, evidenced-based decisions is strong enough at council, then perhaps what we need is something like what New York, Seattle, and New Orleans have done recently with non-profit think tank Datakind. As described in a recent Citylab article by Laura Bliss, New York is two years in to a massive data project “to build a tool capable of projecting the impact of any given engineering intervention, on any given New York City street.”

In Halifax, we have a natural partner for such a project: the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC), with whom we’ve just signed the contract on the first ever Halifax mobility and travel survey (a full year after council approved it, but better late than never I guess). It would, of course, take years to build such a model. New York City’s DataKind project is still years off from being able to recommend specific treatments for specific intersections, but in the meantime as the model grows it is still useful to engineers along the way.

Halifax council should harness its enthusiasm for evidence-based decision making, and instead of simply requesting an internal staff report, actually make the proper investment to either hire the personnel, or partner with DalTRAC (or DataKind, or anyone with the capacity) to build a truly useful tool to inform our future safety decisions.

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  1. *assinine Plus how many years should a responsible city council take to initiate cheap, effective life saving measures recommended by a Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee they endorsed? Lots of time and effort was devoted, I’m sure, and the simple remedies were just too much for BOLD HALIFAX to handle. Pathetic ☠️

  2. Thank you for an interesting thought provoking article. A few further thoughts.

    With 155 crosswalk flags in HRM more or less 1/3 of the marked crosswalks are flagged, evidence of the receptiveness of the program by the residents of HRM.

    I agree with disciplined research and in fact our Society reached out to DalTRAC a month ago, prior to the Council request, to see if they would study crosswalk flags. There is interest but apparently they are not available until 2018.

    I too have serious reservations that quality research can be achieved before the end of the year.

    I also observe many crosswalk safety recommendations were previously provided by the Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee, who recommended crosswalk flags, reflective tape on posts, neon crosswalk signs, pedestrian stop signs among others. Regrettably most of the Committee’s suggestions were not acted on by staff. It is regrettable this research was not done years ago in response to the Committee’s recommendations.

    I am encouraged by staff’s acknowledgement that residents believe the mere presence of the crosswalk flags, whether used or not, make the crosswalks more visible to the driver. This is important as I do not agree the crosswalk flags shift the onus to the pedestrian but as is so rightly pointed out are simply another way of increasing one’s visibility, no different than wearing bright clothes. Furthermore, as mentioned the crosswalk flags have the added benefit and focus on the driver of creating greater driver awareness of the crosswalks.

    I do not object to Council requesting staff review the effectiveness of crosswalk safety tools, and related costs. What I object to is the crosswalk flag program being suspended while the review takes place.

    I have not been provided one shred of evidence crosswalk flags create any danger or as some have claimed a ‘false sense of security’. In fact I have spoken to two lawyers who say the exact opposite – that the action of reaching for a flag is evidence of concern about one’s safety, and as one said the crosswalk flags provide not a ‘false’ but an ENHANCED sense of security.

    It is a shame those that will want crosswalk flags to improve their visibility and therefore logically their safety are precluded from receiving them while the staff review takes place..

    Norm Collins

    1. IT IS SHAMEFUL and mind-boggling that a city council would waste even five minutes reviewing the lifesaver flag option at any crosswalk. If there’s a magical plan in the works for safe crosswalks come December 2017 or maybe May or September 2018, so what? The flags help people cross roads today and tomorrow safely. Drivers love them! How assine to put such a simple safety measure on hold with no reason!

  3. I use the flags about 50% of the time but wish there were more intersections with them. I feel if even one person is saved from being hit, they are worth it. While I understand the perspective of onus on pedestrian and not driver, I would rather assume the responsibility and be visible. As a driver, I like them as they clearly indicate intent to cross.

    Now if we get a better supply of blinker fluid, so drivers could use their signals……other drivers and pedestrians would be safer….

  4. I am in wheel chair and love the flags, particularly in winter when snowbanks at cross walks hide me from traffic because of my low profile, raising one of the orange flags is a critical safety feature for me and all the other little people in the city.

    Norm Collins is to be commended for his persistence and dedication. The bureaucratic command & control culture at City Hall snuffs community engagement, this is something our civic leadership needs to change.

    Very much like the DataKind concept, and DalTRAC would be a perfect partner in such an initiative.

    Thanks for another good article by Erica Butler, it’s one of the reasons I subscribe.

  5. Unfortunately it’s a ‘pedestrian beware’ jungle out there. The loss of rights as shown with having to ‘push the button’, resorting to flags and the ridiculous lack of bike lanes ust reinforces that vehicles own the road. Awareness of our vulnerability in this world of distraction at speed is key to keeping our butts from scraping the pavement…

  6. Reashor was an overpaid jerk.
    A ‘strictly by the rule book’ man.
    If it wasn’t in the N American rule book it was not worth his time considering any proposal regarding pedestrian safety.
    I have known Norm Collins for 3 decades and he has worked against all obstacles to get the flags out into our communities. I love the flags, they are an essential addition to the roadscape and because they are so highly visible they are a persistent reminder of the presence of pedestrians. I have not yet met any person who dislikes them and Coun. Adams statement is a simple and obvious comment.
    The overhead lighting at night is useless, a person with a pink flag is more visible.
    Only a pedestrian can save herself/himself. When it comes to safety, assume everyone else is stupid or breaking the law because if you rely on others you will become another victim.

    1. 100% agree! Those flags are simple, BRIGHT and beautiful. I remember the early days when ‘traffic authority’ blocked such a life saving buoy on Waverley road but Norm Collins soldiered on. He’s the best crosswalk safety measure to date in Nova Scotia!

      1. I use the flags every time I cross, no one surveyed me, I am considering carrying a pool noodle with me. It would keep me mindful as a pedestrian as well as being visible. I have a light baton for in the winter.

  7. I sponsor one of the flagged crosswalks — at Falkland and Gottingen — as it seems a harmless and potentially useful contribution. People seem to use the flags now and then. As a driver I find a lot of distracting stuff on the road and the flags, even if they stay in the buckets, are effective warnings. I would however welcome an evidence based approach to this problem. Good balanced article.