Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Peds on Weds: No ifs, ands or buttons

Today is Wednesday, which brings with it the weekly Peds on Weds post about walking issues. Being the second Wednesday of the month, tonight is also the monthly meeting of Walk Ottawa, the upstart pedestrian advocacy group. At tonight's meeting there will be representatives of the City's traffic signals department to take questions from the group.

I thought this was a good time to share what I know about how pedestrian traffic control signals work in Ottawa. I don't necessarily agree that this is the way things should be, but it is the way they are.

One of the biggest sources of confusion among pedestrians has to do with the signals and the buttons. Here's a traffic post at the top of Elgin at Sparks, which looks innocent enough:

What you can't see from the above angle is that there is a button for pedestrians to request the walk signal on the other side of this same post:

This poses a challenge to pedestrians, because you need to press the button to get the signal to change to cross. You need to know a button is there if you're going to press it. Here's one at Gladstone and Arthur showing what the signs used to look like:

The older signs were bigger, so they could be seen from the opposite side of most traffic signal posts. The button was attached to the post with two straps, which also gave a clue to the presence of a button.

This is all treating "pedestrian" to mean "walker" instead of "sidewalk user". Wheelchair users woldn't be able to reach this button at Percy and Gladstone, because the sidewalk plows didn't clear the snow from around it.

To try to educate pedestrians, the City sometimes posts this fine print to read while waiting for the light to change. This sign, even older than the one above,was put up by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton at Gladstone and Arthur, sometime prior to the amalgamation of Ottawa in 2001:

And even though the older signs were bigger, most intersections had the signs on both sides of the pole, so you didn't have to worry about being on the wrong side of the pole and not seeing it. I discovered this because it was rather difficult to find in my vast Centretown photo collection a photo of a button that had the old larger sign only on one side of the post. I eventually found one such photo, at Bank and Flora, from before the reconstruction replaced the posts, buttons and signs. You can tell that if you were on the far side of the post, you'd at least be able to see the back of the sign:

Still, there are many buttons which don't have signs. Pedestrians often express frustration that when they press a button it never seems to do anything. Though it isn't explained in the City of Ottawa's info page on pedestrian signals, only the buttons with signs next to them actually affect the signal timing; many traffic signals have predetermined cycles, and the buttons there are merely for activating the audible pedestrian signals for the visually impaired.

The bullhorns at the tops of these posts at Argyle and O'Connor, and the lack of the crossing signs next to the buttons, are a clear sign that these buttons are exclusively to activate the signal chime. This is done by pressing and holding the button for three seconds or so. Different chimes sound to indicate the direction.

The type of button is an important clue for cyclists, too. If a cyclist knows, by seeing a button with a sign, that a pedestrian needs to press a button to change the signal, then that means that the cyclist also needs a way to activate the signal. This is done by putting the bicycle over the signal detector loop in the pavement, which you can see by the rubber outline in the asphalt. The loop is big enough to detect cars anywhere in the lane, but for bikes three yellow dots are often used to indicate the most sensitive part of the signal loop, and thus where your bike is most likely to be detected. Stay on the loop until the light turns green, because it will abandon the signal change if it stops detecting the signal (i.e. because someone turned right on red and no longer needs the light to change).

When a vehicle activates the signal loop, the lights will change, but the pedestrian signals won't activate with them unless a pedestrian has pressed the button. There is a reason for this—the vehicle signal is shorter and doesn't interrupt cross traffic for as long as the pedestrian signal—but the reason isn't necessarily a good justification. I think we've all been at an intersection where the light turned green but the pedestrian signal stayed on "don't walk".

So then what happens when you come to a post where only one direction has a sign? Well, as you might deduce, it means that one activates the signal in one direction, and the other one only affects the audible chime. So which is which?

The arrow on the sign will indicate which direction it is if this is unclear from the context. Normally the signals are designed to give the higher-traffic street priority, requiring you to press a button to cross it. So here at Bank and Holmwood in the Glebe, the arrow indicates that you need to press the button if you want to cross Bank Street.

I noticed a variant of this setup in Toronto, where the arrow and the instructions were all integrated into a button (that you can't see from the other side of the post):

While Ottawa's pedestrian signal buttons may be confusing and complicated, at least they're consistent—if you know what to look for. When I visited Québec City last year, it seemed like every button was different (I even saw one that was activated by waving your hand under it). But the Québec engineers seemed to have figured out how to get better results for pedestrians: when I got to this intersection, traffic in my direction had a green light but pedestrians had a "don't walk" signal. The instant I pressed the button, the "walk" signal came up. I didn't have to wait for the next signal cycle like I would have in Ottawa.

As I wrote in the Traffic Operations Division tour three-part series, a traffic signal can be configured to be "synchronized" or "free", for part of the day or all of it. Free simply means that the intersection is independent, and it can start to change the signal as soon as you press the button.

Synchronized means that the timing is synchronized with other intersections down the road, for example, to keep motor vehicle traffic moving at rush hour. Intersections of two major streets are often fully synchronized, and the pedestrian signals activate automatically. These intersections will have either no buttons or only buttons for the audible signals.

But some synchronized intersections require you to press the button to activate the pedestrian signal. Percy and Gladstone is a well-known example of this. During busy traffic hours, this intersection is synchronized with the signals at Gladstone and Bronson to give motorists a series of green lights. As a result, when you press the button, the signals in the other direction won't start to change until the right time in the signal cycle. In the late evening and overnight, though, the button at Percy and Gladstone (as well as the signal loop for cars and bikes) will immediately set things in motion to change the signal. The walk signal crossing Percy will change to a don't walk signal, the light will turn yellow, then red, and then the signal will activate for people crossing Gladstone will.

And if all that wasn't confusing enough for you, there are times when in fact the button really does, in fact, do nothing. There are some intersections which have signed buttons to activate the pedestrian signal, but which are fully automated at certain times of the day. So whether or not somebody presses the button, at certain times of the day the signal will change at every cycle, including the pedestrian signal. The button is there for the times of the day when a rigid signal schedule isn't needed and pedestrians can activate the signal (I'm not sure if this applies to synchronized intersections, free ones, or both), but when the cycle is automated, pressing the walk button will not make a difference at all as to when or whether that light will change.

Of course, most pedestrians aren't familiar with the complicated assortment of different pedestrian signal types, and instead feel like the buttons are just there to frustrate them (or keep them occupied while waiting like the "door close" button in elevators). Because most of the buttons out there don't change the signal (i.e. because they are only for the audible signals or the signals are automated at that time of day), people figure it's a wasted effort to press the button and wait, and they just cross against the signal.

Hopefully after reading and studying this, you'll be more aware of when to bother or not bother with pressing the button and crosswalk signals will frustrate you a little less. Of course, walking shouldn't be so complicated and everyone shouldn't be expected to know all these nuances. The much simpler thing would be for the signals and buttons to do what pedestrians expect them to do.

If you want to see where traffic signals are made and programmed (and you must be a real traffic geek if you do after all this!), have a look at part 3 of my tour of the City's Traffic Operations Division. Or come out to the Walk Ottawa meeting tonight at 7pm at City Hall (Billings Room).

Edit: Read even more more about pedestrian bush buttons in the follow-up blog post, "No; more ifs, ands, or buttons" in September.


  1. This. is. madness. I'm speechless at how something so simple has been turned into such a mess. My annoyance at this has been bubbling for some time, so bear with me:

    One should NEVER have to press a button to get walk signal, ever. I'm sure there is some bureaucratic justification for this, but whatever it is, it's wrong. You mention it in your post, but the fact that the "pedestrian button event" light is slightly longer than the "no pedestrian button event" indicates autistic-level obsessive need to optimize vehicular traffic motion on the roads to the exclusion of all else (including sanity).

    Buttons should only be present when they exert some control over the light, i.e. change it on command or subject to some timing. Hey city planners: with these buttons you can get as complicated as you want with all sorts of cycles and this and that...

    But, the default should be: no button, walk signal when good to walk, don't walk signal when the light is turned (good grief, I can't believe I'm typing this out...)

    Sorry for the rant, but this issue really pushes my buttons.

    That sign on the fourth picture summarizes the ridiculousness of this better than I ever could. Good Lord, the clutter that accumulates on the streets...

  2. Thanks so much for demystifying this crazy situation, Charles.
    Instead of standing in helpless rage, at least I know how to deal with some of corners now. Looking for the rubber markings on the pavement, too, is a great clue for when I am on my bike.

    Like the previous commentator, this issue presses my buttons !

    Best of all, were your sentiments that this article should not be necessary. For the moment, I will dream of an Ottawa where a button pushed results in an immediate " Walk" signal!!

  3. I, too, am grateful for the information. I have wondered at the (working?) of the signal buttons for quite some time. I think it is a little ridiculous that a walk signal isn't just automatically given when it is safe to cross, regardless of whether a button has been pushed or not. Since I still hold to the fact that a pedestrian always has the right of way, if I miss getting a walk signal, I go with the green light for the traffic to get my cue to walk...even if it isn't the most correct thing to do.(I simply don't have the patience to wait for an entire light rotation to cycle through)

  4. This is really interesting - since I cross at Percy and Gladstone every day I always wondered why in the world the pedestrian signal didn't just come on automatically. As frustrating as the signals in Ottawa are, the signal at Laurier and Maisonneuve in Hull (where the Portage Bridge lets out on the Quebec side) drives me insane. Crossing Laurier northbound, the pedestrian signal only stays on for 25 seconds, but the light stays green for about 2 minutes. So you never know if you have time to cross or not and can stand there for what seems like an eternity, when you actually had plenty of time to cross. And the signals in every direction are set up differently so there is no consistency even at the one intersection! I've taken to completely ignoring the signals and just relying on traffic, which is probably not the outcome that the traffic people envisionned!
    Thanks for an interesting post.