Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Peds on Weds: No; more ifs, ands, or buttons

Back in May I had a lengthy blog post titled No ifs, ands or buttons which described in detail how terribly complicated pedestrian buttons are in a road environment that is designed for cars.

Since that post, I noticed a few more situations I omitted about pedestrian buttons. These examples are all at the edge of Centretown or just outside it.

Outside the fancy new Ottawa Convention Centre at Colonel By Drive and Daly on the other side of the Rideau Canal, some of the concrete pavers are lined up with grooves in the middle. This is an accessibility feature so that the visually impaired can safely direct themselves to the crosswalk safely, and stop before getting to the edge. The grooves in poured concrete sidewalks perform the same function (and most streets that have precast pavers for sidewalks will use a concrete pad at the intersection to provide these accessibility features). Can you see the problem?

The groove takes you to the centre of the crosswalk, but the buttons you need to press to activate the pedestrian signal are at the edges of the crosswalk. And this crosswalk is so wide that the button on the right side didn't even fit into the shot.

But at least at that intersection, the button is necessary for anyone to use the crosswalk—not just the visually impaired—so at least there's someone else there to activate the crossing signal. As mentioned in the May entry, this is discernible by the sign above the button on the pole. If our blind pedestrian is lucky, the sighted pedestrian will press the button for three or more seconds, activating the audible signal, instead of just the quick press required to request the crossing.

By contrast, there are some crosswalks that activate automatically every cycle and don't require a button to be pressed. Many of these crosswalks still have buttons so that the visually impaired can activate the sounds that tell them when they have the light. Here's another problematic example at Bronson and Gladstone:

Imagine you're the man in the hoodie and you're blind. Would you be able to find the button? If he were heading North toward the Money Mart sign, he'd have to press the button all the way at the left, which is over a car-length away from the crosswalk. The button he wants is on the far side of the pole nearest the camera. It's a bit closer to the crosswalk, but not so much when you consider how out-of-the-way it is to someone walking toward the intersection in the same direction as the cars from the left side of the screen. And since you're blind, you don't see that the crosswalk lines aren't where you'd expect to see them. This is a tragedy, because the buttons at this intersection are there exclusively to serve the visually impaired, who aren't really able to use them. (The new post locations, and therefore the button locations, at Bronson and Gladstone appear to be more usefully positioned for this purpose, though we'll see which direction's buttons get put on which post.)

For crossings that only change when someone pushes the button, I mentioned in the Convention Centre example above that a sighted person might press the button long enough to activate the audible signal. This would be likely, since most pedestrians don't realize they needed to press the button until they notice the cars in their direction getting a green light without the accompanying walk signal. In that case, people tend to press the hell out of the buttons, to be sure they don't get stuck waiting through a second signal cycle.

If you want to see this process in action, go the the intersection of Portage and Wellington, which recently had crosswalks installed. Where the new Segregated Bicycle Lane meets the crosswalk, there is a pocket to (theoretically) dismount your bike, turn it toward the crosswalk, and walk it across (in reality, people just ride through the crosswalk).

The problem, as you may see from the above photo, is that people need to press the button to activate the crosswalk, but cyclists are located in such a way that the button is always behind them when they're waiting for the light. Every time I've been there to watch, cyclists will only start to look for the button when they realize they've missed their light. If the cyclist is lucky, a pedestrian will come along and press the button in time.

A month after it opened, I walked this intersection with a gaggle of road, cycling and traffic planners and engineers from the City and the NCC to look at ways to iron out the kinks. The solution to this particular problem was that they would replace the tiny signs next to the buttons that have a walk symbol and push button to indicate that pedestrians need to press the button to cross, with different-but-nearly-identical tiny signs that have a walk symbol and a cyclist and a push button to indicate that pedestrians and cyclists need to press the button to cross.

That's traffic engineers for you. To them, the problem isn't that people neither see the sign nor recognize what it means, the problem is that it's the wrong sign. I suggested they put in a detector loop under the end of the crosswalk to automatically request the signal when a bike is on top of the loop, but that didn't go anywhere (maybe I should have pressed the engineers' buttons?)

Lest I end on too cynical a note, here's a positive one: the post at the northeast corner of Booth Street and the Transitway, at LeBreton Station, is behind a guard rail. You'd have to reach pretty far to press a button on that post. So instead they've put a second post much nearer the sidewalk, with an extension from the main post.

This is a relatively simple way of retro-fitting in intersection, because it doesn't require you to do any underground electrical work; the only digging is for the base of the new post.

As with the original No ifs, ands or buttons post, I'm not trying to defend the engineers or their pedestrians-last reasons for designing these buttons this way. I'm only trying to describe the way they are, so you can prepare yourself to cross!

See also this CityLab article on pedestrian buttons in the U.S.

[Tune in on Wednesdays at noon for a new pedestrian-themed blog post. View the Pedestrians label for previous Peds on Weds posts]

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