All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Push button traffic lights: I hate ’em

with 2 comments

Pedestrian-activated traffic lights.  Cyclist-activated traffic lights.  I hate them, I hate them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I use them, and I’m glad to discover a new one on my bike route.  But they still bug me.

I even remember my first encounter: newly arrived in Vancouver, I wait at the light at Cornwall and Maple.  I’m trying to be good.  As a Montrealer, I had learned that it is cars that hurt you, not lights, and no pedestrian ever waits for a green light to cross a street there (besides, it’s too cold in winter to wait).  But here, I’d seen pedestrians obey light signals, so I wait.  The light turns green.  But the pedestrian crossing signal stays red.  I wait.  What, red light again?!  What the?  Then I discover this weird protuberance, at elbow’s height.  A push button.  Well, I’ll be.  Vancouver is weirder than I thought.

There are two kinds of these buttons: those that are fitted to regular street lights meant for cars; and those that are only for pedestrian or cyclist use.

As I said, I appreciate them, particularly the second kind.  Near my place, 6th and Nanaimo, cars never noticed the pedestrian crosswalk, and bikes were fair game (there`s a hill).  It`s an improvement.  So why should I be grumpy?

I don`t like them because of the false sense of security they create.  I would like to see a police campaign targetting these crossings, in particular – it`s as if, as a driver, you learn that there is little risk if you floor it on a dark-yellow-dang-it-was-red.  I`ve seen a few near misses, especially at the busy 10th and Clark crossing.

I don`t like them because they are confusing.  Cyclists have been given fines for doing what all cyclists do: there`s a green light, you go through.  No, you`re no going to stop first; by the time you do, the light will have changed, and besided you`ve got this precious momentum.

Cars do the same, and that`s even worse.  There`s been several accidents at corners like Oak and 63rd – a driver sees the green (pedestrian activated) light, figures there`s enough time left to make it through – and bang.

I`ve even seen a driver reach out with an anti-theft club to push a button meant for cyclists.  A young mom with a kid in the car, trying to cross First Avenue.  She apologized to me (I was on my bike, must have given her a look) and said that she`s too nervous driving on the busy streets.  That didn`t make me feel any safer but that made me think that there ought to be alternatives to driving offered to young moms.  Anyways…

Why are these buttons there?  At regular crossings, they lengthen the duration of the green, so that pedestrians can make it through the crossing safely.  At  pedestrian/cyclist crossings, they are meant to be an improvement over simple painted crosswalks.  So goes the thought.

But the common thread here: let`s make life easier for cars.  Let`s make sure they don`t wait at lights any second longer than they have to.  If there`s no pedestrian in sight, why stop.  And that what really bother me.  These priorities are backwards.  Pedestrians are what makes a city.  They are the shoppers, the people you meet, Jane Jacobs`eyes on the street.  Pedestrians first, then cyclists.  Then cars.  That`s the normal order of priority.  But how many drivers know they are supposed to stop at an unmarked corner if a pedestrian is attempting to cross?  Why, for that matter, is jaywalking an infraction?

At first, I thought that the pedestrian activated lights were a compromise, a cheaper set of lights (compared to a fully controlled intersection, in all directions).  Not so; a report from Engineering shows no difference (a pedestrian controlled crossing at Fraser and 10th is $165,000; a full control ones at Homer and Helmcken is $160,000).  So why not full control ones wherever they are implemented?

If anything, to have a whole row of street lights in rapid succession really facilitates car traffic control.  Well synchronised lights ease traffic flow but – possibly more important – calms the speed.  No use rushing if the light at the next street is red; follow the speed limit and get there faster.

And on a bike!  You know what to expect, you`re safer (including from the cops and their tickets – just don`t go through reds!).  Ditto for pedestrians.  Even Montreal raised ones (do I need to specify that I jaywalked at the next intersection after my first encounter with one of these lights?).

I just feel it`s kinda demeaning.  As a pedestrian, as a cyclist, I need to press a button – ask permission, so to speak.  I`d like to see drivers have to get out and press their buttons, too (they`d be in better shape, getting in and out all the time, wouldn`t they?).  Yes, that`s not realistic.  Still; do away with these buttons, just put up the lights.  That`s what I`d like to see.

I can`t be the only one feeling this way.  The Argentinian cartoonist Quino nicely expressed the wish for a bit more pedestrian power,  I`d go for one of those buttons, I think.


Today I’m waiting for the light at Main and 5th.  It’s on a cycle path, and of course it is a pedestrian/cyclist activated light.  Cars are coming on 5th from the west.  They have the green light but they are supposed to do a stop, according to the law – there is, of course, a stop sign, along with the signal.  I count the cars that stop: none.  At least six cars barrel straight through – and fast; since this is not a full light, they don’t have a yellow light to guide them.  Six cars, one single light cycle!  Had every car been ticketed, the city would have gone a long way towards paying for the Olympic village.

I tell you, I hate these things.



Written by enviropaul

October 25, 2011 at 10:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] not just me, then, that finds those things ennoying. Me, I find them patronizing (as well as dangerous) – but I used to think that was just […]

  2. I’ve seen motorists blow the red, pedestrian controlled, light at 20th and Main numerous times. There is something about this T intersection that doesn’t signal to cars that they may need to stop. I’ve never been able to articulate what it is that confuses motorists.

    Maybe a fully controlled signal would be an improvement?

    Nick Goodall

    September 8, 2014 at 12:39 pm

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