Walk this way Pedestrian signals, street redesigns helping to make intersections safer
By: Bruce Owen
It's been blinking for less than a year, but already it's being trumpeted as one of the best ways to make busy city intersections safer for pedestrians and drivers.
It's called a pedestrian countdown signal and it sits at the corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street across from the MTS Centre. Like its name, it counts down the number of seconds pedestrians headed to a Jets game or an arena concert have to safely cross the street before the traffic signal for the oncoming lane turns green. It was installed in June by the city as a way to introduce Winnipeggers to something more common in other cities.
The countdown signal is just one tool traffic experts use to make streets safer, but how soon we'll see more of them in the city is unknown.
They can only be installed where existing software and wiring can support them, and more importantly, when the city's budget process supports it. The cost of the countdown signal is about $10,000 per intersection.
"There's no plan with timeline," Winnipeg traffic signals engineer Michael Cantor said of future installations. "We're trying to push for it. There's a benefit from them. It gives pedestrians an enhanced feeling of safety when they're crossing. They know exactly how much time they have to cross."
Pedestrian countdown signals are now mandatory in the United States -- any new or replacement pedestrian signals being installed must include countdowns unless the pedestrian change interval (flashing upraised hand) is seven seconds or less.
In Canada, they are not, but many cities (Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary) have installed them anyway, simply because of the safety benefit.
Asif Iqbal, senior traffic safety engineer with the City of Edmonton, said the benefit of countdown signals is best seen in that city's downtown area, where there is a lot of foot traffic.
He said Edmonton's policy is that any new interaction location or reconstruction is considered for a countdown signal. The city's first countdown signal was installed about five years ago.
"Drivers like them too, because it gives them an idea on how much time they have before the light is going to turn amber," Iqbal said. "Our message, though, is that these are for pedestrians, and drivers should not rely on them."
Cantor said the single countdown signal at Portage and Donald has already sparked several requests from city councillors and members of the public to have them installed at other locations, mostly in the downtown.
He said there is mixed research on the cost-benefit of the signals -- do they reduce pedestrian collisions and costs to the health-care system?
Cantor said the research isn't decisive and that in some jurisdictions, people get used to the countdown signals and their novelty runs out, so any safety benefit is temporary.
"Different studies say different things," he said. "We want to put them in because we feel that it will give more of a safety component and better decision-making tool for pedestrians before they cross. It just feels safer when you know how many seconds you have to cross."
Traffic engineers are also looking at other ways to make intersections safer but still maintain traffic flow.
Edmonton's Iqbal said the most common crashes at intersections are rear-enders, mostly caused by the trailing vehicle following too closely.
By re-engineering the geometry or design of some intersections, Edmonton has found it can lessen the chances of those collisions and also reduce the possibility of more severe right-angle or side crashes.
Iqbal said a re-designed intersection makes it easier for drivers making right turns to turn their head sideways to see opposing traffic.
"If the angle is such that when you are going through that right turn, it moves you away from that stream of traffic, it becomes difficult to turn your head, because you have to turn your head almost 180 degrees so that you can see if someone is coming," Iqbal said of older intersections.
What Edmonton has done at some of its intersections is reduce the size of the right-turning lane or eliminate it, making oncoming traffic more visible to drivers going right.
"What we did was when you are making a right turn now, the angle is such that when you go into the intersection, you basically make a 90-degree right turn," he said. "We call it a high-entry angle."
By its design, a high-entry angle not only improves visibility for drivers turning right, but forces them to slow down before entering the intersection, he said.
"If you look at statistics for most major cities, intersections are overrepresented for most collisions," said Gerry Shimko, executive director of Edmonton's Office of Traffic Safety. "Typically, more than 50 per cent of all collisions are intersection-related."
An example of a change of intersection design in Winnipeg is at Salter Street and Jefferson Avenue. Last year, the four-way stop signs were replaced by traffic signals. They were installed as a way to better control an increasing amount of traffic on both streets during rush hour. In the process, a right-turning lane northbound off Salter to go east on Jefferson was eliminated. A small pedestrian island also disappeared.
That was done more to realign the intersection and facilitate the installation of the traffic signals, city road engineer Stephen Chapman said. However, the road change now makes it easier for drivers turning right onto Jefferson from northbound Salter to see oncoming traffic and pedestrians. The change has also "calmed" traffic down.
Chapman said traffic signals were also installed at Sinclair Street and Inkster Boulevard at the same time to reduce right-angle crashes.
"We had a pattern of westbound with southbound right-angle collisions," he said -- there were 19 over a three-year period.
Chapman said other busy intersections don't get traffic signals -- they get turned into roundabouts, which also reduce the chance of right-angle collisions. The most recent examples are Grassie Boulevard at Molson Street, and Lakewood Boulevard at Beaverhill Boulevard.
For the worst intersections in the city, such as Leila Avenue and McPhillips Street, they see more crashes simply because of the high volume of traffic. Most collisions are fender-benders, such as rear-end crashes. "That's not necessarily something that can be engineered out," Chapman said.
Shimko said Edmonton is also targeting high-risk drivers as a way to reduce collisions. That includes identifying drivers with a high number of traffic violations -- 12 or more over a two-year period. It's those drivers, who also tend to have criminal records, who are typically involved in serious collisions.
"There are high-risk drivers that need to be dealt with and identified for police intervention, because that will be the only thing that will basically deal with them," he said. "Police go out and target the registered owners of these cars to deal with the offending drivers. They've had some initial good success."
What Edmonton also does is divert some of the proceeds from its automated or photo-enforcement program back into traffic safety, including road redesign to lessen right-angle collisions. In Winnipeg, photo-enforcement revenue goes into policing.
"We made a conscious choice that traffic safety is important," Shimko said.
*TOP 10 worst intersections for vehicle collisions, June 2002-June 2012*
Leila Avenue and McPhillips Street 1,736
Kenaston Boulevard and McGillivray Boulevard 1,719
Lagimodiere Boulevard and Regent Avenue 1,347
Grant Avenue and Kenaston Boulevard 1,343
Bishop Grandin Boulevard and St. Mary's Road 1,162
Bishop Grandin Boulevard and St. Anne's Road 1,077
Archibald Street and Marion Avenue 1,017
Portage Avenue and Moray Street 986
Portage Avenue and Main Street 943
Bishop Grandin Boulevard and Waverley Street 919
*TOP five worst intersections for vehicle-pedestrian collisions over five-year period 2007-11:*
Portage Avenue and Cavalier Drive 9*
Henderson Highway and McLeod Avenue 8
McPhillips Street and Jefferson Avenue 8*
Isabel Street and William Avenue 7*
Osborne Street and River Avenue 7
*denotes location of one of city's photo-enforcement intersection cameras
*Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A4 *