There is one simple thing Toronto can do to improve pedestrian safety and reduce traffic congestion.
Kill the Clock!
The pedestrian countdown clock is the single worst idea ever implemented on Toronto streets.
I confess, I originally thought the clocks were a great idea. As a driver, the countdown has me slowing down even before the traffic light turns yellow. That’s a good thing for safety, right? In the suburbs and areas where there isn’t bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion, yes. I still think it’s good.
But, in downtown Toronto’s horrifically congested traffic, the countdown clocks are the devil’s toys. A study published by the Hospital for Sick Children in 2013 showed that pedestrian-vehicle collisions increased 26 per cent after the countdown signals were installed. They’re dangerous.
Nobody understands what the clocks mean
The intuitive understanding of EVERYBODY, is that the clocks are counting down the amount of time pedestrians have left to cross the street. And, that’s how pedestrians behave: they step off the curb, confident they have the right-of-way, as long as the numbers are counting down. They stop entering the street (mostly) only when the countdown ends and the red hand burns bright – and alone. That’s the obvious meaning of the signals.
But, it’s not what traffic engineers intended the lights to mean. They will explain, repeatedly and in exasperation, that pedestrians should stop entering the crosswalk the instant the flashing red hand appears and the numbers begin counting down. The numbers, they say, tell you how long you have to get out of the intersection if you’re already in it. The engineers may want the clocks to mean this, but that’s not what everyone else agrees they mean.
These engineers, and police officers, and politicians, and media personalities will argue we need to better educate pedestrians what the signals really mean. No, we don’t.
On this issue, the “experts” are wrong. They’re like the only kid in the parade who’s in step. Only the kid, and his mom in the crowd, see things that way. To everyone else on Earth, the kid is out of step.
To everyone in the world, the countdown clock means: “keep crossing.”
As a result, in busy downtown Toronto traffic, that’s exactly what pedestrians do, so the crosswalk is never free of pedestrians. This means cars cannot turn safely – ever. If drivers want to turn, they have to do so unsafely. This is not a good thing.
But there’s a simple fix
Kill the clocks. Turn them off. Take them down. Have the pedestrian signals alternate between two simple signs: white “walk” indicators and red “don’t walk” indicators. Or, the old white man and big red hand. But, no confusing numbers. Everyone will understand. And, if the understand, they’re so much more likely to comply.
We’ll all be safer. Simple.