The safety dance

From my home, the closest marked pedestrian crossing on Queen Street West is the traffic lights at Queen and Augusta Avenue. But it takes ages for the lights to change, so instead, I used to walk a block west to Portland Street and cross at the pedestrian crossover (PXO in City lingo) — you know, with the sign that tells you to point and the big black-and-yellow "X" hanging by a wire over the street. There, you could stop traffic and cross almost instantly.

But even after pushing the button to get the amber lights flashing, I always put my toe onto the road with a certain amount of trepidation.

The rules of a PXO result in a kind of dance between pedestrians and cars. The pedestrian shouldn't step out unless cars have time to stop — but as soon as the ped puts a toe on the street, the cars have to stop if they can.

It's an uneven dance, of course — if someone missteps, only the pedestrian will suffer. So a lot of walkers find using PXOs an anxious experience. But on the other hand, you can cross right away — you don't have to wait for the lights. And once you've crossed, the cars can get moving right away. It's instant gratification, way more efficient for everyone than traffic signals.

But now my crossover on Portland is gone, replaced by a traffic light. The city has started a program to upgrade PXOs, and convert them to traffic lights if they fall into certain criteria. It's certainly safer; there's no more trepidation, but now I have to wait until the lights change, or break the law by crossing against them if there's a gap in traffic.

Convenience versus safety — it's a constant issue for pedestrians, and Toronto will have a unique opportunity to discuss these kinds of questions at the international Walk21 pedestrian conference the city is hosting this fall.