Notes from Calgary: Scramble!

I’m in Calgary at the moment, en route to Hong Kong, where I will be doing a master’s degree for the next couple of years. This is a fast-growing, fast-changing city, and there are a couple of interesting changes that I noticed while I was here. One of them is the introduction of two new scramble crossings in the Eau Claire neighbourhood of the city’s downtown area.

Often associated with Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, scramble crossings are in fact a North American invention, originating in Kansas City and Vancouver in the 1940s. Basically, the term refers to an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase at an intersection controlled by traffic lights; all cars come to a stop and pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions. For the most part, it’s a safe and efficient way of governing traffic flow, as long as pedestrians have ample time to cross.

Scramble crossings disappeared in North America for several decades, victims of the postwar dominance of the automobile. Attitudes have changed, though, and the crossings are making a comeback. In 2003, Montreal installed them without much fanfare in the Quartier international, at such corners as McGill and St. Jacques and Viger and St. Urbain; they can also be found at several other intersections, like Monkland and Girouard in NDG. There is nothing to indicate that pedestrians are allowed to cross in all directions — some figure it out but others seem hesitant to cross diagonally.

In Calgary, by contrast, the city has made a big deal of its new pedestrian scrambles, accompanying their installation with plenty of instructional signage. Painted lines in the intersection let pedestrians know that it’s okay to cross diagonally. Based on what I’ve seen, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp the concept, and with each light cycle there are people who cross in all directions. Prominent signs prohibit drivers from making right turns on red.

In Toronto, city officials are on the verge of turning the intersection of Yonge and Dundas, one of the city’s busiest, into a scramble crossing. Some commenters on Spacing Toronto worried that it would used as a way to increase the amount of time vehicles have to pass through the intersection, thereby increasing the time pedestrians have to wait to cross, but this strikes me as a bit paranoid — the advantages of having an exclusive pedestrian phase at a busy corner outweight any disadvantages that come from having to wait a few seconds longer for cars to pass.

Where Montreal is concerned, however, a more legitimate problem would be the issue of jaywalkers. Whereas Calgarians hardly ever jaywalk, refusing to cross against the light even when no cars are coming, Montrealers aren’t nearly so patient. They would likely take advantage of the green light for cars to cross outside of the pedestrian phase of the light cycle, which could be dangerous if motorists aren’t paying attention.


  1. I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong with pedestrians crossing on green lights. Is it because they’d have to cross twice if they wanted to go diagonal? Is it because so many cars turn?

    Last I checked, our current system worked fine.

  2. There’s an informal scramble intersection outside my office at Sherbrooke and Victoria in Westmount. Since its installation, I feel that more cars are running the light (crashing the red), perhaps because drivers think that the wait for the next light is too long.

    As a pedestrian, I love being able to cross diagonally, especially if you consider the strange three-phase (or was it 4?) lights that used to grace the intersection.

  3. I love crossing diagonally at these crosswalks — makes me feel oh-so-worldly and sophisticated, and since they’re busy intersections and I’ve had to wait anyway until the light changed, hey, it’s my reward.

    I grew up in Vancouver, where jaywalking is frowned upon, but in return, cars stop for you when you want to cross at an intersection with no light. I actually prefer Montreal’s approach: cars don’t stop, but you can cross wherever you like. I’ve been here for 19 years and I still get a great deal of pleasure crossing the street against a red light or in the middle of the block, especially when there’s a police car parked not far with rather bored-looking officers inside. Only the cadets get excited about telling us how to cross legally, but they can’t give tickets so it’s rather wasted breath, the poor things. Out of pity and remembering my youth, I actually pay attention to them and wait.

  4. Funny, I actually WON’T j-walk in front of cops. Because it seems to me that every now and then there’s some kid of crackdown and I don’t want to be the poor sap he gets made an example of.

    I guess that shows just how paranoid I am…

  5. I’m the exact same way. I’m not going to risk the fine just to shave a couple seconds off my trip. If there are other people doing it, I’ll do it with them but not alone.

  6. There was a scramble crossing, maybe still is, at the corner of St. Jean and Douglas Shand in Pointe Claire. Seemed to work well as there is a lot of apartments diagonally across from the City Hall /library complex. And on a crazy and wide street like St Jean, it’s good not to have to wait for lights twice.

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