Perhaps you have noticed that you now have to beat the clock when crossing at some intersections around Ottawa. These are countdown timers, and they are starting to crop up at intersections throughout the city. Often counting down from the number 10, they can have the connotation of a NASA launch or a MacGyver-style bomb defusing, at least for some users who appear to be a little anxious the first time they encounter the new signals.
The signals consist of a digital display showing the number of seconds left to cross the street, and accompany the familiar “flashing orange hand” that is supposed to mean not to start crossing or to finish crossing if you have already started to do so. Although already in widespread use in many other cities, including on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River, pedestrian countdown timers are new to Ottawa, with the first only appearing in 2009. According to the City of Ottawa, these devices will be installed progressively over the next 10 years starting with priority locations, such as near schools and seniors homes, wide and busy streets, and during street reconstruction projects.
If you travel around on city sidewalks often, you probably don’t need to be convinced too strongly about the advantages these timers offer to pedestrians and other sidewalk users. Those who are on foot will now know exactly how much time they have to get to the other side of the street, rather than having to guess how long the orange hand has been flashing already, or when the traffic light itself will turn yellow.
Although these devices are helpful to sidewalk users in general, they do not correct some of the problems pedestrians still face at certain intersections, though they can help inform the way those on foot choose to proceed. For instance, some wider two-way streets have medians in the centre separating traffic. During the “flashing orange hand” phase, pedestrians are only given enough time to cross as far as the median, which strands them on an uncomfortably-narrow island of pavement between the flows of traffic coming from either direction, at least until the “walk” phase appears again. This delays the pedestrian by a whole signal cycle.
However, with a countdown timer supplementing the “flashing orange hand” phase of the walk signal, pedestrians looking to cross – and noticing that the countdown stage has begun – will have a clearer understanding that they really only have time to make it to the median, not all the way. They can then choose to wait for the next signal and negotiate both legs of their crossing at once, or opt to make their crossing a two-stage affair and make for the median right away.
–Kalle Hakala is an urban planner currently working in the public sector. A true urbanist, he is concerned with all facets of how cities work and how they can work better. His interests extend beyond urban issues: he also enjoys outdoor activities like skiing, as well as indoor activities such as watching films and indian cuisine.