SPACING POLL: What do you think of pedestrian countdown signals?

It’s been a over a year since the City of Toronto began converting its pedestrain signals to LED countdown signals. The editors at Spacing have heard a variety of opinions on the topic from our writers and friends, so we’re putting it to our readers.

As well as your experience as pedestrians, we’re interested in hearing your comments about whether the pedestrian countdown signals have ever had an effect on you as cyclists and drivers, for better or for worse. Do you look at them? Do they affect your behaviour?

38 comments

  1. I think they’re great. As a pedestrian it lets me know whether I should even bother crossing or just wait, especially on longer crossings (Queen & Spadina for example). And as a driver I find I don’t gun it whenever I see a stale green with the hand flashing.

  2. For the most part, I think they’re great as well.

    As a pedestrian, I know if it is the beginning of a “flashing hand” sequence, so I know that I cave time to dash across.

    As a cyclist, I like it as I know if a yellow light is coming, and the time lets me know approaching the intersection if I should speed up and make it, or slow down to stop.

    As a motorist (though I don’t drive much, especially downtown), I see them as a tempation to speed up approaching intersections to make the light, and I see others actually doing so.

  3. They provide maximum information to the public, which is usually best.

    They remind me of Tube announcements in London, where they tell riders exactly what is going on. Last week, during those steady British rains, a friend said the driver announced the train will be stopping at the next station as “the water is coming in the tunnel as I drive through.”

  4. Not sure about the “I feel a bit rushed” option. I find that I feel less rushed. The blinking hand could turn solid at any instant, whereas a countdown that’s at seven seconds means that I have plenty of time to finish ambling across.

    One might feel rushed if the light cycle were too short, but that’s not the fault of the countdown.

  5. I like them – although I do wonder if they are compatible with transit signal priority, as people might notice a 10,9,8,17,16,15… as a bus or streetcar extends a signal length to pass through.

  6. These are pretty standard in auto-friendly California. I was happy to have them on my walking route to work i nthe mornings when I wasn’t always at my most alert. I dont know why these signals took so long to make it to the GWN, but they seem like common sense. Let’s hope they all move in that direction.

  7. Ah maybe…I keep thinking “Greater W….N…” as in GTA.

    Maybe the Greater White North, even. Michigan and the Dakotas, all in.

  8. When cycling, I like the ability to have more information available when deciding to coast or sprint to the next light.

  9. I find them useful on my bicycle for judging whether to speed up to make it through the green or to coast to a likely red.

  10. I’d like to hear from the 2 people who voted “I don’t like them”. I’ve not met anyone who didn’t.

  11. I find I don’t generally use them as a pedestrian, but I walk pretty quickly and I can usually get across most typical downtown intersections as long as the light hasn’t changed to yellow yet.

    As a driver, I don’t really use them to “gun it” but I do find them quite distracting.

    I’d never thought of using them as a cyclist since I do most of my cycling in the east end where they haven’t been introduced yet, but that would be a definite advantage.

  12. I like them a lot. It lets me know how long the walk signal’s been on, which used to be pure guesswork.

    My boyfriend thinks they’re silly, but the only reason he came up with is because he’s not a senior, or a parent laden with slow toddlers, or a person who cares if cars are honking at him to finish crossing. But for the rest of us …

  13. I like ’em, but for a while one of the ones on Bay St was pure evil; it did 9 … 8 then jumped to 2 … 1.

  14. I love them, as much as one can love public infrastructure.

  15. To Mark Dowling:
    They are currently in use with the ‘extended green’ system for buses and streetcars (which should be greatly expanded). When the countdown reaches zero, the solid hand comes up just like normal. It can be a bit confusing to see the hand up and the traffic light still green, but people who pass through those intersections a lot can quickly tell what is going on.

    I think that the way you’re suggesting it work sounds a bit better. Or maybe with the current system they can have the clock show a bus icon so people know the light will turn yellow as soon as the bus moves through the intersection.

  16. I give them two thumbs up. It really prepares me for a light change while biking, driving or walking. Up here in the North York the hand signals blink instead of counting down to prepare us for a change in traffic signals which is kind of the same thing. Either or, they both help us make better decision when it comes to dealing with intersections.

  17. They can’t be “reset” (as in Mark’s example) because the extended green period isn’t a pre-set length of time. It can be just 2 or 3 seconds if the bus/streetcar was almost through the intersection already… or it can run to its max in the case of a streetcar that arrives at a stop late in the green and takes longer to load than the maximum extension length (a major drawback of the system… in those cases they actually increase transit delays).

  18. I agree with Sean. As a cyclist when approaching an intersection I like being able to see how much time I have before the light is going to change.

    As a pedestrian, I’m not sure they’re still working. I saw more cautious behaviour from pedestrians when they were first installed. Now people just seem to ignore them. I seem to often see people who start to walk (that’s walk, not run) across an intersection when the count is down to 3 or less.

    I have had a motorist confide that she likes them because, when she’s stopped, they give her a countdown to when she can hit the gas again.

  19. I’m getting older and slowing down. I find the countdown signals help me decide to cross over or to wait for the next green signal. I believe they’ve contributed to reduced pedestrian/motorist incidents.

  20. I think they are great – as a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist. I know the inclination is to think that it only encourages motorists to speed up, but now that I’m used to them, I use them more frequently to slow down – realizing I’m not going to make the light.

  21. I wish they were much bigger and aimed at cars, placed under the stoplight.
    Many cities in China use this method, and despite all the other problems in Chinese road traffic, they seem quite successful at preventing cars running red lights.
    I don’t think pedestrians are the real problem in an intersection, and the placement of the countdown in Toronto appears to be aimed solely at pedestrians.
    However as a cyclist, I refer to them all the time, but then I would do the same for larger signboards on the stoplights.

  22. I love them and feel that they stop me from rushing across intersections. When driving I can read them far in advance and it gives me extra info about what is about to happen at an intersection; eyes ahead of course but they are becoming part of the info I take in when driving. It took LED technology but it seems like such an obvious idea.

  23. I thought I’d hate them when they rolled them out, because the ambiguous “flashing hand” always gives the pedestrian the benefit of the doubt, but the timers have made transferring from the Queen streetcar to the Spadina one, a daily ritual for me, seamless.

  24. Have to agree with Lisa R-R on this one, they should be applied to cars as well. The intersections where they’re used, including bad spots like Bloor and Spadina, Queen and Bathurst (right up to Bloor as well), etc need more regulation. I’ve seen so many drivers running the lights way past the yellow. It’s insanity, not to mention dangerous for everyone involved.

    The previous comment concerning “distraction” could actually be translated into something useful. Drivers could employ the pedestrian countdowns if they felt so inclined. Perhaps they don’t have to be right below the street light, but I wouldn’t be opposed.

  25. Stopping drivers from running red lights?? That’s what the yellow light is supposed to do, as long as it’s set up appropriately, and in most cases downtown it’s more than long enough (usually 4 seconds).

    The same drivers pushing the envelope based on the yellow light are going to be pushing the envelope based on the countdown signals (some might argue they could end up gunning it as well to “beat the clock”, although I haven’t seen anything either way).

  26. I find the pedestrian count down lights especially useful when I’m on my bike; they let me know if I’ll make it if I gear up, or if should just coast gently to the red.

    As a pedestrian, I like the count down approach because it gives individuals more freedom to choose if they should cross or not, based on their own specific needs and circumstances. The added information at the intersection proves helpful to people with reduced mobility, such as those that are differently abled and/or traveling with cumbersome packages or equipment.

  27. Brent’s right. The amber light is already meant to tell drivers to stop for an impending red light. Lots of drivers do stop for ambers (unless they’re pretty much right at the intersection, in which case they have time to sail through), as they’re supposed to. The reckless ones race it.

  28. Much more important is right-turns on red, or banning them. I just came back from a trip to Quebec. I LOVE the law that doesn’t allow drivers to turn right on red. Crossing the streets is far less nerve-wracking due to this simple law, despite rumours or greater driver agressiveness in Quebec (seems untrue, and drivers also seem far less unaware than in this province). Wasn’t cycling there, but I imagine the no-right-turn law helps. Oh yeah, the sacred car still could navigate the city (sorry to say I rented).

  29. Much more important is right-turns on red, or banning them. I just came back from a trip to Quebec. I LOVE the law that doesn’t allow drivers to turn right on red. Crossing the streets is far less nerve-wracking due to this simple law, despite rumours or greater driver agressiveness in Quebec

    You like that law??? When I visited Quebec for the first time a few years back, I got almost run over by right-turning drivers! Because they are not allowed to turn on red, they take it as their sacred right to turn on green, even if that’s interfering with pedestrians trying to cross the road.

  30. I love ’em. I do lots of volunteer bike riding on tandems with blind and visually impaired people. With a tandem, momentum is key. Being able to gauge the time left for a light makes our cycling much more efficient.

  31. I think the countdown lights just prove how f***ing impatient Toronto drivers are.
    When turning right they can’t wait the four seconds it takes for a pedestrian to cross in front of them so cut in front of them as soon as the light is about to turn in their favour, and they gun it through amber lights because God forbid they would have to wait the 20 seconds it takes for the light to change again.
    Everyday there is a car I thump with my purse for cutting in front of me or too close behind – my purse is small and I have short arms so they have to be pretty close.
    As for no turning right on reds – there are ‘right turn only’ lights and I see plenty of drivers willfully ignore when they are red and drive through anyway.

  32. I think the countdown signal is good for both the pedestrians and the drivers. However, I had talked to a few drivers and we all found that the 2 digits on the light are too close to each other. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a “14” or “4” until you get very close. I think one purpose of the countdown is to help drivers aware of when to stop. If the drivers are not sure about the timing, they will make incorrect judgement.

    I hope the City will listen to us and make some changes on the light.

  33. So I came very close to getting run over yesterday while attempting to jog through an intersection with 5 seconds left on it. Someone was looking to turn right at a red light and they where more concerned with looking at approaching traffic then if a pedestrian was in front of their car. They also proceeded to drive around the corner, again never looking forward. I always watch for eye contact before going in front of a car so I was able to hit the breaks hard and scramble backwards and just miss being run over. I am trying to find what the actual law is for these devices. Everyone is commenting on them and how they use them but what the exact law is I still can’t find. There is a lot of writing on them, but still no place is able to answer this very simple question.

    If I was entering the cross walk with a flashing number 5 and since I was running could easily get across the intersection before the solid hand came up. Then would I be at fault or would the guy be at fault if I was run over? To be honest I believe I would be, if anyone knows please tell me. NO OPINIONS please, only actual legal wording.

  34. @Kevin – I think this is what you’re looking for:

    Pedestrian control signals – don’t walk

    (27) No pedestrian approaching pedestrian control signals and facing a solid or flashing “don’t walk” indication shall enter the roadway. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144 (27).

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