Intersections are inherently a competition for space and time. In many places in the world, intersections are still governed largely by the assertiveness of the participants. Crossing the street in many parts of Italy drivers will not stop unless you walk out onto the street. In orderly Toronto, the nature of intersections has been heavily institutionalized and regulated; we expressly decide which parties will have the priority at intersections in the city based on the importance we place on different modes of transportation.
While it is easy to argue that our society gives this priority to cars, Toronto is taking steps, albeit small ones, to shift its priorities and institutionalize intersections where transit and pedestrians are the primary focus.
Toronto began gradually implementing signal priority for streetcars along Queen Street in the mid 1980s and since then has expanded the program to 332 intersections across the city. You will likely experienced — possibly unknowingly — a handful of signal priority intersections if you travel on the Queen, King, College, St Clair, Dundas, Gerrard, Bathurst, and Spadina streetcars or Dufferin, Jane and Finch West buses. The city has the goal of implementing priority along one route every year and is currently working on Finch East. Bruce Zvaniga, at Transportation Services filled Spacing in on some of the details of how the signals work for transit vehicles.
As a streetcar (or equipped bus) approaches an intersection it is picked up as part of the control system’s loop. Upon detecting the transit vehicle, the system will hold its right of way for two second intervals, until the vehicle has passed. This can last a maximum of 30 seconds. If the vehicle is facing a red light the system can initiate the pedestrian countdown and shorten the opposing green up to 15 seconds.
The biggest impediment to having transit vehicles soar through a continuous stream of green lights is the pedestrian signals, which must give enough time for people to cross safely. The city is also working on improving pedestrian priority; something of particular interest in light of January’s tragic spree of pedestrian deaths. The intersection of University and Adelaide is currently hosting a test program of pedestrian signal priority in which pedestrians are given a head start of cars. The idea is to allow pedestrians out into the intersection before traffic starts, in order to better establish their presence. Such systems are already well used in Montreal. The city plans to implement similar schemes at 4-5 other intersections this year in situations where there is a large amount of left hand turns.
As for Transit City vehicles, officials are currently working out what kind of signal priority will be implemented. The city says that the scheduled nature of the new lines will likely force a new set-up. Garry Carr, a traffic engineer with the TTC who is working on the details of the new LRT lines, told Spacing that Transit City vehicles will likely have enhanced priority over what is currently given to the legacy streetcar network. LRTs will likely have GPS based sensors that detect when the vehicle has left the previous intersection so that the next interchange can be timed accordingly. Carr says that such a system may also be used to slow vehicles down when they are running ahead of schedule (maybe preventing the need for impromptu coffee breaks). It also should be noted that the design for the new lines currently features three-metre wide pedestrian waiting areas to enhance safety and comfort (platforms on Spadina are 2.4 metres wide).
While transit riders may be weary of the tangible improvements of priority at intersections, Carr insists that Toronto’s signal priority program is amongst the most aggressive in North America. At the city’s already crowded intersections the impediments to a system that would allow for better flow of transit vehicles are great. Traffic must kept flowing, pedestrians must be given sufficient time and everything must be done in a way that follows the conventions of what people are expecting; an important aspect of safety.
At the city’s intersections, the collective priorities of our city are laid bare. Who we direct priority towards reflects not only on our values, but on the course we are setting for our future.
Photo by Kevin Steele