Could traffic lights get any uglier than on St. Clair?
In the Infrastructure Fetish feature of the new issue of Spacing, I wrote a lament to Toronto’s standard one-size-fits-all yellow traffic signal, called “Not so mellow on yellow”. In that article, I argued that the design of the ubiquitous “12-8-8” signal (named for the diameter, in inches, of the signal lights) in Toronto is ugly, and a determent to the urban streetscape. I also discuss some viable alternatives, such as revised colours and mountings for downtown areas, while maintaining high-visibility signals for higher-speed suburban areas.
Here, as a supplement to that article, I wish to present some alternative traffic light designs in North America, some even here in Ontario, that should be used in Toronto where appropriate.
Worldwide, traffic signals are found mostly in one of two basic colours: black, the most common standard; and yellow, the standard colour in about 20 US states, Ontario, Manitoba and increasingly in British Colombia, but uncommon elsewhere but for a handful of Latin American countries.
The Ontario Traffic Manual provides for recommended colours, mounting, and backboard use. The OTM specifies the use of yellow backboards, but as with many aspects of the manual, allows for deviation from its guidelines.
Despite this rulebook, there are many deviations across Ontario. The downtowns of Richmond Hill, Kingston, Kincardine, and Kenora feature all-black signals, which dramatically improve the local streetscape. In downtown Brockville, the signals are coloured dark-green (the same colour as used across the river in New York State as well as in Louisiana), and match all the downtown street furniture. The OTM specifically allows for non-yellow traffic light backings as well, particularly grey and black.
This deviation extends to the rather unimportant rear side, or backing, of a traffic light, for which visibility isn’t necessary. Greater Sudbury, York Region, and now several municipalities in Simcoe County use a grey backing. This colour matches the standard metal poles, and acts to not call attention to the rear of traffic signals. Black backings (with otherwise yellow lights) are used in Cobourg around its historic Victoria Hall to improve the local streetscape without otherwise deviating from the OTM standard.
The long-time Hamilton traffic light design standard has been a black casing with a yellow backboard. This design has been updated with a yellow reflective strip around the black casings to improve night visibility. Greater Sudbury has adopted this design, as has Sault Ste. Marie.
Toronto does use some black traffic signals, but so far, they are only for special applications, such as transit and bicycle signals.
Apart from some traffic manuals that specify a particular colour of traffic light, there is no consensus amongst transportation engineers and other officials in the American Federal Highway Works Administration. However, in the US, black is much more popular, though this varies from state to state. As I was researching this piece, I found an article from Birmingham, Alabama, that reports that city officials have been replacing yellow with black to reduce sun glare, as black paint absorbs other sources of light.
As a driver, I have appreciated the mixed colour scheme found in Hamilton and Sudbury (and the reverse yellow-black scheme as seen in the photo of Downtown Philadephia), as I have found both very visible and also visually appealing.
So here are some suggested standards based upon the limited literature and discussion and my own preferences for both improving the streetscape and visibility when driving:
- Downtown, low speed intersections and other inner-city BIA neighbourhoods: Black 12-12-12 casings (all lights the same size). Black mast arms (where necessary) and poles. Backboards where absolutely needed. All-12 inch lights help to maximize visibility without need for backboards, black fixtures and arms improve the streetcape. Permitted under exceptions in OTM.
- Suburbs and high-speed intersections: Black 12-12-12 casings, yellow backboards, with black or grey backing. Maximizes visibility for drivers travelling at higher speeds, filter ambient light, consistent with OTM.
- Pedestrian signal heads: as they do not have any backboards, they should go to all-black to be consistent with traffic signal heads.
Spacing has assembled a slideshow of traffic light designs for further illustration of these points.