REID: To press or not to press: a guide to pedestrian buttons

Dylan Reid

I’ve seen a few inquiries recently by people who noticed pedestrian signal push-buttons being installed at major intersections. They found it odd and wondered if they would now be required to press a button to get a pedestrian signal even at pedestrian-heavy locations.

There’s a lot of (justified) confusion around pedestrian signal buttons and how pedestrian signals work, so I thought I’d write up a definitive guide to them as a reference. (Some of this information is updated from an article I wrote in the Summer 2010 issue of Spacing, but it is not available online; see also the City of Toronto Traffic FAQ).

Pedestrian buttons at major intersections

At intersections of two major streets, pedestrians do not need to press the button (unless they need the audible signal).

Pedestrian buttons at major intersections do not control the visual pedestrian signal (walking man/amber hand symbols). They are there to activate the audible signal for people who have visual impairments (the chirping sounds). The pedestrian lights at these major intersections always change with the traffic lights, which operate at fixed-time intervals in both directions.

The buttons are used at intersections where there are residential units close by that could hear the audible signals if they ran automatically all night. The audible signals are being rolled out very slowly, so expect to see them showing up gradually across the city.  When they are installed at major intersections without nearby residential units, the audible signals always activate along with the light signals, so no button is necessary. [However, these automatic audible signals are being slowly phased out and replaced with button-activated ones.]

Pedestrian buttons at minor intersections (semi-actuated)

At intersections of minor and major streets, pedestrians do need to press the button if they want to get a walking signal.

At these intersections, the pedestrian button activates the traffic and pedestrian signals in the minor street direction. (The signal is also activated by cars waiting at the intersection, though electromagnetic wires under the asphalt. If you look closely you can see the outline where they have been placed. Theoretically, bikes can trigger the signal too — in some places, there are three dots on the asphalt which signal the best place for a bike to trigger it).

The traffic light in the major direction is still operating at intervals. Once the button is pressed, the traffic lights know to change the signal at the next interval. Because of the intervals, the time you need to wait for the light after you press the button can vary a lot, depending on what point in the interval you pressed it and how long the interval is. If the signal isn’t triggered at all, the light in the major direction will simply stay green when it passes the interval.

These are called “semi-actuated” signals. It’s “semi” because the actuation is only necessary in one direction. (A fully-actuated signal would be one in which the other direction also didn’t change until it was triggered).

Can one tell the difference between the buttons you do and don’t have to press?

As far as I can tell, no. There is nothing about the buttons that indicates whether they are just for the audible signal, or for the actual traffic light. The new style of button (see image above) is installed for both situations. You kind of have to guess based on the size of the two streets. Usually it’s pretty obvious, but there are probably cases where it’s ambiguous.

[A week after I published this post, I realized there might be one way to tell. If there is only one button at each corner, with buttons only for crossing one of the two streets, then it is semi-actuated. Audible signals are needed in all directions, meaning there are two buttons at each corner. However, it’s possible that eventually semi-actuated intersections will also have audible buttons in the other direction, making things even more confusing].

Wouldn’t it be a good idea for the City to provide some kind of differentiation?

Yes, that would be a good idea. It would save wear and tear, avoid confusion, and make this long, absurdly detailed blog post less necessary.

A simple sign like “For audible signal” on the major intersection buttons might be all that’s needed (note: people with visual impairments already know how it works. This sign would be to reassure others they don’t need to press it).

Pedestrian signal timing

Pedestrian signals have to show the white “walking man” symbol for at least 7 seconds. They can show it for much longer if the signal is long.

The amber pedestrian countdown signal time is based on an estimate of walking speed. It used to be based on a walking speed of 1.2 meters/second (so, it counted down enough time for people to cross at that speed).

In recent years, however, the city has been adjusting this speed to 1.0 meters/second at certain [all] intersections to give pedestrians more time to cross. This change is motivated by pedestrian safety, especially for seniors, whose average walking speed is slower. Seniors are the most vulnerable pedestrian age group — there are consistently a disproportionate number of seniors among the pedestrians killed by vehicles in Toronto each year (generally over 50%). As well, as the population ages seniors will likely become an increasingly large proportion of the population, so this change is in part an adaptation to changing demographics.

Why do we sometimes see pedestrian signals count down to zero, then become green again?

[I got further information after the post was published, and this section turned out to be even more complicated than I thought — the text in this section has been changed]

Traffic lights operate on specific time intervals. At most major/minor intersections, in the major direction the light won’t change at the end of an interval, nor will the pedestrian countdown start, unless there is a trigger from the minor intersection. If the minor street signal is triggered by a vehicle only (and not a pedestrian), once the next interval starts the pedestrian countdown signal will kick in at the usual point in the interval. However, just before the countdown ends, the system checks to see if the vehicle is still there and still needs the light (because, if the vehicle is turning right, it might already have had a chance to turn and no longer needs the light). If there is no longer a vehicle waiting on the minor street, the system reverts to green/walk signal in the major street direction at the end of the countdown, instead of changing.

Since there’s no way for the current system to check on pedestrians, the signal always changes if the pedestrian button has been pressed.

As far as I can tell, this system also means that pedestrians potentially have to wait, not just one interval, but one interval plus the whole countdown time, in order to get a signal after they push the button: if you push the button at a point in the interval after the countdown signal would have started in the major street direction, the system has to get to the end of that interval, then go through the next one with the countdown, before it changes. It explains why the wait can seem interminable. Rather often, the pedestrian will have become impatient and found a chance to cross against the light by the time that happens.

There is a second type of signal, however, where the countdown comes on at every interval (and then reverts to green if there’s no trigger). These are implemented where there is higher vehicle volume or there have been complaints about the long wait times. Where this type is implemented, pedestrians who press the button would never have to wait more than one interval, because they will catch the countdown. However, pedestrians might be misled by the countdown to think they don’t need to press the button. The moral is, always press the button even if you see the countdown happening (see also below, “SA2”).

Other types of odd pedestrian signal behaviour

At some traffic signals, transit signal priority means that the light stays green for a few seconds after the pedestrian coundown ends. The presence of the transit vehicle keeps the traffic light green beyond the end of its usual cycle (so that the transit vehicle can get through without waiting), but the pedestrian signal has already turned to the solid “don’t walk” hand.

A more walking-positive variation in traffic signals is the “advanced pedestrian signal”, which means that the pedestrian signal turns to “walk” a few seconds before the traffic signal turns green. This allows pedestrians to get into the intersection safely and be more visible before cars start turning. They are most useful at one-way streets and at T-intersections. These can be found, for example, at Adelaide at University, and Bay and Davenport.

The two types of semi-actuated signals

There are in fact two types of semi-actuated (“push the button”) signals. One makes sense, but the other is aggravating for pedestrians.

Semi-actuated type 1 (“SA1”)

In the type 1 semi-actuated signal, the pedestrian signal is automatically triggered along with the vehicle signal. So when the light turns green, the pedestrian signal always turns to “walk”.

The “walk” signal comes on even if it’s a car that triggered the signal and the pedestrian button wasn’t pushed.

Semi-actuated type 2 (“SA2”)

In the semi-actuated type 2 signal, the pedestrian signal is only activated if the pedestrian button has been pushed.

If a vehicle triggers the signal, but no pedestrian pushed the button, the vehicle signal will turn green but the pedestrian signal will remain the solid amber hand “Don’t walk” signal.

The theory behind this is, if there are no pedestrians, the green vehicle signal can be shorter (because it doesn’t have to last long enough for pedestrians to cross).

This type is not only irritating for pedestrians who are waiting but forgot to push the button (or were unable to because their hands were full, etc), or else who arrived just as the light was changing and didn’t have time to push the button. It is also dangerous. What often happens in this situation is a) pedestrians wait a couple of seconds trying to figure out what is happening, then b) after realizing the actual traffic light is green, they start to cross — but there’s not enough time because it’s a shorter light, and also they lost a couple of seconds trying to figure out what’s happening, so c) they get caught in the intersection as the lights are changing, creating a hazardous situation.

There’s supposed to be a formula for how heavy pedestrian traffic is to decide which type of signal to use. But these are often based on just one day of measuring pedestrian traffic at a particular intersection, which is not often repeated.

While the SA2 signals might make sense in a few very-low-traffic industrial areas, there are actually a fair number in the older parts of the city, where there is pretty consistent pedestrian traffic. My feeling is that they don’t belong in any densely populated part of Toronto.

I’m going to list a few that I know of here, and I invite people to add others that they know in the comments. Once we have a list, I will forward it to City staff for review.

Remember, these are specifically traffic lights where the pedestrian signal does not change automatically with the vehicle signal.

  • Bathurst and Lennox (near the former Spacing office)
  • Logan and Gerrard
  • Esplanade and Jarvis
  • Pretoria and Broadview

Post-publication changes/additions are indicated by italics within square brackets.


  1. Church & Wood and Church & Alexander. People usually just cross against the walk signal.

  2. SA2 intersections in high-density areas sent in via Twitter:

    Spadina & Sussex
    Carlton and the entrance to Maple Leaf Gardens parking

  3. That last type (“Semi actuated type 2”) is irritating as hell, and dangerous as you say.

    I work in Thornhill/Markham, walk often there, and it’s a very pedestrian-unfriendly area, even though it’s supposed to be urbanizing. That type of signal (eg crossing wide & now “urbanized” Highway 7 is really problematic. Following light rules, it could take forever for a pedestrian to cross to diagonally opposite corner.

    And now finding some of those type of lights in central Toronto is puzzling and upsetting.

  4. Just clarifying that bikes don’t always trigger the semi actuated ones, it depends what your bike is made of because it’s sensitive to something metallic, not weight. Mine does not trigger them, which makes it a total blast to cross Donlands at Sammon while pulling a trailer.

  5. Visually impaired individuals sometimes have a difficult time finding the push-buttons that activate audible pedestrian signals, since they are not installed at standardized locations. Cyclists can have similar problems with the magnetic loop activators that are embedded in the road pavement. The three white dots that indicate where bikes should stop often get worn off. What’s needed are push-buttons mounted on posts located near the curb. Buttons for cyclists would face the road, while pedestrian signal buttons would be mounted on the other side of the post facing the sidewalk. Standardizing the location would aid all users, especially the visually impaired.

  6. I find that on a bicycle, you can reliably trigger the signal change by stopping directly over-top of the cut-out line on the pavement, where the electromagnetic sensor wire has been placed.

  7. I would like to suggest that the signal countdown that switches back to green, if the light has not been activated, is very annoying to the pedestrian.
    We have all, pedestrian and cyclist alike, been caught waiting for two cycles because we were tricked into thinking the light was about to change.
    Not to mention, how annoying to have to get off one’s bike to press a far away pedestrian button!

  8. Keele & Humberside

    I think Keele & Glenlake may also be SA type 2.

    Especially since these intersections are just blocks south of one of the 10 worst intersections in the city for pedestrian safety (Keele & Annette –, it helps if you can get at least one crossing over with at Humberside or Glenlake. The adjacent signals don’t encourage it.

  9. Front and Princess street is annoying. If you do not press the button it will count down and go back to green.

  10. Lake Shore & Stadium Rd. Especially dangerous because of the width of Lake Shore and the speed of the vehicles. It’s basically a residential area now.

  11. Scarlett and Dundas is another SA2, and a fairly dangerous intersection in it’s own right. Scheduled for a major reconstruction starting next(?) year, hopefully they will fix this.

  12. Woodbine and Corley/Eastwood between Gerrard and Kingston Road. There are school kids crossing here everyday as well as bust transit stops. An SA2 is ridiculous.

  13. SA2 at Dundas West and Chelsea (actually at the freshco parking lot entrance) – must push button for the walk!

  14. A pedestrian was recently hit at the SA2 that leads to a plaza on Dundas West between Glenlake and Chelsea (north of Bloor St. W).

  15. SA2: north edge of the Junction, at Weston Rd. and Birdstone Crescent (links housing development to new Stockyards shopping centre). Weston Rd. is already a hilly, twisting road filled with aggressive drivers who treat it as their own personal highway. The shopping centre is already an attractive nuisance that attracts jaywalkers from the St. Clair side (including that poor woman who was killed by a streetcar a few months ago). I’ve seen kids trying to beat the pedestrian light already at this SA2 site. I would not be surprised if there’s another pedestrian fatality here within another 12 months.

  16. As far as I know the lights at Don Mills and Gateway Blvd (the north end of Gateway) are SA2-type lights. It is a very busy intersection, with lots of high-speed cars and many pedestrians going to the mall or to the apartments on the east side of Don Mills. It should definitely be SA1-type, especially because of all the bus traffic that arrives just as the lights are changing, without time to activate the pedestrian signal.

  17. SA2 signals are kind of like the free right turns (as used to exist at Parkside/Bloor heading east on Bloor turning south onto Parkside, or at Hoskin/Queen’s Park Cr. East) of the traffic signal world. These are “better” for drivers, but a lot more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. The question is, which group has priority on the streets?

  18. Thanks for the very informative post, Dylan! I’ve always wondered about what purpose the buttons served. We live at St. Clair and Avenue Road and figured the buttons extended the period in which it was safe to walk. Good to know that it actually activates the audible signal – I won’t bother pushing it any more.

    What St. Clair needs desperately are the advanced pedestrian signals. Currently, at every light, pedestrians have to wait while cars get the chance to make left-hand and u-turns. During this period, cars in the right hand lane, seeing that pedestrians aren’t advancing into the crosswalk, start to turn. Then when the light turns green for the pedestrians, the cars are still turning — a very dangerous situation. If we had a few seconds to start crossing before they could turn, it would make all the difference.

  19. Regarding the SA2 signals – some drivers do not realize that pedestrians are still allowed to cross even though the pedestrian signal was not activated. I have been yelled at and nearly run over by vehicles making turns at such intersections.

    Also – why are there no cyclist-operated signal buttons in this city? (At least, none that I’ve seen). Not all intersections have the bike dots, and those that do don’t all work. Particularly later at night when traffic volumes are lower, I often have to bike up onto the sidewalk to access the pedestrian signal button.

  20. Lower Simcoe at Lakeshore has the SA2 type, at least on the east side of the intersection where there’s no right on red going North.

  21. Natalie – I’m afraid that, technically, pedestrians aren’t actually allowed to cross if the pedestrian signal is showing “Don’t Walk”, even if the traffic light is green. That’s what the Highway Traffic Act says. Yet another reason why the SA2 signals are perverse.

  22. It turns out that the City of Toronto in fact has a complete list of all traffic signals, including whether they are SA2, in its open data program. You can find the list here:

    Any mappers want to map out all the noxious SA2 signals?

    Also, I’ve made a couple of small corrections in the text (square brackets and italics) indicated by City staff. They also told me the other intersections with leading pedestrian intervals:

    St. Clair Ave West and Christie St
    Mt Pleasant Rd and Lawrence Ave
    Harbour St and Yonge St
    Danforth Avenue and Byng Avenue
    Warden Avenue and Manhattan Drive

  23. Yonge & Fairlawn has an SA2, in an area with very limited options for pedestrians to cross. I think also Jedburgh and Lawrence, which has fewer pedestrians but is on a key cycling route.

  24. Church & Alexander is SA1, Church & Wood SA2. I wish they were the same; there’s a lot of tourists in the area.

  25. Ever see black lines behind a stop line at traffic signal intersections. When a motor vehicle (or bicycle) rolls over those lines, the electric field trigger the intersection to change. Those are “passive” because the motorist doesn’t have to press a button.

    Not so with pedestrians. In Toronto, pedestrians have to “actively” press the the button. You may have seen pedestrians crossing without a pedestrian signal showing the “walk” signal. They didn’t “actively” press the button.

    There are pedestrian signals (not in Toronto, maybe nowhere in Ontario) that are “passively” activated just by the presence of a pedestrian. Like those automated doors. Its either a mat or overhead detector. Don’t expect those here in Toronto anytime soon. Pedestrian signals are controlled by the transportation or roads department, and they are more concerned about cars than pedestrians.

  26. Pretty sure it’s an SA2 at Spadina & Bremner, which makes no sense given the heavy foot traffic

  27. See for more information on Automated Pedestrian Detection.

    “Automated pedestrian detection devices called PUFFIN (Pedestrian User-Friendly Intelligent) crossings have been in use in the United Kingdom for several years. They use an infrared detector or pressure-sensitive mat to sense pedestrians waiting for a crosswalk signal. These devices also notice if a pedestrian leaves the area and can cancel the pedestrian walk signal, if necessary. If a pedestrian takes longer than the allotted amount of time to cross the crosswalk, the PUFFIN signal is able to lengthen the WALK signal. PUFFIN crossings reduce the waiting times for pedestrians and motorists by ensuring that no signal is unnecessarily short or long.”

  28. SA2 Signal at Avenue Rd & Edmund Ave – dangerous because it connects to a school and is at the top of a hill so northbound traffic may not be able to see someone stuck in the intersection.

  29. Rick is right about the irritation of those lights that pretend to be about to change and then switch back to green. However, he omits the irritation to drivers. In fact, they irritate absolutely everyone who’s paying attention.

    My theory is that the rules behind those lights were invented by a computer programmer who always rode the bus to work and had no idea how walking, biking or driving actually work. Sadly,he was responsible for writing the software controlling Toronto’s traffic lights, and here we are.

    On another point, I’ve seen lights in Oshawa that stay green for pedestrians for the first part of the countdown, and then turn red (well, orange) part-way through. You could reasonably cross during the “walk” part of the cycle without getting a ticket. This seems better than our system.

  30. There is an SA2 at Sheppard & Beecroft for pedestrians wanting to cross Sheppard.

  31. Great post!

    There’s an SA2 at Dundas St. W. and Auckland Rd. It’s right between 5 large condo towers and a popular retail plaza (Six Points), right by Kipling Station.

  32. Finch & Senlac – it’s very annoying since the button on the pedestrian button often freezes at the NW corner of the intersection

  33. Is the red hand a legal signal to not cross, or is it a recommendation and the green traffic light governs? Like cars, I suspect that pedestrians should only enter the intersection if they can make it through before it turns red.

    I often don’t press the button because I can get through the intersection fast, and I don’t want the light to stay green for a needless 15 seconds or more after I had already walked through.

  34. There is an SA2 at Ontario and Carlton. Very annoying.

  35. The SA2 at Annette and Evelyn is *really* annoying for cyclists. If I had my way there wouldn’t be SA2 lights anywhere there’s a bike lane. There I am, dutifully slowing down and preparing to stop because the countdown is nearing zero, and then — back to a green light. It’s a waste of time and energy. One feels punished for preparing to obey the light.

  36. I believe that College and Borden is an SA2 (and it is broken: once button is pressed, it now takes three full signal rotations to turn green for crossing). It’s hard to figure out, considering the city is using the old, smaller buttons and graffiti covers the directions panel. I see a lot of people just waiting, not pushing a button, and getting a bit upset about the signal not changing.

  37. There is an SA2 light at Kennard Ave. and Allen Road.

    I was not able to cross the intersection in time with my toddler and newborn in tow. Made for an extremely dangerous situation.

    From that point forward, I started pressing the buttons at all times.

    Thanks for your blog post sharing the wealth!

  38. Sheppard Av E and Parkway Forest Dr / Fairview Mall is an SA2. There’s obviously a lot of pedestrian traffic from the mall and subway. This intersection also features a transit only signal and a priority override for emergency vehicles. I believe It’s a top-ten intersection for pedestrian struck incidents.

  39. There’s a semi-actuated signal at Mill and Parliament where flocks of Distillery visitors look at the stopped north-south traffic and don’t know whether it’s OK to cross or not. Often they decide to go just as the light changes, very risky. But the drivers going north on Parliament who turn right onto Mill without looking out for pedestrians are even more dangerous. Something horrible will happen at this intersection one of these days.

  40. what is someone with no arms supposed to do if they want to cross a minor intersection?

  41. The new light at the corner of King and Dowling is an SA2; it replaced a zebra crossing for pedestrians which had been there until a year or two ago. The net effect has been to penalize pedestrians (who do cross there because of an adjacent streetcar stop) in order to give a slightly easier crossing at times of heavy traffic to cars coming up Dowling (Dowling is one-way north and is an exit from Lakeshore Boulevard westbound).

  42. Finch & Wilmington connects with the Finch hydro corridor trail, is a major bus stop, and is next to several highrise apartments. But not only does it have a SA2 signal, there’s only one crosswalk across Finch (i.e “pedestrians cross at West side”).

  43. All SA2 signals I’m familiar with stay green for the side street if the detector says there are more cars still waiting. So the green period can be extended for cars.

    However, an SA2 will not go to a pedestrian phase, if you push the button a millisecond too late, i.e. after the side street turns green. So, you can be standing there, pushing at the button; the walk signal won’t come on, while any cars queued up will continue to get a green so they can clear the intersection.

    SA1 are not without their drawbacks. While it is almost inconceivable that the car-detection will fail at those signals, the pedestrian button can be broken. At the (s/b) Brown’s Line/Lake Shore intersection, the pedestrian crossing button did not work on the south side. I hit the button, watched the countdown for Lake Shore, but since there were no cars waiting on Brown’s Line, the light did not change, and I could not cross. I wound up jaywalking rather than waiting another long cycle and hoping that some cars would come down Brown’s line to trigger the signal.

  44. There is a list of all City traffic lights at: It does not give the fine details but …
    I hope you can persuade the City to get rid of all the the SA2 signals they ARE dangerous.
    I think PART of the problem is that many lights that do not require you to press the button have the yellow notices saying “press button, walk etc” (clearly for visitors from Mars! – What do they think one does). If they insist on having lights that pedestrians must activate then ONLY have – clearer – signs on these buttons.

  45. Thanks for this. I could never understand the countdown that ended by going back to the walk signal. It is very confusing and means a long wait, but at least now I understand their intent.

  46. To press or not to press, that’s not the question when I lived in Toronto (major intersection: Gerrard and Coxwell).
    It is now. I recently moved to North York (major intersection: Bathurst and Lawrence; minor intersection: Bathurst and Saranac).
    After the heavy snowfall on Thursday night, I took the Number 7 bus home after work. I got off at Woburn. I pressed the button to get a pedestrian signal. There was a snowbank. I climbed over it, and proceeded to cross Bathurst when the Walking Man Signal changed very quickly and started counting down.
    I became very nervous but crossed Bathurst anyways, where there was another snowbank on the other side.
    I felt I was lucky to have made it home safely. I was wondering:
    a) Would the traffic light change immediately after the countdown?
    b) Would the [drivers in] cars have waited for me to safely cross Bathurst before they started moving?
    c) Should I get off at Bathurst and Lawrence, and walk two stops home in snowy weather like this, just to be safe?
    If I may add, I always wait for the Walking Man Signal to cross Bathurst, even though the cars have stopped for the red traffic light.

  47. Very informative Dylan!

    I too have been caught many times as the dutiful citizen sound my bike on the three white dots waiting for the light to change. It all looks hopeful as I see the countdown but my hopes are crushed as it goes back to walk. Argyle and Ossington is a perfect example. So I end up looking like an idiot waiting for a miracle. Now I know just to ignore the lights and just wait for a gap in traffic. I can’t be bothered to go way over to the walk button, nor can most other cyclists on this well traveled route.

    What a shame that this passes for traffic planning in this city.

  48. There is an SA2 signal at Davenport and Laughton.

  49. Brunswick and Harbord. This is a new one.

    Hoskins and Queen’s Park Circle. This is another new one, and especially annoying because right now the sidewalk is torn up and you can’t even get to the button.

    I can kind of understand the concept in low pedestrian traffic areas, but in dense, walkable neighborhoods where people walk a lot, they are really perverse.

    Oh, and +1` for Spadina and Sussex, but I see it mentioned above. This one is especially bad because I would estimate that at least 50% of people cross against the signal because it is a slow light that often people don’t press for, and there is the Spadina streetcar emerging from underground there, so it is actually quite dangerous.

  50. Hey Dylan – Could you do a post about the bike activated three white dots in the asphalt? Where am I supposed to position my bike? Do they actually work?


  51. Hi Elise – there’s not much to say. Theoretically, if you position your bike over the three dots, you have a better chance of activating the signal. However, as you can see from some of the comments above, even doing that is not entirely reliable.

  52. Hi Dylan,

    Thanks for writing about this issue. In December 2012 I wrote this email to one of the engineers in Toronto Transportation Cycling Unit about SA2 signals. A big part of why they fail is the light behavior logic doesn’t support people fixing mistakes, and there’s not enough feedback so mistakes are inevitable.

    It might be best to get some Provincial support for this – for example, British Columbia’s MVA specifies fast-acting SA lights that change instantly for pedestrians.


    “Hi X,

    Good seeing you yesterday at the community consultation. Thanks for asking about the problems that many people encounter when trying to cross Harbord at actuated lights.

    There are three usability problems with Toronto’s implementation of actuated lights at side-streets. I’ll compare Toronto’s design against that of Vancouver (my home town).

    1] Toronto side street lights seem to run on fixed timers, only being available to actuate every 2-5 minute cycle. This delays pedestrian side-street travel. Regardless of how long main-road traffic has enjoyed a green light, pedestrians wishing to cross are forced to wait after actuating the crossing button, and the delay is unpredictable.

    Vancouver’s actuated lights behave differently. They enforce a minimum time for main-road traffic (2-3 minutes), then become ‘available’ for side-street traffic to actuate at any time. On such a ‘stale’ light, actuating the crossing produces instant results.

    2] Toronto side street lights can only be actuated by pedestrian pushbuttons or in-pavement induction loops. People on bicycles must either dismount (or ride on the sidewalk) to press the pedestrian button, or have the knowledge, metal, and luck to trigger the in-pavement loops. There is no feedback to the bicyclist whether they have succeeded in triggering the in-pavement loop, since the light may not respond for a minute or two (see 1])

    Vancouver has curb-side push buttons for bicyclists that provide clear indications of being activated.

    3] Toronto side street pedestrian countdowns don’t necessarily indicate that the light will change. If the in-pavement sensor is intermittently triggered (by a right-turning car or a barely detectable bicycle, see 2]), as the next timer cycle approaches (see 1]) the pedestrian countdown will begin. When the countdown reaches zero, if the in-pavement sensor is no longer active, the timers reset, the pedestrian countdown returns to “walk” and the light does not change.

    Vancouver’s lights’ control logic makes the CHANGE/STAY decision *before* starting the pedestrian countdown. Once the countdown starts, the light will always change.

    These three problems combine to make a confusing and frustrating behavior for all road users. The Star’s “The Fixer” has covered the issue from a driver’s perspective (wanting to accelerate through intersections):–the-fixer-count-down-signals-may-create-a-false-sense-of-urgency

    However such “false” countdowns have the worst effects on pedestrians and cyclists using the side street.

    Due to the lack of feedback (from 2]), bicycle riders may be fooled into thinking they’ve triggered the in-pavement loop. Similarly, pedestrians often assume that someone else has already actuated the pushbutton. When the (false) pedestrian countdown reverts to ‘walk’ and the light doesn’t change (from 3]), surprised pedestrians / cyclists find that mashing the pedestrian pushbutton is ineffective, due to 1]. For people that have already been forced to wait several minutes for the false countdown, their next choice is usually to jaywalk or run the red light.

    Fixing either 1], 2], or 3] would resolve this behavior. Maybe one of these behaviors can be changed without having to re-build the control panels for all the on-demand lights in the city?


    -Antony Hilliard (P.Eng)”

  53. Excellent and informative blog Reid.
    One item not covered I think and thought causes some confusion and therefore accidents is when there are two step to crossing a wide street with a boulevard half way. (Think Richmond at Adelaide for instance) If a pedestrian is crossing do they have the right to cross all the way or do they have to stop in the median and wait for another walk sign? Not sure the instructions there are clear or, in any case that pedestrians understand how that works. A good example I think because there are lots of westbound cars turning left onto Southbound University but lots of pedestrians (many may be visitors to Toronto with so many hotels in the area ie. Shangrila, Hilton, Sheraton, and popular coffee shops like Starbucks and Tims) of crossing.

    The police are now cracking down on parking scofflaws to better traffic flow but will we see a similar crackdown (after a major education program) on pedestrians who insist on playing dumb about those don’t walk signals. ie. if it’s flashing it means DON’T start out! Has anyone ever been ticketed if they do?
    Thanks again for this blog!


  54. Where the city has marked a two-stage crossing (such as on University Ave.), technically you have to stop in the median if the pedestrian signal is a flashing hand when you reach the second stage. Almost no-one does so.

  55. The bicycle issue is a simple one, the loops are designed for vehicles that contain a lot of ferrous metal, with many bicycles now being predominantly non-ferrous metal (AL, TI ) or plastic (CF), this does not work as well. The simplest solution is to place a button on a post facing the road-way. For the pedestrian signals where you do not NEED to push the button, then it flashes once per second, if someone presses the button, it turns solid. A person who needs the audio signal, will either not see the flash, or will know they need to press the button for the audio signal. These buttons also need a standardized location, and design, they are currently all over the place, and a blind person who needs one, has no idea where to search for it.

  56. The most frustrating (and dangerous) SA2 that I frequently encounter is Brenner/Ft.York at Spadina. I can’t recall ever not seeing several pedestrians waiting to cross here during the day or evening. But I can recap several times that there have been upwards of 15 people waiting and the walk signal did not come. This can occur when there is a large group waiting and you can’t get a clear view of the button and would need to weave through people to reach it.

    I’m not sure when they measured the pedestrian flow at this crossing but it certainly can’t be too recently.

  57. The signals where the light doesn’t change if no one presses the button are so frustrating, especially when you are on a bike. I like the idea of dots on the street. Examples:
    – Palmerston and Bloor, Palmerston and Harbord (these both get lots of cyclist traffic and would benefit from dots to show where to put the bike)
    – Bathurst and Lennox (mostly pedestrians – few cars cross here)

  58. I’m really glad to see an article on this issue! I live near Bathurst Street and Claxton Boulevard, where there is a 4-way SA2. It’s a surprisingly busy spot; drivers like to use residential streets west of Bathurst to bypass busier areas closer to St. Clair West. I feel there are a number of problems with this intersection. I especially feel unsafe crossing west-to-east on the north side – and that’s with the crossing signal on! I don’t dare cross otherwise.

    The northbound-southbound lights are green for much longer than the westbound-eastbound signals. Because of this, drivers turning left from Claxton to go northbound on Bathurst Street are anxious to advance in the (approximately) 20 seconds before the light turns red. If not, they will have to wait (approximately) another 90 seconds. I am extremely cautious at this intersection and, regardless, both my husband and I have come close to being hit – and have witnessed others narrowly avoid being hit – by drivers who are too focused on making their turn in time to take notice of pedestrians!

    What makes this intersection all the more dangerous is that Claxton intersects with Bathurst on an angle (take a look on Google Maps!), which means drivers who come speeding along to make that turn can’t see the northwest-to-northeast pedestrian crossing until the last second. Furthermore, the traffic lights are positioned in such a way that an approaching driver can see the lights preparing to change before he or she can spot a pedestrian.

    I use this intersection multiple times every single day, and I find it interesting just how frequently the area is littered with debris from a collision. I can’t say I’m surprised, though!

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