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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

VIDEO: Downtown is for people! (Isn’t it?)

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Edmonton has been making great strides in downtown lately. The Arena District has been stealing many of the headlines, but it is just one of many exciting projects contributing to huge changes in the core of the city. From the Valley Line LRT, new streetscaping on Jasper Avenue and Capital Boulevard, the continually-growing 104 Street Farmer’s Market, regular new restaurant openings and burgeoning condo development, downtown is developing a critical mass of activities and environments that help to support significant pedestrian activity. Recent City Council discussions about pedestrian access around construction sites, and the momentum behind the Edmonton Wayfinding Project show we are giving increasing attention to the finer details of how to make downtown comfortable and navigable for pedestrians too.

In light of all this positive change towards a more walkable downtown, why are our downtown traffic lights so terrible for pedestrians?

I took this time-lapse video on a weekday afternoon, a walking trip on Jasper Avenue from 100 Street to 109 Street. Walking at a moderate pace, I managed to hit every single light. In total, the trip took 18 minutes (the video is at 10x speed). It’s difficult to estimate how long the trip might have taken if the lights were better timed for walking speeds, but there is no doubt that I spent a substantial amount of time waiting at lights, almost one third of the total travel time. Another test on a weekday morning resulted in similar intersection frustration.

An inquiry to the City of Edmonton Transportation Services Department about signal cycle lengths revealed that all downtown signals utilize the same timing. During the AM Peak and Off Peak hours, traffic lights take 100 seconds for a full cycle (i.e. 50 seconds green and 50 seconds red in the same direction). During the PM Peak, this cycle is a little bit longer at 110 seconds. At night, the cycles shorten to 75 seconds. My experience suggests that some intersections actually have longer cycles than this. 100 Street and 109 Street, for instance, with complex advance green turning cycles, both seem to be longer than others in the downtown. But regardless, it would appear that the current signal lengths downtown could be adding as much as 55 seconds a block to walking times.

This hardly seems like a pedestrian friendly operations strategy. The reason for these lengthy cycles, of course, is vehicular traffic flow. Longer cycle lengths allow automobile traffic to more efficiently clear intersections and keep traffic moving freely. While this is a desirable outcome, the problem in the downtown is that it is coming at the expense of pedestrian movement in our busiest pedestrian district and the place we have been making the biggest investments in to improve pedestrian comfort.

So, is downtown for people?



  1. A note on the video: the only light that I think I could have crossed at safely was the Rice Howard Way (100A Street) light; there were a few seconds left when I arrived, it is a short crossing distance, and the gentlemen in front of me decided to keep going. But given that pedestrians are, strictly speaking, not supposed to enter the intersection when the hand has already started to flash, I decided to stick to the rules.

  2. My life when I used to live in Oliver…

  3. I’m so happy not to be the only person who notices this! Jasper Ave. drives me nuts as a pedestrian.

    I usually take 102/103 Ave. when walking east/west, not because the timing is better, but because the streets are less crowded and I can jog/run to catch lights without inconveniencing others.

  4. Somehow this also applies to cyclists, as if we’re going twice as fast and thus hit the lights, too.

    A guy from Winnipeg who once lived in Edmonton said to me that one of his favourite parts of our city was that the pedestrian lights are well timed for walkers. Um, no.

  5. …Hence why I jay walk at certain locations… and feel justified doing it! A kind-of “taking back” the space for pedestrian functionality!

  6. I find the best way to walk around downtown is on the diagonal zig-zag. I generally try to avoid the straight line, because, as you point out, it’s inefficient and frustrating.