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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Counting down for safer crossings

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Perhaps you have noticed that you now have to beat the clock when crossing at some intersections around Ottawa. These are countdown timers, and they are starting to crop up at intersections throughout the city. Often counting down from the number 10, they can have the connotation of a NASA launch or a MacGyver-style bomb defusing, at least for some users who appear to be a little anxious the first time they encounter the new signals.

The signals consist of a digital display showing the number of seconds left to cross the street, and accompany the familiar “flashing orange hand” that is supposed to mean not to start crossing or to finish crossing if you have already started to do so. Although already in widespread use in many other cities, including on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River, pedestrian countdown timers are new to Ottawa, with the first only appearing in 2009. According to the City of Ottawa, these devices will be installed progressively over the next 10 years starting with priority locations, such as near schools and seniors homes, wide and busy streets, and during street reconstruction projects.

If you travel around on city sidewalks often, you probably don’t need to be convinced too strongly about the advantages these timers offer to pedestrians and other sidewalk users. Those who are on foot will now know exactly how much time they have to get to the other side of the street, rather than having to guess how long the orange hand has been flashing already, or when the traffic light itself will turn yellow.

Although these devices are helpful to sidewalk users in general, they do not correct some of the problems pedestrians still face at certain intersections, though they can help inform the way those on foot choose to proceed. For instance, some wider two-way streets have medians in the centre separating traffic. During the “flashing orange hand” phase, pedestrians are only given enough time to cross as far as the median, which strands them on an uncomfortably-narrow island of pavement between the flows of traffic coming from either direction, at least until the “walk” phase appears again. This delays the pedestrian by a whole signal cycle.

However, with a countdown timer supplementing the “flashing orange hand” phase of the walk signal, pedestrians looking to cross – and noticing that the countdown stage has begun – will have a clearer understanding that they really only have time to make it to the median, not all the way. They can then choose to wait for the next signal and negotiate both legs of their crossing at once, or opt to make their crossing a two-stage affair and make for the median right away.

Kalle Hakala is an urban planner currently working in the public sector.  A true urbanist, he is concerned with all facets of how cities work and how they can work better. His interests extend beyond urban issues: he also enjoys outdoor activities like skiing, as well as indoor activities such as watching films and indian cuisine.



  1. We’ve always had to play “Beat the Clock” to cross the streets of whatever city we call home. With the new timers, though, now we know that the assorted City Halls of the world are starting to own up to this fact of pedestrian survival.

    It’s taken them long enough to make the admission.

  2. The thing that struck me when these countdown timers were introduced was that I would have liked to see them work in an additional way — to give a countdown of how long pedestrians had to wait until the next crossing signal.

    I think that a lot of pedestrians cross against a red light because many lights are so long, and the pedestrian push buttons seem to have no discernible effect, so they have no idea how much longer they have to wait.

    I have noticed this is often the case at the intersection of Bank and Holmwood in the Glebe. Pedestrians often have to wait several minutes to cross, and I have noticed many pedestrians — myself included — will cross Bank Street against the lights. I am particularly concerned when children are crossing against the light.

    Although the main problem here is that, to my mind, the light for drivers on Bank is simply too long, and the pedestrian signal button appears to have no effect. And with no indication as to how much longer you have to wait, one is very inclined to jaywalk all the time that it is possible, since one can never really determine at what times the wait to cross will be more or less reasonable.

    I have also thought that having greater transparency as to just how long pedestrians are being expected to wait, would give them ammunition to make demands to change the timing of lights that demand unreasonably long waits for pedestrians.

    Unfortunately, so far as I am aware, there is no plan to add this feature to the lights.

  3. May I ask, why is it that pedestrians have to ask permission to cross streets at all? Why do we have to push the button (which may or may not be working – some don’t), wait, be hustled across with threats of a countdown (ten seconds to impact!), only to find, if we are wanting to cross kitty-korner, that we are too late to cross the button to make the next crossing? I don’t see motorists having to push buttons to be allowed to cross intersection.

    Another fascinating thing about these buttoned crossings, is that often the button is nowhere near where a pedestrian might actually be standing. The buttons are placed on posts for the convenience of the installers,not the users. And have you noticed where these buttoned posts end up in winter? Well, you sometimes have to hike up over meter deep snowdrifts to get to the posts, because the sidewalk cleaners (oh, did mention? we are presuming sidewalks even exist, which the don’t often in this town), haven’t bothered to clean anywhere around the pedestrian button.

    It’s a crying shame about the vehicle / bicyclist collisions this year. Traffic fatalities are even higher for pedestrians. Something is wrong with both driver education and infrastructure planning.

  4. Don’t want to be a jerk or anything leslie, but motorists have the magnetic detectors beneath the pavement.

  5. I’ve also had issues with crossings where you are required to push a button in order to cross. At some spots if you arrive too late you are denied permission to cross when the light turns green and motorist, I have noticed, take full advantage of this by honking and yelling at pedestrians even though the light is green

    Kirkwood and Island Park is a great example of a crossing where the light is green and yet I need to arrive before the light changes in order to press the button and be allowed to cross. As you mentioned Leslie, this is difficult in the winter and doubly difficult when you are climbing over snowbanks with your stroller in tow.