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Vancouver adds street-crossing instructions, saying 40 percent of us don’t know how

February 15, 2017

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Vancouverites may have noticed the large white stickers that have begun appearing on green-painted steel poles at major intersections, such as West Broadway Avenue and South Granville street. These stickers are nothing less than detailed instructions for how to properly cross the street.

The wordy instructions explain what pedestrians can (and cannot) do, depending on which symbol is displayed by the crosswalk signal:

White pedestrian icon: “Start crossing” “Watch for vehicles”;
Flashing red hand icon: “Don’t start” “Finish crossing if started”;
Countdown timer: “Time remaining” “To finish crossing”;
Steady red hand icon: “Don’t cross”.

According to Jag Sandhu, a city spokesperson with Vancouver’s Corporate Communications department, the instruction stickers are meant to clear up a very common misunderstanding among pedestrians about the meaning and purpose of the countdown timers displayed by the crosswalk signals at major intersections.

Sandhu explained that a City of Vancouver survey about crosswalk countdown timers found that 40 percent of pedestrians think that it is legal to start crossing the street during the countdown with the red hand flashing and that 20 percent apparently didn’t know one way or the other.

The instruction stickers are meant to make it clear that “pedestrians should only start crossing when the white pedestrian signal is on and should only finish crossing if already started during the countdown”, says Sandhu.

The countdown timer—putting pedestrians in their place

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The countdown timer on crosswalk signals makes sense, I would argue, only as an equivalent “yellow light” for pedestrians and I would expect that far more than 40 percent of pedestrians see it that way.

The law in B.C. actually says that motorists are supposed to stop on a yellow light before entering an intersection. However, It has always appeared to be perfectly legal for a motorist or a cyclist to cross through an intersection on a yellow traffic light, right up until the moment that the traffic light turns red. Why then shouldn’t a pedestrian be likewise allowed to cross the street from sidewalk to sidewalk if the countdown timer shows there is still 10 seconds before the light is going to change?

The rule that the City of Vancouver is asserting about countdown timers is jarringly counter-intuitive at best. That this is true would seem to be proven by the simple fact it has been driven to the expedient of putting up instructions to explain how to cross the street—something that has hitherto been largely self-explanatory to generations of Vancouverites.

If I understand correctly, the city is really saying that the purpose of the countdown timers is to prod those pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk when it starts counting, to get a move on and not inconvenience motorists for one second more than is absolutely necessary.

Showing, to my mind at least, that foot traffic still rates far below wheeled traffic, where city planners are concerned.

However, according to Mr. Sandhu, just the opposite is true. The City of Vancouver, he explains, is still guided by a 1997 “hierarchy of passenger transportation” which puts pedestrians above all other road users.

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As of 2015, a Transportation Panel Survey showed that about 27% of trips in the city are completed on foot. And the city, Jag Sandhu says, continues to work closely with ICBC and the Vancouver Police Department to improve pedestrian safety, toward an ultimate goal of zero traffic-related injuries or fatalities.

While I first noticed one of the pedestrian crossing instruction stickers just a few days ago at the intersection of West Broadway Avenue and Heather Street, Jag Sandu explains that:

“The sticker initiative started approximately six years ago when we placed the stickers at our top 10 highest pedestrian collision locations. Recently we decided to refresh the old stickers and have added new ones.”

However, he provided me with no figures, either for the total number of stickers to now be placed around the city, or for the overall costs associated with the sticker initiative.

As for the design of the rather verbose sticker, he explained that, as with all other street signage, the city was guided by the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Click the images to enlarge them.

 

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