Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crossing a street needn't be an adventure

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Whether or not to use "pedestrian countdown timers" in Winnipeg has been raised again but not seriously because it would cost $10,000 per intersection. But there must be benefits to them since one is used for streets beside the MTS Centre, which is the most pedestrian-packed area of Winnipeg.

We need a more detailed cost analysis of PCTs because there are other benefits to be derived from them and almost all of them involve safety. And shouldn't that be the primary concern anyway?

There is an even better way to resolve pedestrian and traffic flow and it doesn't cost diddly, but I'll get to that later.

PCTs replace the "Walk, Don't Walk" system with an actual, numbered countdown. This makes sense. How often have you stepped off the curb on a green, only to be slapped by a red palm signal before you are even halfway across the street? Then you have to speed up and this can make crossing the street an adventure for folks with bum knees, let alone crutches and wheelchairs.

The PCT tells you the actual number of seconds you have to pace your walk.

A study in San Francisco found that a PCT reduced the number of pedestrian crossings on red lights from 14 per cent to nine per cent. More important, pedestrian collisions with motorized vehicles were reduced by more than 50 per cent.

The major concern was that PCTs would provide an even greater red flag to the charging bull that amber lights turn drivers into. But instead of speeding up to make a green light, drivers were found to slow down by the countdown which also tells them when a light is going to turn yellow.

But this is Winnipeg and we can barely afford to fill the potholes.

I happened to come across a system which might provide some relief to the wearying war between cars and pedestrians in Winnipeg. I found this system in Auckland, New Zealand.

It's called a "pedestrian scramble" and I know if we had thought of this earlier, we might still have people walking across Canada's most famous intersection at Portage and Main.

Look, the biggest problem when it comes to an orderly flow involving pedestrians and vehicles is simply that they get in each other's way. How often have you seen a line of cars backed up for blocks just because a single pedestrian chooses to amble across an intersection in front of a lead car that wants to turn right? Pedestrians impede cars.

So the most obvious solution is to separate them from each other. Don't try to move cars through an intersection when people are trying to do the same thing at the same time.

And vice versa.

A pedestrian scramble brings all vehicular traffic to a halt when it is the pedestrians' turn to cross. People gather at the four corners and when it is their turn, they can even cross the intersection diagonally (or "kitty corner" for those of you who want to get all technical).

Then when it's time to move vehicles through the intersection, you provide a green light for traffic going say, east-west for a good spell (and you clear a lot of traffic this way). Then you give the folks driving north-south their turn.

Then it's back to clearing the pedestrians.

Sure, it is a bit of a longer wait for your light to turn green whether you are walking or driving, but my experience as a pedestrian in Auckland was that people took the opportunity to chat and even meet new people as they gathered on the four corners.

Drivers didn't seem to mind because, overall, they were moving through downtown faster than being stuck in the middle of a block over and over again.

And all you have to do is adjust the timing on our existing traffic signals. I'll bet our city hall could bring that in for about $9,000 an intersection at most (just kidding).

The pedestrian scramble only makes sense where large numbers of pedestrians accumulate and there is enough space on the sidewalks to gather them. That would seem to indicate the only practical use for them in Winnipeg would be downtown. But isn't that where we have the most problems between pedestrians and cars?

Yes, the longer wait may cause some impatient people to try and jaywalk. But the plus side is these lawbreakers won't find it so easy to cross against smoothly flowing traffic and perhaps they might change their criminal behaviour. Reducing crime is always a major priority here in Winnipeg.

I'm suggesting we try it at a couple of downtown intersections and, if it works, we create pedestrian scrambles wherever they make sense.

And then some bureaucrat can change the name to the "system for orderly flow of pedestrians and vehicular traffic" because "scramble" sounds like too much fun.

Don Marks is a freelance writer in Winnipeg who accepted a dare to cross kitty corner at Donald and Portage when he was a teenager and now always waits for a brand new walk signal before ever venturing off any curb.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2012 A10

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