The City of Winnipeg has removed pedestrian-crossing buttons from downtown intersections to comply with a human-rights complaint over their ease of use for people with visual and physical impairments.

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The City of Winnipeg has removed pedestrian-crossing buttons from downtown intersections to comply with a human-rights complaint over their ease of use for people with visual and physical impairments.

This past winter, the city accelerated the removal of the crossing buttons from approximately 60 downtown locations as part of an effort to fulfil an agreement reached in 2008, transportation manager Luis Escobar said.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
A pedestrian prepares to cross Portage Avenue Friday. The city has removed all the push-buttons downtown after a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A pedestrian prepares to cross Portage Avenue Friday. The city has removed all the push-buttons downtown after a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

People who are visually impaired complained to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission of having to fumble around to find the buttons, while some people with physical impairments could not push them at all, Escobar said.

So the city agreed to remove the push buttons from intersections east of Maryland Avenue, north of the Assiniboine River, south of Higgins Avenue and west of the Red River -- and set the "walk" displays and chimes to operate automatically, he said.

"The push buttons were redundant, because pedestrians were always using them," Escobar said Friday. "There is a general premise there is always pedestrian activity (downtown) so there is no need for people to push buttons."

Winnipeg's public works department began disabling the crossing buttons four years ago. This means all the intersections in question have been set to display "walk" signals, regardless of whether anyone pushed the buttons, Escobar said.

The city did not publicize the fact the buttons were disabled to avoid confusing pedestrians. The buttons remain functional at intersections outside downtown, Escobar said.

It takes more resources to physically remove the buttons than it does to simply disable them, he explained. Most of the redundant buttons were finally removed over the past six months.

"This winter, we made a significant effort to remove all the push-buttons in the downtown area," Escobar said.

The removal of the buttons does not affect motor-vehicle traffic, he said. But his department took advantage of the removals to conduct other traffic engineering work, including the completion of the city's traffic-signal synchronization plan.

During the 2006 mayoral race, Mayor Sam Katz promised to speed the flow of traffic in Winnipeg by spending $10 million to $12 million on red-light synchronization.

"The computerized synchronization of traffic signals can help Winnipeggers move around our city more efficiently and avoid the nuisance of stop-and-start traffic," Katz said at the time. "Winnipeg drivers know all too well the frustration of having their commute constantly interrupted by badly timed traffic lights, being needlessly detained and seeing their paycheque go up in gas fumes."

In 2009, council approved the spending of $13.8 million over six years on the resulting traffic-signal enhancement program, which was to last until 2014. In 2011 however, the program budget was reduced to $12 million and slated to end this year.

The final $2.3 million will be spent on traffic signals on Grant Avenue as well as throughout downtown Winnipeg, Escobar said. Downtown signals were last synchronized 10 years ago, he added.

"We have to make sure we target them all at once and we set them up for the current traffic volumes we have on the street," Escobar said.

The city also plans to spend an additional $1.05 million this year on other traffic-engineering improvements.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca