I Can't Walk Fast Enough for the Pedestrian Signals

Walk SignalNo matter how quickly I start to cross once the walk light comes on or how fast I walk, I can make it only halfway across and by then the orange flashing hand has appeared. Drivers proceed even though I am still in the crosswalk trying desperately to make it safely to the other side. Many of them are also convinced they have a right to make the left turn even though I am still in the crosswalk.

This person also observes that it's impossible to keep eye contact with drivers and asks the question "Do we pedestrians have a right to safe passage, or is it a free-for-all?"

Right of Way for Pedestrians

Pedestrians have a right to safe passage. When you cross in a crosswalk and obey the signals, you have right of way over all vehicle traffic to clear that crosswalk if the pedestrian signal changes while you are crossing. Of course, you must proceed to the far side as quickly as possible when this happens. Like it or not, the drivers must yield and let you complete your journey.

When NOT to Enter a Crosswalk

Pedestrians who choose to enter a crosswalk after the don't walk signal appears do not have any right of way over vehicle or cycle traffic.

Pedestrian Countdown Timers

Many people have the mistaken belief that pedestrian countdown timers show how much time is left for pedestrians to cross. This is not true as the timer simply shows the time left to the end of the green phase of the traffic light.

Marked and Unmarked Crosswalks

Remember that it is not necessary to have lines painted on the roadway to create a crosswalk. They are merely a visual indication that a crosswalk exists. The unmarked crosswalk is defined by the extension of the lateral lines of the sidewalks at the intersection.

A sidewalk can be virtually any type of roadside improvement for the use of pedestrians and is not limited to the concrete structure that we all think of.

A Driver's Responsibility to Pedestrians

"Do you think, as a driver, that it’s your responsibility to compete with pedestrians or to use your vehicle to protect them?” This question was posed by a friend who has experience as both a driving instructor and an ICBC driving examiner. It's a point of view that I had not considered and will try to follow from now on.

The Motor Vehicle Act also places a specific duty on drivers to exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian who is on the highway.

Worry About Drivers, Not the Crossing Signal

So, if you enter on the white pedestrian signal and make your way across at a reasonable rate within your capabilities you need not be concerned about the signal changing while you cross. Worry instead about the actions of inconsiderate drivers who cannot wait as they should. Right of way will not protect you from their actions.

I'd like to address a common misconception about Pedestrian Countdown Timers.

In BC (and Canada) pedestrian crossing indications at signals have 3 phases. The "Walk" phase with a white steady walking person indication or "WALK" text, a "Flashing Don't Walk" phase with a flashing orange-ish upright hand or "WAIT/DON'T WALK" text, and finally a steady orange-ish upright hand or "WAIT/DON'T WALK" text. The reason for the flashing phase which I don't believe the act discusses explicitly is to give pedestrians some comfort. It indicates that although they are seeing a "don't walk" indication, they do indeed have some time to safely cross and don't need to run to avoid being "stranded" in the crosswalk with vehicles pointed at them seeing green (even though drivers would need to yield to them anyway as they are in the crosswalk legally).

The walk time is generally 5-7 seconds (sometimes more in busy downtown areas), and the "flashing don't walk" period is calculated so that a pedestrian who just began walking when it starts flashing will have time to cross at a chosen walking speed (often between .8 and 1.2 m/s) where a slower walking speed will mean more time to cross. Different jurisdictions (cities and the province) do things a bit different, but in BC the pedestrian countdown timer is always timed to match the calculated "flashing don't walk" portion of the signal and is not linked to the end of the green light. The steady "don't walk" phase starts immediately after the "flashing don't walk" phase ends and stays steady until the next "walk" indication. The 3 colored lights for cars parallel to the crosswalk will not go from green to yellow until the "steady don't walk" indication is being given.

So why the common misconception? The reason is that because pedestrians move slower than cars, generally engineers have to give pedestrians more time than is needed for vehicles. The total pedestrian "phase" including the "walk" and "flashing don't walk" times typically extends the parallel green. So, it's only by coincidence that the countdown timer almost always seems to correspond with the transition from green to yellow. There are however some intersections on busy major roads in the province with very narrow side-streets (and therefore short crosswalks) where the countdown will get to 0 and the "Upright Hand" indication will go solid, but the light for vehicles remains green for some additional time.

In fact, most lights in BC outside of the busy downtown cores *cannot* have countdowns to the end of the green light. This is because most signals in BC operate in a mode known as "semi-actuated". That means that after a short minimum green (usually 6-10 seconds) the green light gets extended every time a car arrives at the stop bar, up to some programmed maximum. Once a long enough gap between vehicle arrivals occurs, the signal will "gap out" and go yellow unless it "maxes out" instead under heavy demand. Because the end of the green light is dynamic, it is not possible to count down to it.

The Canadian MUTCD which cities often use as their engineering guideline explains the countdown timer operation:

The provincial Electrical and Traffic Engineering Manual has some info on these devices in section 402.6.18: