City of Ottawa Struggles With Pedestrian Crossing Buttons Amid COVID-19

City of Ottawa Struggles With Pedestrian Crossing Buttons Amid COVID-19
Posted on April 10, 2020 | Jeff Leiper | Written on April 10, 2020
Letter type:

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

In response to a direction to staff initiated by Councillor Menard at our City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago to reduce the need to press "beg buttons" to activate a pedestrian signal.







Mayor and Members of Council:

At the March 25 Council meeting, direction was provided to staff to “look at the feasibility of reprogramming automated push buttons (beg buttons) where safe to do so, in order reduce the need for people to physically touch these buttons to safely cross a street”. The purpose of this memo is to provide Council members with the outcome of the review in addition to staff’s recommendation. 

As part of the Transportation Services’ feasibility review, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) was asked to provide their professional advice on whether operating traffic signals in a fixed time mode, which does not require people to physically press the push buttons, would be an effective means to help reduce exposure to the COVID-19 virus. OPH has confirmed that this change to signal operations is not recommended. The transmission risk associated with push button use would be relatively low and would be best dealt with by practising good hand hygiene at all times.

In the City of Ottawa, approximately 80% of traffic signals are equipped with pedestrian push buttons and traffic sensors. These features enable the sequence and duration of both the vehicle and pedestrian displays to be adjusted continuously in a manner which provides the best possible level of service to all users of the intersection. Removing pedestrian push buttons and having signals cycle continuously through the pedestrian sequences would have the following impacts:

  • Increased pedestrian delay: In the absence of opposing crossing demand, pedestrian activated signals normally rest with the 'WALK' indication for the more frequently used crossing. Forcing the signals to cycle continuously would result in a shorter 'WALK' time for the majority of pedestrians. The total pedestrian waiting time would increase and there would likely be a greater number of pedestrians completing illegal crossings by beginning to cross during the 'DON'T WALK' indication. Furthermore, the removal of push buttons would also likely result in overall longer cycle times, further increasing the total duration of pedestrian waiting times.
  • Public complaints: Continuous cycling of signals is anticipated to generate an increased number of complaints related to increased stopping times where no or little pedestrian crossing activity is taking place.
  • Increased vehicular delay: Continuous cycling of signals are also likely to result in greater vehicle delays which increases idling activities. Idling negatively impacts the environment given the resulting increase in energy consumption and generation of pollutants by the vehicles. Furthermore, such delays cause disruption to transit operations.
  • Increased hazard: Continuous cycling of signals leads to an increase of potential collisions. The long unnecessary delays, combined with the more frequent starting and stopping activities can result in poor signal observance and an increase in red-light running. These undesired, anticipated driver behaviours will increase risk to all intersection users including pedestrians.

As part of the development of the Road Safety Action Plan (RSAP) which was presented and approved by Council in December 2019, staff were directed to review and respond to a recommendation “to develop criteria to eliminate “beg buttons” so that pedestrians and vehicles are treated the same at actuated intersections.” In response to the recommendation, and as part of the plan, staff are looking to develop a new mode of traffic signal operation where pedestrian walk displays would automatically be activated when a vehicle is detected at a signalized intersection. Transportation Services staff are currently developing the new signal mode and reviewing the feasibility of implementing it as part of the overall traffic signal control system. Should the implementation of the new mode be deemed appropriate and feasible once developed later this year, staff will review all signals and implement where appropriate. Despite the new mode, the push button would still need to be pressed to activate accessible signal features where present and/or if a pedestrian wished to activate the crossing when no vehicle is present.

Given Ottawa Public Health’s recommendations, the impacts identified above related to implementing fixed signal timing and the ongoing signal system review and developments, staff do not recommend reprogramming traffic signals to remove the need to press a push button to activate a pedestrian crossing. Furthermore, given the COVID-19 Pandemic and our existing limited staff resources, our current focus remains on emergency response, the delivery of essential services in addition to performing legislated maintenance activities.

- City Staff

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