This afternoon I visited Vaughan Metropolitan Centre to see the progress in one of the largest urban transformations underway in Ontario. The City of Vaughan, with a lot of help from York Region and the Province of Ontario, is turning a big-box commercial area best known for Ikea and Wal-Mart into a high-density mixed-use centre featuring highrise office and residential towers. The hub of the development is Vaughan Centre station, which will be the interchange between the Toronto Transit Commission’s Line 1 subway and York Region Transit’s Viva Purple bus rapid transit line.
I was impressed by a lot of the transit infrastructure I saw, especially Vaughan Centre station. I was also happy to find a relatively pleasant pedestrian environment along Highway 7 for such a busy and high-speed road. But my pleasant experience was abruptly ended when I decided to cross Highway 7 to head back along the other side of the road.
Because it took me almost four minutes to do so.
I crossed at Highway 7 & Interchange Way, which is the western edge of the current road reconstruction project. This intersection is one block away from the Vaughan Centre subway station set to open at the end of 2017, so the number of pedestrians will be rapidly growing over the next few years.
Here’s the rough layout of a standard intersection along Highway 7, oriented normally so north is up. Highway 7 & Interchange Way has a slightly different median arrangement, but it’s generally consistent with this diagram.
In the video I walk from southwest corner to northeast corner along the west side and north side crossings. The north-south crossings are two-stage crossings, meaning that there are separate pedestrian signals for each half of the crossing. Pedestrians have a whopping 43 metres to cross, including 7 general purpose lanes, 2 bus lanes, 2 bicycle lanes and a wide median which at some other intersections includes a bus stop.
The phase sequence is as follows:
The missed opportunity here is phase 3/7. Cars are crossing turning left across one of the halves of the north-south pedestrian crossing, but since there are no right turn lane for eastbound traffic, there is no eastbound right turn green arrow. All east-west traffic sees a red display, so the walk light for the other half of the north-south crossing could overlap with this phase. And since it is always followed by phase 4/8, it could stay in Walk for the entire duration of phase 3/7 – allowing that phase to remain vehicle-actuated.
After all, given that we have two-stage pedestrian signals, we might as well get some benefit from them.
In the video, if the Walk indication for the first half of the crossing had started along with phase 3, I would have been halfway through the second half of the crossing by the time the Flashing Don’t Walk began, easily crossing Highway 7 in one go. This would have saved me a whopping 2 minutes of delay, as you can see from the other pedestrians who realized the pedestrian signals were lying and started walking during the middle of phase 3.
The likely reason that the pedestrian signals don’t overlap with phases 3/7 is that like almost all other signals in York Region, this is a Semi-Actuated Type 2 (SA-2) intersection. That means that the Walk light for the side street is only displayed if someone pressed the button. Managing pedestrian calls with overlaps and callable phases would get complicated, and I guess York Region would just rather not bother.
But given that the side street is busy enough to warrant a left turn phase, there must also be enough traffic that putting the pedestrian signal on recall wouldn’t have much impact. To accommodate the volume of motor traffic, side street green will be fairly long regardless of whether a pedestrian presses the button. So the walk light might as well come up every cycle. Then it would be very simple to set up pedestrian overlaps for one of the north-south pedestrian stages.
Pedestrian traffic is the lifeblood of any urban centre, so if Vaughan and York Region want their new development node to be more than just a traffic jam, they should start considering the pedestrian experience in the traffic signal timings.