Standing Committee on Transportation and Traffic


General Manager of Engineering Services in consultation with the Director of City Plans


Reduced Waiting Times for Pedestrians at Traffic Signals





On May 27, 1997, Council passed The Vancouver Transportation Plan, including an initiative to reduce waiting times for pedestrians at traffic signals. Council has established priorities for transportation modes in order to provide a balanced transportation system. The transportation priorities are as follows: pedestrians first, followed by cycling, transit, goods movement, and then automobiles.

An important initiative of the Transportation Plan is to reduce the waiting times for pedestrians at traffic signals. This report recommends several means by which pedestrian waiting times at signals can be reduced and proposes a system-wide approach to addressing pedestrian wait times throughout the City. The appendices provide more detailed information on traffic signal operation, wait time reduction strategies and other measures that assist pedestrians at intersections.


The Vancouver Transportation Plan contains a number of policies that are intended to improve the comfort and convenience of pedestrians in the City. One measure proposed is the reduction of pedestrian waiting times at traffic signals. Requests to reduce pedestrian waiting times at signals were received during the public consultation phase of the Transportation Plan. The Transportation Plan included a recommendation to this effect. The issue is also emerging through CityPlan Community Visions.

The City maintains a system of over 650 signals. In addition to regulating traffic flow, the signals provide opportunities for pedestrians to cross major streets safely. Most trips made within the City include a significant pedestrian component. All transit trips include a walking segment at each end and are also likely to include crossings of major streets to access stops and to transfer between services. Motor vehicle and bicycle trips will also typically include a walking component if parking is not available right at the origin or destination. Cyclists may also behave as pedestrians at intersections for safety reasons. In summary, almost all road users are pedestrians for at least part of their trip.

The time spent by pedestrians waiting for crossing opportunities affects the comfort and desirability of walking as a transportation mode. Pedestrian waits at the City's signals vary considerably, but can be as short as six seconds or as long as three minutes. Estimates of the value of travel time typically weigh the value of waiting at two to three times the value of time spent travelling in a vehicle or walking.

Another important issue is that pedestrians (or cyclists) are more likely to ignore the signal if wait times are perceived as too long. This can cause pedestrians to cross against the light and result in a signal changing with no pedestrians (or cyclists) crossing. This also affects transit users trying to catch or transfer between buses, as buses are also less likely to wait for passengers if wait times are perceived as too long.

Background information on the functioning of the signal system from the perspective of pedestrians, including sample waiting times and more detail on how to reduce wait times, is provided in Appendix A. Appendix B provides a summary of other intersection-related initiatives that have been undertaken to improve the safety and convenience of pedestrians.

Several techniques for reducing pedestrian waiting times have been undertaken on a case-by-case basis in response to requests from the public. Modifications to a number of traffic signals have been made as a result of these requests. With the experience gained from these trials, it is now appropriate to undertake these modifications on a more comprehensive basis to improve the consistency of the signal system and more fully implement the recommendations of the Transportation Plan.

The timing of signals is complex, and requires balancing of a number of factors such as street role, vehicle and transit volumes, turn movements and cyclist and pedestrian volumes. However, safety is one factor that remains a priority for all road users. For example, once a pedestrian begins to cross the street, there must be sufficient time to allow the pedestrian to finish crossing the street. At most larger signals, this is the dominant factor affecting timing, and serves to control the amount of time that another pedestrian may have to wait for the signal to change.

The existing system of timing signals has been reviewed in some detail and four methods have been identified, and successfully used, to reduce pedestrian waiting times:

1. Permissive Windows

2. Removal of Pedestrian Holds

3. Removal from Signal Progression

4. Cycle Length Adjustments

5. Other Pedestrian Enhancements

A more detailed discussion of the changes proposed is provided in the Appendices. An important aspect of the wait time reduction strategy is consideration of the characteristics of the intersection which include: street role; pedestrian and vehicle volumes; whether the signal is part of a greenway, bikeway or pedestrian priority area; adjacent land uses including schools, shops and community centres; adjacent signals;and transit considerations.

The implementation of these changes will be an ongoing process as signal timings can be readily adjusted in an iterative fashion. Overall these changes have the potential to reduce waiting times substantially for pedestrians. Most measures have already been installed on a trial basis with favourable results. It is now proposed to expand the program to review all 650 signals in the City and implement the signal changes outlined above. All new signals will have these techniques applied as a matter of course.

In order to gauge the City's handling of pedestrians at signals, contact was made with several American cities (Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Boulder, Colorado) that are noted for their favourable pedestrian policies. Calgary was also contacted as a result of observations made by City staff. These enquiries indicated that Vancouver's progress in reducing pedestrian waiting times at signals is more extensive than in the jurisdictions contacted.

Relative to pedestrians in the other cities, Vancouver pedestrians benefit from the following:

· extensive use of fixed-time signals that do not require pedestrians to push a button to get a walk signal (249 signals);
· relatively short signal cycle lengths that increase the number of crossing opportunities per hour;
· walk phases that are typically as long as possible;
· more extensive use of permissive windows to reduce the time pedestrians must wait at signals with pedestrian push-buttons; and,
· the largest number of audible signals in North America, with approximately 30% of signals fitted with audible signals.


While the City already provides a relatively high level of service to pedestrians at many traffic signals, there are opportunities for additional improvements as outlined in this report. Pursuing these improvements will fulfill a recommendation of the Vancouver Transportation Plan to reduce pedestrian waiting times at signals throughout the City of Vancouver.

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This Appendix provides a brief discussion of the types of signals used in the City and how they affect pedestrians and discusses the range of measures that can be taken to improve the level of pedestrian service. Other measures that the City has taken to-date to provide improved service to pedestrians are listed in Appendix B.

From the perspective of pedestrians, there are two major types of traffic signals in the City, those that require the pedestrian to push a button to get a Walk signal (actuated signals), and those that do not (fixed time signals). Of the 650 traffic signals in the City:
· 229 are pedestrian-only signals that control vehicle traffic on the major street only with cross-street vehicle traffic controlled by a stop sign (These signals flash green on the major street);
· 148 that are semi actuated where pedestrians and vehicles can activate the signal from the side street;
· 24 are fully actuated signals where every movement is actuated by button or vehicle detectors; and,
· 249 operate on fixed time cycles and do not require pedestrians to use push buttons since Walk signals are displayed automatically each cycle.

The wait experienced by pedestrians at signals is determined by a number of factors including:
· Cycle length - the time required for the signal to complete a full sequence of signal indications
· Walk signal length - the time during which a walking person is displayed on the pedestrian signal head and during which pedestrians can begin crossing the street. (A flashing Don't Walk phase follows the Walk phase to allow the pedestrian to complete the crossing - this has been extended at some locations to accommodate elderly or disabled pedestrians)
· Signal type - fixed time or actuated, as discussed in the following sections
· Previous Signal Operation - whether the signal was just actuated
· Time of Day - Signals are generally set up and timed to match established traffic patterns. Distinct operating phases can occur for the am rush, mid-day, pm rush, evening and weekend. Delays to pedestrians can vary depending on how the signal is set up for these time periods.
· Signal Progression - signals that are timed to provide coordination along a corridor
· Role of Street - street role such as major bus route or neighbourhood street will determine how much priority is given to traffic on the street.

·Intersection Geometry - the size and shape of an intersection determine's minimum times required to allow for the various movements, either pedestrian or vehicle
· Volumes - signals need to be set up to best handle the volume of pedestrians, buses and other traffic which requires a balance between the various modes.

Reducing pedestrian waiting times at signals is highly dependent on the signal location. There is a great deal more latitude for improving pedestrian service at signals where traffic volumes are relatively light than at complex intersections, such as Main and Terminal, and Oak Street and 70th Avenue, with high traffic and turning volumes. High volume streets, and those that serve as major transit corridors, are sometimes less suitable for applying a high level of service to pedestrians than more neighbourhood-oriented streets. As a result, it is difficult to propose specific guidelines for pedestrian waiting times that can be applied City-wide. Rather, each intersection must be examined individually with consideration of the following characteristics:

· street role
· traffic, transit and pedestrian volumes
· location on a bike route or in a pedestrian priority area
· neighbouring land uses
· proximity to schools
· proximity to other signals
· transit routes and transit use

The appropriate measures for a given location can then be selected based on the conditions at that specific intersection.

Walk Duration

The duration of the walk signal is set at a minimum of six seconds for all City signals. This is followed by the pedestrian clearance time - the time required for a pedestrian moving at 1.2 metres/second (a relatively slow walking speed) to travel from curb to curb. Pedestrian clearance times are extended at locations where many elderly pedestrians, or persons with mental and/or physical disabilities, are known to cross. At signals which also serve cross-street vehicular traffic (including all fixed-time signals), the walk phase is longer as allowed by the cross-street green time.

Fixed time signals

Fixed time signals provide green times of a fixed duration for every movement. Fixed time signals are used where demand is predictable and/or where large-scale coordination with adjacent signals is beneficial and feasible. These conditions exist in the downtown especially on the one way streets and on many major corridors outside downtown (e.g., Granville Street and Broadway Avenue).

The average pedestrian waiting time at fixed time signals can be calculated using a formula based on the cycle length and the length of the walk signal phase. Short cycle lengths and long walk times both contribute to reduced pedestrian waiting times. Some typical average midday waiting times at fixed time signals in the City are given in the following table. It should be noted that cycle lengths at the City's fixed-time signals are relatively short when compared with those in other cities.

Table 1: Sample Pedestrian Waiting Times at Fixed-time Signals (seconds)




Walk phase

Average wait

Maximum wait

Granville & Georgia

North & South






East & West





Granville & Broadway

North & South






East & West





Burrard & Robson

North & South






East & West





Fraser & E. 49th

North & South






East & West





Modifications to fixed time signals to improve pedestrian level of service can be made at
some locations without adversely affecting co-ordination with adjacent signals. One potential strategy is to extend the green time offered to minor cross streets that cross a major street while still retaining the coordination of the signals along the major street. This then provides improved pedestrian service across the major street.

Pedestrian Holds

Pedestrian waiting times at fixed time signals can also be reduced through the removal of pedestrian holds. Such holds delay the start of the walk phase in order to allow (typically) right turning traffic to proceed across the crosswalk before pedestrians begin crossing. Vehicles are provided with a right-turn flashing arrow at some, but not all, locations with pedestrian holds in order to increase the effectiveness of the hold in moving vehicles through the intersection. Pedestrian holds can be a hazard to persons with visual disabilities since these persons use the sound of parallel vehicle traffic starting as a cue to begin crossing, despite the fact that the signal may not be in their favour. About 30 pedestrian holds have been removed over the past few years with only 24 remaining, all located in the downtown.
Any plans to remove pedestrian holds that benefit transit buses will have to include consultation with the Bus Company/TransLink staff as many holds were originally installed at BC Transit's request. It should also be recognised that removing a hold has potential to increase right turn queues.

As most pedestrian holds are located in the downtown, it would be prudent to review their necessity as part of the Downtown Transportation Plan. The holds at Seymour and Hastings, however, may be removed as changes in traffic patterns and bus routes have removed much of the demand for their use.

Actuated signals

Actuated signals respond to demand and will skip phases for which there is no demand and extend, within limits, those for which there is a demand. Pedestrian push buttons are used to indicate to the signal controller that there is demand for a Walk phase while detectors (generally loops embedded in the roadway) are used to determine vehicle demand. Buttons are also added for cyclists on cycle routes to ensure a cyclist can activate the signal.

Actuated signals can be broken up into three main types: pedestrian actuated signals, semi-actuated signals and fully actuated signals. Pedestrian actuated signals are only actuated by a pedestrian (or bicycle) with cross street vehicle traffic controlled by a stop sign. Semi actuated signals are used at locations where demand is not consistent, such as at the intersection of a minor street with a major street and allow a vehicle to activate the signal by a loop in the road. These signals rest on green for the major street until actuated from the minor street. Fully actuated signals have all movements in all directions actuated by loops or buttons. These signals allow for higher volumes with larger numbers of turn movements. Fully actuated signals have been installed at complex intersections such as Main Street and Terminal Avenue, Clark Drive and Broadway Avenue, Renfrew Street and Broadway and Cambie Street and 41st Avenue, some in response to safety studies by ICBC.

A number of additional factors become important in determining waiting times for pedestrians at actuated signals. Firstly, the type of signal affects the response time to Walk requests. At a pedestrian signal, where vehicle traffic on the cross-street is not controlled by the signal, a walk phase can be displayed once the signal for vehicles has changed to red following an amber and red clearance interval (typically six seconds in total). At semi and fully actuated signals, where cross-street traffic is also signal controlled, the response time will be longer since time must also be allocated to allowing pedestrians crossing the cross-street to clear the intersection before the cross-street signal goes green and a parallel walk indication can be displayed.

A trade-off exists between providing quick pedestrian service at signals while minimizing delays to drivers, transit passengers and cyclists travelling on major roads. Delays to the latter groups can be reduced by coordinating adjacent signals so that vehicle operators have a reasonable expectation of receiving green lights at successive signals. This can, in the short term, improve traffic flow and reduce air and noise emissions caused by stop-and-start driving. These benefits are eventually reduced by additional vehicles that will make use of the improved vehicle flow, potentially resulting in an overall increase in vehicles and associated emissions.

The down-side of providing coordination is that pedestrian waiting times can be increased since there are times in the signal cycle when activating a cross-street walk phase would disrupt the co-ordination. At heavily used pedestrian signals, the increase in pedestrian delay resulting from co-ordination can be minimal since the pedestrian phase will be requested on most cycles and the cycle length will become the over-riding determinant of how long pedestrians must wait. At signals with lighter pedestrian demand, the effect of coordination on pedestrian delay is more substantial.

In order to minimize some of the delays to pedestrians caused by co-ordination, the City has introduced a "permissive window" feature at many of its actuated signals. This gives an extended window of time in each cycle during which a request for a Walk signal will be acted upon immediately. In the absence of a permissive period, the signal will only initiate a walk signal at one point during its cycle (e.g., at a hypothetical signal without a permissive period, a walk phase may only be initiated at exactly 25 seconds into a 65 second cycle; with a permissive period of 20 seconds, a request for a walk signal could be responded to immediately at any point between 15 and 35 seconds into the cycle).

The duration of the permissive period is set to balance the needs of pedestrians with the need to maintain co-ordination between signals.

The following table presents minimum, maximum and average pedestrian waiting times for a selection of actuated signals. The times given represent the worst case scenario, i.e., at signals where the cycle length varies over the day, the longest cycle length (typically occurring in the afternoon peak with the larger vehicle volumes) has been used.

The most widely applicable adjustment is the introduction of a permissive period at additional signals and the extension of this period at some of those signals where it is already installed. In addition, permissive periods can also be installed or extended at other signals on a systematic basis, rather than waiting for complaints.

Removing coordination is also a possibility for those signals that are situated on important pedestrian/cyclist corridors. This has been done at 7th Avenue and Hemlock Street, and 7th Avenue and Fir Street on the Off-Broadway bikeway, and, together with a reduction in the signal cycle length, has dramatically improved service to pedestrians and cyclists. This option is particularly viable at signals that are some distance from other signals. A potential new location would be 4th Avenue and Collingwood Street as this location is some distance from other signals and is adjacent to a park in a denser residential area with street oriented shopping.

Table 2: Pedestrian Waiting Times for Sample Actuated Signals



Cycle (s.)

Minimum wait (s.)

Average wait (s.)

Maximum wait (s.)

Main & Terminal
(Fully Actuated)






Kingsway & Tyne
(Fully Actuated)

East & West





Cambie & W. 10th Ave
(Semi Actuated)

North & South





W. Broadway & Ash
(Semi Actuated)

East & West





Nanaimo & Cambridge
(Pedestrian Actuated)
No Permissive Period

With Permissive Period

North & South

North & South









The first four signals in the table are fully actuated traffic signals and illustrate the extended pedestrian waiting times that are possible at these locations. The last two locations are pedestrian signals and have shorter minimum waits since there is no need to allow a clearance time for pedestrians crossing the cross-street. The signal at Nanaimo Street and Cambridge Street illustrates the benefit of a permissive period which reduces wait times despite coordination with adjacent signals and a long cycle length. (The permissive period reduces the maximum wait from 86 to 47 seconds and average wait from 43 to 20 seconds)

Signal Coordination for Pedestrians

Providing signal coordination for pedestrians has been suggested but is difficult to implement given the short distance of many pedestrian trips and the variability of walking speeds. In some instances coordination for vehicles may benefit pedestrians as a coincidental result. For example, a pedestrian walking west on Nelson Street from Cambie Street to Burrard Street will find that they can complete the trip with only a slight pause at a couple of signals and no wait at others.

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While this report is primarily concerned with systematically reducing wait times for pedestrians at signals, the City has also undertaken a number of other policies and measures that improve the safety and convenience of pedestrians at intersections:

· Fixed-time signals are used at most intersections with full signals, especially downtown. Fixed time signals benefit pedestrians by eliminating the need for pedestrians to push a button in order to request a walk signal.
· Signal cycle lengths are relatively short in the City, which increases the number of crossing opportunities in a given period of time.
· Right-turns have been banned in certain directions at the intersections of Robson and Howe and Robson and Hornby in order to improve the flow of transit buses and reduce conflicts between pedestrians and motorists as these are some of the busiest crosswalks in the City. This has also resulted in the removal of one pedestrian hold and avoided the installation of another.
· Pedestrian signals at some high pedestrian demand locations are operated in "recall" mode during periods of peak pedestrian traffic. This results in Walk signals being displayed each signal cycle, regardless of whether the pedestrian push buttons were pressed or not.
· The phasing of some signals (e.g., Main and Terminal) has been adjusted to provide walk phases whenever there is not a conflicting vehicle movement, even if this means that the walk signals for parallel crosswalks (e.g., North and South) do not start and finish concurrently.
· Pedestrian indicators have been added to most signals.
· Audible signals have been installed at about one-third of the City's signals. These are installed by policy at all new pedestrian and fully actuated signals. Audible signals are also being added at high capacity transit stops such as SkyTrain and B-Line services. A retrofit program is in place to install audible signals at existing signals based on consultation with user groups, local land use, transit services, signal complexity and individual requests from the community.
· Curb and Bus bulges narrow the road at intersections reducing the crossing distance and improving visibility of the pedestrian. The reduced crossing distance allows pedestrian crossings to be made in less time, increasing intersection efficiency and reducing pedestrian exposure to traffic.
· Centre medians allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross each traffic direction independently. This increases crossing opportunities and may help reduce the need for signals, and their inherent delaying effects to all road users.

·Wider crosswalks allow greater pedestrian volumes to cross at one time and help to avoid pedestrians spilling out of the crosswalk. These may be appropriate at intersections with high pedestrian volumes such as Broadway Avenue and Commercial Drive and some intersections downtown. This issue will be referred to the Downtown Transportation Plan for further action.
· Double wheelchair ramps move the wheelchair user (and pedestrian) away from the corner of the intersection minimising conflicts with turning vehicles and providing a simpler and straighter passage. The ramp also provides some directional finding for pedestrians with visual disabilities as opposed to the standard ramp that is set at the corner.
· Special Crosswalks are marked pedestrian crossings with overhead pedestrian actuated amber flashing lights and down-lighting of the crosswalk. Special crosswalks are an alternative to a pedestrian signal and provide minimal delay to both pedestrians and vehicles. A number of Special Crosswalks were installed in April, 2001.
· The Flight-lite Crosswalk is a special crosswalk with high intensity lights embedded in the roadway which flash when actuated by a pedestrian. This has the advantage of drawing the motorists eyes to the pedestrian and lighting up the pedestrian. The current Alma Street and 6th Avenue location is part of a trial undertaken in partnership with ICBC.
· Right Turn Channels have been removed at several intersections to provide a more controlled crossing for pedestrians. Right-turn channels allow vehicles to avoid stopping at a light however this can mean that vehicles are less likely to yield to a pedestrian. These channels are also more difficult for a visually disabled pedestrian to cross the channel.
· Intersection or Crosswalk realignments are undertaken where possible to improve the function of an intersection and to improve the visibility of pedestrians. A recent example was Cambie Street and Marine Drive where one crosswalk was moved to place the pedestrians more in the line of sight of turning vehicles.
· Zebra Crosswalks are now being proposed in the City to increase the visibility of pedestrian crosswalks at un-signalized intersections. These will replace the current use of two parallel lines across the road. Again, a separate report will be forwarded to Council on this subject.

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