Special Report: Walkable Streets

Anti-Pedestrian 'Courtesy Crossing' Pilot in New Pedestrian Signal Program

City staff recommend a new proposal to put up signs at uncontrolled intersections warning pedestrians that vehicles are 'not required to stop'. This dangerous plan misrepresents the Highway Traffic Act.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published November 04, 2013

The City of Hamilton has finally released the long-awaited Pedestrian Plan [PDF], which will be received by the General Issues Committee (GIC) on November 6.

The report runs 244 pages and there's a lot to digest, but one of the associated projects is a new Pedestrian Signal Program [PDF], which staff recommend to replace the city's Intersection Pedestrian and Mid-Block Traffic Signals Policy. The executive summary reads in part:

In addition to the installation of a signalized controlled crossing, staff is recommending the pursuit of a pilot study of a proposed new crossing device termed "Courtesy Crossing", by coordinating with the Ministry of Transportation to proceed with participation in a two (2) year pilot. "Courtesy Crossings" do not give pedestrians the right-of-way to enter an intersection. Pedestrians are required to wait for a safe gap in traffic to cross. Drivers must stop and allow pedestrians that are within a marked crosswalk to continue to cross safely. The intent is to provide greater awareness and visibility of pedestrians crossing. At such a time, when legislation changes this device may provide pedestrians with the right-of-way. This device is intended for use on roads with two (2) travel lanes and with low volume and speed.

These new "courtesy crossings" would have a sign posted, reading: "Caution - Vehicles Not Required to Stop".

So it now seems that instead of considering the signs in place at McMaster University and Mohawk College that remind motorists they must stop for crossing pedestrians at a painted crosswalk, the City has decided to do the precise opposite: tell pedestrians that motorists don't have to stop for them.

Pedestrian Signs on Campus

The McMaster University pilot project of putting up signs telling drivers to yield to pedestrians was started in February 2012.

The most recent initiative is a pilot project involving in-street pedestrian crossing signs, which have been placed at crosswalk locations near the MUSC, the Institute for Applied Heath Sciences and the Psychology Building. These bright yellow signs will remind drivers to be alert at busy crossings, and help maintain safety on campus roads.

Presumably it was a success, as the signs have now been installed at several other locations on campus including just off Main Street. Mohawk College has also recently begun installing similar signs.

'Stop for pedestrians' sign at Mohawk College Fennell Campus (RTH file photo)
'Stop for pedestrians' sign at Mohawk College Fennell Campus (RTH file photo)

In my travels on the McMaster campus, I have been impressed that drivers notice and respect these signs, which makes it far easier for pedestrians to cross at uncontrolled intersections, even the busy intersection in front of the hospital on Main Street West.

Why wouldn't these signs work just as well for intersections off the campus? Why doesn't the City benefit from what McMaster has learned from this pilot project, which seems quite successful?

City Signs Misrepresent Traffic Act

In contrast, the City's recommended approach puts the onus entirely on the pedestrians. Any motorists who see the signs will think this confirms their right to intimidate pedestrians out of the way.

This actually misrepresents what the Highway Traffic Act says about the respective rights and responsibilities of pedestrians and motorists at uncontrolled intersections. It is absolutely incorrect to state that motorists are "not required to stop" for a pedestrian crossing the street!

As the Ministry of Transportation recently explained, the respective rights of pedestrians and vehicles at an uncontrolled crossing are actually quite clear: pedestrians can cross provided there is a sufficient gap to allow motorists to come to a safe stop and motorists must yield to a pedestrian who has begun crossing.

This is the law and the interpretation we received from the Ministry of Transportation.

Motorists are not obliged to stop for a pedestrian waiting on the sidewalk (although common courtesy would suggest they should, if not dangerous or too inconvenient), but the motorist must yield, stopping if necessary, once the pedestrian has begun crossing, i.e. taken a foot off the curb.

If the City doesn't want to go as far as Mohawk and McMaster, they could at least have less anti-pedestrian language and also remind drivers of their responsibilities (not just pedestrians), for example, 'Motorists must stop for crossing pedestrians' on signs visible to motorists.

Misleading Pedestrians

Why would the city be misleading pedestrians as to their rights at an uncontrolled intersection? What's worse, this signage indicates to motorists that it is open season on crossing pedestrians because it suggests that they can simply run over a pedestrian who is not able to jump out of the way (or, at least, intimidate them off the road)!

What we've got here is the equivalent of the police placing signs around the downtown warning women that it is not safe to be outside after dark because they can't ensure their safety!

But the most bizarre point in the city's proposal is that you don't actually need a crosswalk if you expect that motorists should never stop for crossing pedestrians, and that pedestrians should never cross unless there is a big enough gap that motorists don't need to yield.

Worse than Nothing

What the hell is going on? How could this possibly make its way into a pedestrian master plan? How is it consistent with the City's transportation hierarchy, which ostensibly puts pedestrians first?

We would be better off with no signs at all than with signs that actually take away the rights of pedestrians to cross without having to wait until there is a gap large enough that motorists don't need to slow down or stop.

Unless the City decides to reverse course on this dangerous, counter-productive "pedestrian" proposal, we are back to tactical urbanism as the only way forward: make our own signs, consistent with the Highway Traffic Act, and install them next to the crosswalks.

I had worried that, like the "Putting People First" transportation plan and the "Shifting Gears" cycling master plan, this pedestrian plan would turn out to be a good policy that would be mostly ignored.

Now we find it is actually an anti-pedestrian plan, which means the good parts will be ignored and the bad parts will be used as reasons not to make meaningful improvements to pedestrian facilities!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By jason (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 09:03:19

Nicholas you sound surprised. I was expecting the new pedestrian plan to mandate pedestrians to have a minimum of 2 flashing lights per extremity, and face possible jail time for wearing anything other than neon yellow or orange clothing.

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By sigh (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 09:19:17

Hamilton, where you have to spend so much energy trying to stop bad ideas there's no time left to start good ones.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 09:47:58

When aggrieved residents of Waterdown and Stoney Creek took baseball bats to newly installed parking meters, council regarded this as a legitimate form of protest and promptly removed the offending meters. I suggest the pedestrians of this city employ this innovative form of citizen engagement. Council legitimized this form of protest when it came from people demanding their entitlement to free parking. I'm sure they will respond just as positively to people who are only demanding that the city adhere to its own policies on pedestrian rights, lest they be accused of having double standards.

Comment edited by highwater on 2013-11-04 09:48:55

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By SeanM (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 10:33:28 in reply to Comment 94184

"When aggrieved residents of Waterdown and Stoney Creek took baseball bats to newly installed parking meters, council regarded this as a legitimate form of protest and promptly removed the offending meters."

Remind me never to shoot or set the remake of "Cool Hand Luke" in Hamilton!

Comment edited by SeanM on 2013-11-04 10:40:19

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By Eric Gillis (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 09:54:56

This is a great response to this ridiculous plan.

That said, it's sad that these responses need to be written.

It should really be as simple as this: Who is more likely to die in the event of a collision should one unfortunately happen? The pedestrian. Therefore the err of caution should then be on the one who controls the possible (literal) vehicle for death.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 10:40:29

I find the Hamilton approach to pedestrians and crosswalks completely bizarre -- both as a pedestrian and driver. Nothing frustrates me more than the danger of crossing James North at Colborne or Robert in quasi-crosswalks wondering if traffic will even slow-down as i cross (often with a small child). As a driver I try to stop if i see someone waiting to cross, but i always have to check in the rear-view mirror first to make sure no-one is following to closely ... because I've had a few close calls. It seems few other drivers expect you to stop and are surprised, and occasionally pissed-off, when you do.

I've lived in Vancouver and Toronto, and only been in Hamilton for a few years. Never thought twice about who had the right-of-way in these other places ... pay attention to traffic markings and signals, including pedestrian specific ones and you're fine (in downtown Vancouver to ensure motorists can actually make left and right turns, pedestrian walk signals on many streets are delayed at the start of a green-light ... as a pedestrian you take your life in your hands if you try to cross early). Elsewhere in the city the main issue was ensuring you were seen by drivers, and that you were conscious of pedestrians and cyclists while driving. I don't remember the extreme disregard for pedestrians I see regularly in Hamilton being normalized by the city or practiced by most drivers.


Comment edited by RobF on 2013-11-04 10:42:38

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 10:51:59 in reply to Comment 94192

I grew up in Vancouver, and can confirm that the attitude of drivers is completely different. What's strange is that, as far as I can see, the law is actually the same: motorists must stop or slow down once a pedestrian step off the curb.

Part of the problem may be that over a decade ago the traffic department removed all signs from crossings at uncontrolled intersections and simply allowed the pavement markings to fade. This was because the director at the time (Hart Solomon) himself mis-interpreted the HTA as meaning that motorists do not have to yield to pedestrians crossing at such intersections. I think it is the residue of this thinking that has led to the current passive-aggressive recommendation that the city paint crosswalks, but then put up signs saying that motorists don't need to stop (so the painted lines are some sort of decoy??).

The main point of the article is that the Hamilton drivers on the McMaster campus immediately respected the new signs and started yielding for crossing pedestrians. This suggests it is not actually all that difficult to change behaviour if the signage is clear as to who should do what. The current recommendation would just end up making things even more confusing.

If they are really worried about motorists not stopping they should put up two sets of signs:

  1. To motorists: "Stop for crossing pedestrians" (like at McMaster)

  2. To pedestrians: "Be cautious and check that drivers have seen you before crossing"

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By RobF (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 11:39:34 in reply to Comment 94194

I agree that it is a question of expectations. But as recently as this past summer I've had police officers explain that the Hart Solomon interpretation still applies, much to my surprise. I'm not sure i'd conflate Hamilton drivers as a whole with the mix of people who drive around Mac or Mohawk. Or at least, I'm not sure that the behaviour witnessed after the new signs went up would occur in quite the same way on Cannon, Wellington, Victoria, Main, etc. The disregard for pedestrians is part of a wider disregard for the lower city by some.

Comment edited by RobF on 2013-11-04 11:40:08

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By mikeyj (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 11:38:20 in reply to Comment 94194

The interpretation of the Ontario HTA was likely always provided by Hamilton's Legal & Risk Management departments.

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By Miss Interpretation (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 11:39:12

Are you sure you aren't misinterpreting this misinterpretation?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 12:01:58

I think what the police (and the legal department) might actually be saying is that drivers are unlikely to be convicted for hitting a pedestrian at an uncontrolled intersection. Which is true.

However, this is not actually much different from the situation at a crosswalk at a controlled intersection, such as at a traffic light.

As I've pointed out before, even if a motorist hits and kills a pedestrian crossing legally at a crosswalk at a traffic light, the motorist is highly unlikely to get anything more than a $500 fine in Ontario.

For some reason, the courts demand a very high level of proof for criminal negligence causing death in the case of motor vehicles, which is difficult to meet when the only witness (apart from the driver) is often dead. This is typical across North America, as discussed in the book Carjacked, where the penalties for killing someone with a vehicle are usually just moderate fines even when the driver is at fault. The assumption seems to be that these are inevitable "accidents" that could happen to anyone.

The only exceptions are when it is clear the driver deliberately tried to run down the pedestrian, or when drugs or alcohol is involved (which leads to special penalties).

However, this actually shows that the "drivers don't have to stop" argument is pretty weak as there are not severe penalties imposed on drivers not stopping even at crosswalks at controlled intersections. And it is inconsistent with the HTA and the Ministry interpretation. I have never seen an actual reference to the HTA or regulations or any other law that justifies this interpretation.

If someone from the City or Police could point to the legislation that is supposed to justify this interpretation, I would be very grateful!

The key point is that responsible drivers will obey signs and pavement markings, and pedestrians always need to be careful of inattentive drivers. Reminding drivers to yield to crossing pedestrians can only improve conditions for pedestrians, and help drivers know when they should be stopping.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-11-04 12:06:37

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 12:19:06 in reply to Comment 94203

Toronto Police Const. Clint Stibbe explains that to lay a criminal charge of dangerous driving or criminal negligence causing death, police have to be satisfied there was intent to kill or the driving was so flagrantly egregious that the motorist would have known someone was going to be killed as a result.

More often than not, that’s too high a threshold to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, drivers are charged under the HTA where it’s driver conduct — and not the injuries they cause — that comes into play.


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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 12:26:16 in reply to Comment 94205

Yes, that's what I understood. As a pedestrian (or an irresponsible motorist) a $500 fine is not much protection (or dissuasion). Of course, I would still claim that it should be obvious that barreling through a crosswalk on a red light is highly like to kill someone ...

So, the bottom line is that the legal protection (in terms of serious dissuasive penalties) is not really any better for pedestrians at crosswalks at controlled intersections (the only kind the city currently recognizes) than at uncontrolled intersections.

Explicitly telling motorists they don't need to yield to pedestrians only makes things far worse.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-11-04 12:28:53

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 12:17:30

"Kill someone while driving and chances are good that your fine will be less than what you’d pay for a new TV."


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By Core-B (registered) | Posted November 04, 2013 at 15:12:25

Hopefully this ridiculous and dangerous sign up for consideration will be addressed at the GIC Committee on Wednesday. To say I'm shocked is an understatement.

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By huh? (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2013 at 02:27:55

oddly the city recently painted a cross walk at centre road and 6th concession north of waterdown in what is formally known as flamborough centre. i have stopped at that stop sign probably 5000 times and driven past the intersection probably as many times and NEVER can i recall ever seeing a pedestrian crossing.

also interestingly the city only painted the crosswalk crossing 6th concession and not the much busier north south centre road.

what is going on? i daily drive and walk by DOZENS of intersections downtown which are unpainted that see more pedestrian traffic in a day than 6th concession and centre see in a lifetime.

i don't for a minute begrudge flamborough centre their cross walk, i just wish the city would prioritize a bit.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 05, 2013 at 08:40:28 in reply to Comment 94226

I don't even mind them prioritizing pedestrian-friendly measures in the 'burbs. I just wish they would stop actively opposing them in the lower city.

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By huh? (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2013 at 00:37:07 in reply to Comment 94231

just to clarify this intersection isn't even the burbs. it barely qualifies as a settlement. there are 3 houses within 500m north of 6th concession!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 06, 2013 at 09:38:46 in reply to Comment 94297

Flamborough is an amalgamated suburb of Hamilton even if it is largely rural in nature.

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