Special Report: Walkable Streets

City Fixed Broken-By-Design Crosswalk at Herkimer and Caroline

City staff installed the crosswalk with a non-functioning button and a long delay for pedestrians.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 08, 2014

For years, residents had been asking for a crosswalk at the uncontrolled intersection of Herkimer Street and Caroline Street South. Caroline is a busy north-south walking corridor and there is a drug store and a convenience store on the southeast corner.

A proposed button-activated crosswalk was included in the 2013 Ward 2 Participatory Budget, which gave ward residents the option to vote for a package of projects to be funded through $1 million in area rating money. Last fall, the Public Works Department installed the crosswalk in September at a cost of $150,000.

Button-activated crosswalk at Herkimer and Caroline
Button-activated crosswalk at Herkimer and Caroline

There was just one problem: the button didn't actually do anything.

Dysfunctional by Design

Instead, the traffic lights were programmed to be on a green-red cycle, set to provide a minimum service level for pedestrians. During peak driving periods, the light was on a 90-second cycle with 24 seconds for pedestrians to cross, dropping to 70 seconds during off-peak hours.

Other pedestrian-activated traffic lights have been programmed with a minimum service level for pedestrians on the argument that the light needs to be coordinated with adjacent traffic lights, but the light at Caroline was not synchronized with the light at Bay Street.

It was the worst possible outcome for drivers and pedestrians alike: a misleading button that didn't do anything, delays of over a minute for pedestrians to cross, regular red lights for drivers whether someone was crossing or not, and a cycle not synchronized with other intersections in the same road network.

The plan was for the traffic lights to be button-activated - in other words, to remain green for drivers on Herkimer unless a pedestrian wanted to cross, at which time they would turn red and provide a cross signal. However, somewhere between approval and installation the design was changed.

Ward 2 Residents raised the issue to Councillor Jason Farr, who was surprised that the light didn't work as proposed and quickly began to work with staff to try and get the matter addressed.

By late November, Public Works staff agreed to reprogram the light so the button would actually work as advertised, and the change was made by early December.

Needless Busywork

Happy ending, right? But why wasn't the light just programmed properly in the first place? And who in Public Works took it upon themselves to arbitrarily change the way the crosswalk worked to make it less usable (and in the case of the button entirely non-usable) to pedestrians?

This is very similar to the situation on Aberdeen Avenue at Kent Street, where a button-activated crosswalk that was approved over the objections of the Traffic Department was also programmed to provide "minimum service level" to pedestrians, with delays of up to nearly two minutes after pushing the cross button.

In both cases, it took residents months of follow-up with staff and the direct involvement of the respective councillors to do something that should have been done in the first place.

Everyone had to waste time and effort: the residents, the councillors and even the staff, who had to go back out and re-do the work they had already done.

I hope Public Works will take this into consideration the next time a pedestrian-activated crosswalk is installed: save everyone the hassle and just do it right the first time.

Pedestrian Design Matters

This may not seem like a big deal, but the responsiveness of pedestrian infrastructure has a big impact on walkability. The evidence indicates that when crosswalks don't work or take too long to work, pedestrians are more likely to cross against the light or simply to become discouraged from walking at all.

For example:

A short response time to pedestrian button pushing is important because if pedestrians push the button and do not get a fast response, they may cross at the first ample gap (depending on traffic levels). Then, when the signal turns red for drivers, no pedestrians will be crossing, possibly encouraging driver disrespect for the signal in the future.

— John L. Campbell, Human Factors Guildelines for Road Systems, Second Edition. NCHRP Report 600, Transportation Research Board of the national Academies. p. 15-5

This is also why the City of Portland's Pedestrian Design Guide [PDF] notes that the variable delay in pedestrian-activated crosswalk "causes pedestrian confusion" and that "Uncertainty about the length of delay is one factor in the perception that push buttons are pedestrian-unfriendly."

Walkability infrastructure works. After the crosswalk was installed at Aberdeen and Kent (and then fixed so it actually worked), pedestrian crossings at the intersection more than tripled.

The Public Works Department claims to be trying to change a culture that for decades has prioritized fast automobile traffic flow over every other objective. Its conduct in installing new pedestrian-activated crosswalks is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that culture change instead of digging in with passive-aggressive installations that undermine the infrastructure they're putting in place.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 16:43:59

Pretty much "I'm not going to stand there like an idiot and wait for the light to not-change."

Comment edited by AnjoMan on 2014-01-08 16:44:08

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 17:15:41

I've never contacted the city before for a traffic request. Who do I contact to see about the traffic light at Dundurn and Aberdeen? I have to run a red light at least once a month because of the sensor not changing the light. Despite that intersection being on an explicit bike route. Sigh, why such a dumb oversight. (A bit off topic, but as good a time as any to find out who to contact. I don't live in that ward so I don't know if their councilor is the right person to contact.)

As for the placebo cross button - at some intersections I've crossed during a break in traffic long before the button changes the light. After I'm done crossing, then the light changes and stops a fresh wave of cars at some piddly sidestreet, no longer for any reason. A weakness of signal-or-nothing crossings that PXOs and courtesy crossings don't share. The trick is, like other cities have done, to discern which crossings are busy enough for signalized crossings, and which crossings are better suited to PXO/courtesy. Win for people crossing, and for traffic flow.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-01-08 17:27:49

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 15:35:39 in reply to Comment 96519

It seem the traffic dept has gone back in time on this light's programming. The east/west directions used to have longer green times at rush hour, and for the last year at least it's the same always. This means more queuing of cars at rush hour and more chance of running reds at the expense of pedestrians. While the am rush hour coincides with school ped traffic, the same is not true of pm rush hour so there is only slight delay for the N/S ped traffic in the am.

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:57:40 in reply to Comment 96519

The buttons at Aberdeen and Dundurn are not placebos, but they're definitely broken. Each of the four directions at that corner get an advanced green for left turning. So instead of pedestrians being able to cross for ~ 50% of the cycle, you can only cross ~ 25% of the cycle. There's probably a 3 minute wait between crossing opportunities. What's worse - if you don't press the button, the light gives you 0% of the cycle to cross - allowing cars to make right turns unimpeded.

Aberdeen and Dundurn is a residential area. There isn't (and shouldn't) be enough traffic to justify such a crappy pedestrian service level. This should be the next corner on the "reprogram" hit list IMHO.

Comment edited by brendansimons on 2014-01-09 10:57:54

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:13:57 in reply to Comment 96561

Hopefully programs like the Frid Street extension and the proposed 2-way conversion of Queen South will allow more routes for western traffic going/coming from the Queen Street hill/Beckett drive. Then the traffic engineers won't be tempted to treat Aberdeen that way.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-01-09 11:14:44

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By You "have to" break the law? LOL (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 23:52:55 in reply to Comment 96519

Really, you have to break the law and go through a red light? LOL

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 12:50:02 in reply to Comment 96537

Under the law a faulty light is to be treated as a stop sign.

A light that never turns green for north/south is very much faulty for someone sitting there waiting. I won't apologize for doing my best to handle malfunctioning signals.

However just so you know I'm experimenting with neodymium magnets attached under the crankshaft of the bike, trying to increase my capacitance to trigger sensor loops. Going through a red would literally be my very last undesirable choice.

Externalities of Hamilton's incomplete planning and lack of flying f*. Makes life more difficult in a million and one different ways.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-01-09 12:55:23

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By jedbrown (registered) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 17:30:19

Thanks Ryan for the situation that the residents and the Durand Neighbourhood Association (DNA) encountered with the most recent Pedestrian Light at Caroline and Herkimer. Just one minor correction. This was not part of the Participatory Budget (PB) 2013 but this one came from Area Rating funds from the previous year and was requested by the DNA. We are however getting another Ped Light as part of PB 2013 at the very dangerous intersection of Hunter and MacNab. I would hope that it will operate as it should.

Contact your Ward Councillor and he will direct you to the a contact in Traffic.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 19:14:02

Only one I've ever used that works is Locke South at Democracy. Was at John/Augusta last week. Did nothing. King/Pearl. Nothing Main/Pearl. Nothing

The standard appears to be to not have them work. The Locke South one is the exception in my experience.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 15:38:15 in reply to Comment 96522

lol. Locke at Democracy. How about changing the name of Tucket St. to Democracy?

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By Dunkimer (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 20:36:25 in reply to Comment 96522

The one at Dundurn and Herkimer works really well. I can press it to cross Dundurn before starting across Herkimer, and it's go to go east west once I'm on the other side. Timing like this should be the norm not the exception for pedestrian crosswalk buttons. Boy, I hope the traffic guys don't go and "fix" it now that I've brought this up.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 22:46:53

The light at Locke & Democracy works, and Herkimer/Dundurn. But the light at Pearl and Main changes without anyone pushing the button, and it isn't in sync with the light at Main and Queen (which may not be a bad thing and probably slows down traffic, but it doesn't work they way it should).

I'm happy that the light at Caroline and Herkimer now works, but I was almost hit by an SUV turning left onto Herkimer -- I guess the driver thought the eastbound cars all stopped to allow him to turn. There needs to be some kind of signage, e.g. "Yield to pedestrians" for drivers on Caroline trying to turn left onto Herkimer.

Thanks for this article, Ryan. "Passive-aggressive" does seem to be a part of the underlying culture at PW.

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By LeanneP (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 23:07:41 in reply to Comment 96527

@fmurray, I just saw your comment after posting mine. I totally agree about further adjustments needed to make the Caroline & Herkimer light safer for pedestrians.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 09:11:40 in reply to Comment 96529

Thank you, Leanne :)

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By LeanneP (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2014 at 23:02:48

There is another problem with the Herkimer and Caroline light: the light only stops traffic going east on Herkimer. There is no light or signal of any kind for the traffic on Caroline wanting to turn onto Herkimer. These drivers wait for a long time for breaks in the very heavy rush hour traffic. Because Herkimer is a one-way, they have their heads turned westward watching the oncoming traffic for breaks. They rarely if ever check for pedestrians on the east corner.

When you are pedestrian crossing at that light, you run the risk of getting hit whether you cross with or against the light. People in the neighbourhood will be all too familiar with the lines of waiting traffic, quite aggressive, too, on both those streets.

My sons and I are nearly hit about a half dozen times a year attempting to cross at that corner. The entire design is awful. There really should be a no left hand turn signal when the pedestrian signal is in effect.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:51:52 in reply to Comment 96528

Why is Herkimer 1-way again? Or any of the other residential streets within Durand/Kirkendall?

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 18:28:42 in reply to Comment 96573

You think residents would be willing to give up their parking?

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By DBC (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 22:04:01 in reply to Comment 96604

Herkimer between Queen and James is a through street - no overnight parking. The residents have parking on their property.

It's the employees of St. Joes who would be most upset to lose their free all day parking.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 19:08:45 in reply to Comment 96604

It does not follow that residents would have to give up their parking. There are many streets here in Westdale that bear parking on one or both sides of the street and are narrower than streets in Durand and Kirkendall. In cases where you have cars on both sides and snowbanks and two cars trying to pass each other? You just have to be slow and courteous (yeah, that'll never work in Hamilton oh wait where's Westdale again?)

I mean, for pete's sake look at this:


That's insane.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 22:10:17 in reply to Comment 96605

It does not follow that residents would have to give up their parking. There are many streets here in Westdale that bear parking on one or both sides of the street and are narrower than streets in Durand and Kirkendall.

My street in Westdale is narrower than Charlton, for example. We have two-way traffic and parking on one side and snow on both sides and it works just fine. It astonishes me that people think that these streets with little houses must be one way lest there be accidents and chaos.

Yes, you have to slow down if someone's coming in the other direction. Which is good. Frankly, too many people drive too quickly on these streets.

Tangentially, I do get a kick of driving around here in August and September, seeing the look of panic on the faces of parents from the vast and twisty suburban tracts as I drive toward them at a reckles 30 km/h and then pass them with only a whisker-thin margin of one-and-a-half feet separating their minivan from my truck.

Comment edited by moylek on 2014-01-09 22:29:13

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:45:39 in reply to Comment 96528

I’ve encountered this problem (I mean, almost been hit by cars) at this intersection, and I find this to be an issue in Hamilton generally. I guess the number of people on foot do not justify motorists looking both ways. If you are walking “upstream” on some streets, each intersection can pose the risk of a motorist hitting you because he or she is only watching for vehicle traffic from the opposite direction.

This is off-topic, I know, but I just love to tell everyone about Charlton/Dundurn. The stop sign there is apparently optional, so it makes it worse, and I am either cut off (or have someone proceed on his right turn while I am already in the intersection) a few times a week.

Anyway, I don’t know how this behaviour can be modified, but the lights at Caroline/Herkimer do nothing about the issue. A ‘No Left’ signal of some sort (even though it shouldn’t be needed) would work.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 13:09:06 in reply to Comment 96572

Absolutely this is an issue. One cycling habit has become a walking habit as well, for turning vehicles - eye contact with the driver, otherwise assume they won't stop.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 14:28:56 in reply to Comment 96582

The thing is, when I was almost hit by that SUV, I thought we had made eye contact. It was kind of a sunny, glary day, but I thought he saw me. And he definitely saw the cars stopped on eastbound Herkimer (for no apparent reason?)

Anyway, the comment above questioning the logic of a one-way Herkimer makes sense.

It's time for two-way Queen Street and two-way Herkimer. Charlton will be trickier as it narrows so much between Queen and Locke.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 19:12:23 in reply to Comment 96589

Sometimes a person literally simply makes a mistake. Driver made a mistake. You were aware of your surroundings and were not hit. Problem avoided and no harm was done. Hopefully driver had a mental imprint from it that makes them safer in the future!

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By DBC (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 15:06:24 in reply to Comment 96589

Given the need for on-street parking, that stretch of Charlton between Queen and Locke is one of the very few places in this City where a one-way street makes some sense.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 07:24:47

"Ward 2 Residents raised the issue to Councillor Jason Farr, who was surprised" Look no further then this Councillor being the problem. It seems most things he is involved with ends in a blunder.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 09:14:03

Sorry, Ms. Me. That's just not true. Jason Farr follows through and tries to find balanced solutions to problems. He had no reason to suspect this outcome and since it's also happened in other wards (e.g. Kent and Aberdeen), the evidence points to a problem at Public Works.

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