How to Scramble a Crosswalk

You may have heard me recently on CBC Radio’s All Points West talking about the City of Victoria’s plan to put in a pedestrian scramble at Wharf, Government and Humboldt Streets. It was great to be on the show and made me realise that I needed to get a post done on the City’s plan. The work has already started on the new intersection and everything should be in place for next year’s tourist season. So as I said in the interview, I think that this is a good idea, but it could have been better thought out.

The implementation of a pedestrian scramble here is actually a side benefit of the extension of the protected bike lanes along Wharf Street and then continuing along Humboldt Street. The intersection needed to be completely re-imagined to accommodate this change and part of that was the addition of a pedestrian scramble.

For those that aren’t aware, a pedestrian scramble (Or “Barnes Dance” after the inventor), is when you alternate access to the entire intersection between pedestrians and vehicles. So when pedestrian have the intersection they may cross in any direction including diagonally. Conversely, and depending on the set-up there is increased time when cars have the intersection including for right turns when pedestrians are held on the corners. There are benefits and issues with a pedestrian scramble and they don’t work everywhere. The City of Toronto has a good page on the intricacies of their pedestrian scrambles here.

To create a good pedestrian scramble, you first need an intersection with a high pedestrian volume. The one here in Victoria certainly fits for the summer months when the tourists flood this area of town. During the winter I expect that the timing may have to be modified, as the drivers may get frustrated waiting for an extended period for no reason (That said the city hasn’t seemed to care with the same issue at Pandora and Store…).

The second thing that makes for a good selection of an intersection is one that does not handle high commuter traffic. Again this intersection fits, as no Victorian would choose to drive through this area if they were trying to get to two different parts of the city. You either are just moving your car close by in the area; you are out for a Sunday drive; or you are a tourist. A pedestrian scramble on a high volume commuter route can have a significant negative impact on transit times which can cause frustration and not just for the driver. Pedestrians are also held for longer periods on the corners than in a traditional intersection so it can be a slower process actually. The biggest benefit is in the volume of pedestrians you can move through the space in one light cycle and the safety of the process as travel modes are time separated.

It should be noted that there are accessibility concerns in a pedestrian scramble, particularly those with any vision impairment. This was the reason for the cancellation of one in Vancouver. The scramble that was opened a few years ago in Richmond gave extra consideration to this to try and mitigate the concerns. I am not currently aware of how the intersection in Victoria is going to work accessibility challenges into the plan.

Put Bollards Here!

Put Bollards Here!

I think that the opportunity is there for this to be a really vibrant and exciting intersection in the summer months, however, I do think that the City could have gone the extra mile and looked at this as an opportunity to create a more pedestrian focused lower Government Street. With all the road work happening down there right now, that we are not also putting in some pneumatic bollards at the foot of Government Street, seems like a missed opportunity. For those that are not aware of them, these type of bollards can be time controlled to lower and raise into the ground. So even if our first try on closing the road was Sunday afternoons, it would have been an easy implementation. It will be interesting to see how this intersection also handles the third element of the protected bike lanes and how the timing of all the phases works out.

While I know that there are those that are mourning the loss of the one tree in the middle of the intersection, the creation of this new space will actually enhance and solidify this area as the quintessential focal point of the city for both the tourist and the local alike.

Some have been pondering whether there are other opportunities for pedestrian scrambles in the city and I would like to know where you think they could go?