In 2015, Edmonton adopted the Vision Zero Strategy, aimed at reducing fatalities and serious injury from vehicular collisions in Edmonton. It received praise from Council and was supported unanimously, and I mean, why wouldn’t someone support that vision.

In the years since, the City has implemented a series of interventions that follow the overall road strategy, including changing existing road geometry for right turns at high-collision intersections, and reducing school zone speed limits to 30km/h. One of the newer interventions includes changing the way pedestrians and vehicles cross at five intersections around the City from the conventional, to the pedestrian scramble.

The pedestrian scramble

Sometimes referred to as the Barnes Dance, albeit by nobody that I know or follow, the pedestrian scramble allows pedestrians to cross in any direction by stopping vehicular movement in all directions while the scramble is active. While vehicles pass through the intersection, pedestrian crossings are prohibited. Fairly simple concept, as illustrated below:

Well, it can get slightly more complicated than that, as I have found in my latest travels. While all pedestrian scrambles operate on the same principles of separating vehicular and pedestrian movements, there are three different types of pedestrian scrambles that are nuanced depending on the desired outcomes.

The irrelevant scramble – Portland

Portland is known for a lot of things: my personal favourites include Damian Lillard and the checkerboard-like street pattern in their urban areas.

That gives me a tickle.

This street layout yields short block lengths (and more roads) compared to most other cities. As both a driver and pedestrian, it can be frustrating as you are constantly stopping and starting at intersections.

But one of the ways the city has made it work is by applying principles of New Urbanism to the way they design their streets for pedestrians. The roads are narrow, and intersections often feature bulb-outs to reduce the distance required to cross the street.

Reducing the crossing distance nearly in half makes it easier for pedestrians to jaywalk, plus there is only one lane of moving traffic in either direction to worry about. The narrower roads and short blocks mean traffic is rarely moving at high speeds as well, which reduces the likelihood of fatal collisions should they occur.

What this does though, is render the pedestrian scramble pretty much irrelevant; pedestrians don’t need to wait for lights to allow them to cross, because there are increased opportunities to cross safely thanks to the design of the road infrastructure.

The intersection of Couch and 11th Avenue in Portland is such an example, in which I had the opportunity to participate. It is one of the intersections featuring a pedestrian scramble signal system.

Honestly, I walked right through the intersection without realizing it was a pedestrian scramble. Mostly because I saw other people doing it and wanted to blend in with the locals. Like the pedestrian version of Jane Goodall. While researching for this article, I discovered that it was, in fact, a scramble. In my opinion though, the streets are so well designed for the pedestrian experience, that a pedestrian scramble felt irrelevant. This is a good problem to have.

The pedestrian-friendly scramble – Toronto

Everyone has seen the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, where thousands of pedestrians cross at once during the scramble. It’s a major attraction, rated #7 on Trip Advisors things to do in Tokyo.

The intersection of Yonge and Dundas in Toronto is a lot like Shibuya, only there is no mention of it on Trip Advisor that I could find. Nearly 60,000 pedestrians cross the intersection every day during normal working hours, compared to just 35,000 cars. That’s incredible, and is also a perfect situation to implement the scramble. Compared to the traditional scramble, it is much more pedestrian-friendly; pedestrians can cross as they normally would with the flow of traffic, and then get a dedicated opportunity to cross however they wish during the scramble.

This is designed with the pedestrian in mind. More specifically, to prevent the sidewalks from backing up with people like a crowded dance floor.

This seems fantastic, however does not tell the whole story. Because pedestrians are still able to cross while vehicles are turning, the intersection has actually seen an increase in collisions since the scramble was implemented. This has been surmised to be the fault of the longer wait times drivers experience while waiting for pedestrians during all light cycles, leading to frustrated drivers making hasty and dangerous moves through the intersection.

In addition, GHG emissions have actually increased significantly with the larger amount of idling time as vehicles wait their turn.

I was pretty startled by how large that increase was. Between huffing extra exhaust from idling vehicles, and the increased chance of a collision, it would seem like the pedestrian experience has worsened. But that’s not been the case, as over 90% of pedestrians support the scramble since its implementation in 2008.

Huh. I guess it’s better than being pressed up against strangers for long periods of time on the street corner. Seems like a fair trade off, and the intent is that fewer motorists will use the intersection as the pedestrian experience (combined with transit and cyclist experiences) improve.

The car-friendly scramble – Edmonton

Edmonton recently implemented new pilot scrambles at intersections at key locations in central neighbourhoods.

Two of them are directly related to Rogers Arena, which makes sense during the hours leading up to and immediately after events. The rest of the time….

104 ave & 102 street scramble intersection – typical Thursday at 3pm
104 ave & 104 street scramble intersection – typical Tuesday at 3pm
Scramble intersection – typical Wednesday at 2pm
jasper avenue & 104 street scramble intersection – typical Monday at 2pm
whyte avenue & 105 street scramble intersection – typical Wednesday at 11am

None of these are exactly Shibuya.

Each intersection is unique, but they all share the same characteristic – the scrambles are designed to keep traffic flowing. The configuration is the same as in Portland.

I want to focus on the intersection at Whyte Avenue and 105th Street, because this is heavily used by both vehicles and pedestrians. Here, pedestrian and vehicle movements are completely separated per the traditional scramble. By doing this, drivers can turn as they please and only have to worry about other vehicles before doing so, as pedestrians aren’t able to cross until their turn.

Like in Portland, the temptation to jaywalk exists. However, with the crossing distance being far greater (and the cars moving much faster, any collision between vehicles and pedestrians are more likely to be serious. As a pedestrian, this makes it too risky to jaywalk, so it forces you to wait the extra time until the signals change in your favour.

This is a new intervention, and although it took time for everyone to catch on, my most recent visit to one of these intersections showed that the diagonal crossings are being utilized more. I am very interested to see the results of the data collected at these intersections over the coming years to see if it has improved the experience for pedestrians and/or vehicles.

Personal Opinion

None of the examples above are perfect. Anytime you mix pedestrians and vehicles, there is a chance of serious injury. In both Portland and Toronto, the pedestrian experience has been prioritized through the design of the infrastructure and signalization system. However, in Toronto, there have actually been an increase in collisions by prioritizing pedestrians at all times. The document I’ve been quoting from the City of Toronto actually concludes that the conventional scramble should not be utilized in Toronto because it increases wait times for pedestrians and intensifies the urge to jaywalk; thereby increasing the risk for collisions.

Edmonton, of course, is a more car-centric City than the other two examples, therefore the scramble crossings seem symbolic for the pedestrian. To me, it feels like it’s more about allowing vehicles to flow through unimpeded. Of course, it all works towards minimizing collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. Just like Vision Zero wanted.

This is why I keep coming back to the Portland example, where the way their urban areas are designed play a huge role in the pedestrian experience. There is nothing Edmonton or Toronto can do about their existing block lengths, however; and is why the use of the scramble differs so greatly between these three cities.


9 Responses

  1. Lisa Drury says:

    Interesting comparison between the three cities.
    I think there is more to be said about jay walking and its role as an illegal activity. Some cities have removed it as an illegal activity and I wonder what the impact on safety has been? I have a feeling it probably isn’t as bad as we are led to believe. I’m pretty sure jaywalking as a crime was advocated by the north american auto industry when car ownership was first growing to give vehicles priority on the streets, but maybe it’s time for pedestrians to take that priority back?

    Also, I’d be interested on an examination of 3D crosswalks as another traffic calming tool and their impact on pedestrian safety (I’ve heard people worry about increasing accidents for vehicles, but really wonder how valid that is?)

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  6. Greg T says:

    A peculiarly US ( & CAN ) perversion … deliberately designed to promote motoring at the expense of the pedestrian. ( IIRC, invented by the motor lobby in the 1930’s? )
    It’s complete, total nonsense.
    It does not exist here ( UK ) – if the road is clear, you are clear to cross, end of story

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