Bicycle riders and pedestrians are done - so very done - with having to wait forever.
The beg button is a joke and the joke is on us. Jan Gehl, the esteemed Danish urbanist who inspired City of Sydney to turn around decades of car-first planning, wrote in his 2007 Public Spaces Public Life Study:
“In Sydney you have to apply to cross the street. If you press the button in time the digital device will give you between 7 and 10 seconds of green light to step off the kerb, before the lights start to flash red to tell you to finish walking across the road. Red periods are long, often lasting between 60 and 90 seconds.”
The ubiquitous PB/5 unit is a successful Australian design that has been populating towns and cities across Australia since 1984 and exported to countries including Ireland, the US, New Zealand and Singapore.
(Image credit: 7News)
“This system takes the elderly, children and people with disabilities hostages since they will often not be capable of moving across the streets at the pace needed. It also sends a clear signal that cars have higher priority than people.” Gehl Architects
Small improvements are not good enough
Wait times have improved in Sydney’s CBD since Gehl’s original study. 2019 research showed that the time pedestrians spent standing still at lights during a walk through the city has decreased since 2007, particularly when travelling east-west. But around 20% of travel time is still wait time.
Jan Gehl at Town Hall in 2015. Gehl’s Copenhagen-based practice was commissioned by City of Sydney to help transform Sydney into a welcoming, green, connected and distinctive place that prioritised active and public transport. Gehl’s blueprint has informed projects such as the pedestrianisation of George Street, the light rail and revamped laneways. Many Sustainable Sydney 2030-2050 proposals stem from Gehl’s work.
(Image source: Steven Siewert / SMH)
There was further positive change during the Covid-19 pandemic when buttons were covered to avoid transmission.
“Pedestrians were guaranteed an automatic light cycle,” says Bicycle NSW friend and Better Streets advocate Jake Coppinger, who has explored Sydney’s traffic signals in his excellent blog. “Unsurprisingly, this made walking easier and faster.”
Jake questions why Transport for NSW decided to re-install beg buttons at the end of 2022. “The fully automated buttons were accepted, so why go backwards?”
As Jake points out, having to wait interminable periods for a green man encourages driving. And it goes against Transport for NSW’s excellent Future Transport Strategy and Active Transport Strategy. Both pledge to prioritise walking and cycling and reduce driving. In fact, Action 7 of the Active Transport Strategy is explicit: ‘Improve priority for walking trips in centres, towns and villages, such as reallocating road space to widen footpaths and providing more frequent and longer duration pedestrian crossing phases at traffic signals.’
Child refugees applying to cross busy Cleveland St in Inner Sydney (Credit: Walk Sydney)
Traffic lights need to put people first!
Bicycle NSW gathered a group of WalkSydney members, including Professor David Levinson of University of Sydney, Lena Huda of 30Please and Jake Coppinger, to discuss building a campaign to ask NSW Government to address terrible signal phasing.
We learnt more about some very significant barriers to change:
- The traffic management system focuses on optimizing traffic flow
Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) was developed here in the 1970s and sold around the world. It uses real-time data about actual traffic demand to adjust signal timing at each signalized intersection.
But the system is all about reducing delay for cars. Or at least trying to – it is increasingly hard to cut out congestion as pressure on the transport system grows with population. Of course, more enjoyable walking and cycling would help. But it is very hard for engineers steeped in maximising vehicle throughput to think about other road users.
- Mr and Ms Walker aren’t prioritized because they’re not counted at intersections
As David Levinson points out, “what isn’t counted, doesn’t count”. SCATS might be clever but it only measures vehicles on the road. It does not clock people on the footpath, or adjust signal phasing to accommodate the volume of pedestrians.
There are many ways to measure pedestrian activity. “The basic technology to do so lies in the pedestrian actuator itself, already installed at every intersection”, says David. But there are also emerging sensor technologies that can distinguish different road users. “SCATS already uses detectors to measure vehicle demand, and doing so for pedestrians is the logical next step. SCATS should also make this Open Data - there are no actual privacy concerns.”
- Signal cycles are just too long for convenient walking and cycling
According to Jake Coppinger, “Sydney lags behind best practice in signal timing. Copenhagen has a 70 second maximum cycle time, and high pedestrian usage areas have cycles of 48-60 seconds. The London design standards state that junctions with signal cycle times should only exceptionally be longer than 90 seconds. And the NACTO (USA) recommends cycle times of 60-90 seconds in urban areas. Sydney CBD’s 90 second SCATS maximum cycle time is actually considered short in Australia – it was reduced from 120 seconds a few years ago.”
- Data about signal phasing is not in the public domain
Jake has taken a very deep dive into the mysterious management of traffic lights. His research provides a lot of food for thought.
“In Sydney or NSW, you must pay at least $200 to purchase the programming of a traffic signal for a single intersection under a very restrictive license that does not guarantee advocacy organisations would not be faced with legal action”, explains Jake.
Frustrated by the lack of public data, Jake used his incredible IT skills to set up the Better Intersections project to crowdsource signal measurements. “This information could inform where positive changes should be made. You can add data yourself via a simple Google Form,” says Jake.
Please get involved in this project!
The famous Shibuya Scramble crossing in Tokyo (Image: Joshua Meyer)
A new paradigm to encourage walking and cycling
Walk Sydney has developed a clear list of recommendations to reduce pedestrian delay:
- Give pedestrians more time to cross: the walk time must be adequate for less mobile citizens.
- Reduce the cycle length: best practice is 60-90 seconds.
- Add a ‘leading pedestrian interval’ to all crossings: pedestrians get a head start, enhancing visibility and reducing conflicts.
- Use pedestrian scrambles: pedestrians can cross in any directions, with all vehicular traffic stopped to eliminate conflicts.
- Automatic pedestrian phase as standard: any button should be a 'call' button to make the lights change faster.
- Countdown timers: help pedestrians make informed crossing decisions.
- Adaptive signal control technology to optimise for people not vehicles: sensors adjust signal timings in real-time based on pedestrian demand.
- Remove slip lanes to create more pedestrian space and reduce risk: Slip lanes are deadly.
- Put crossings on all legs of an intersection: ensure pedestrians can take the most direct route.
This is Eaton Street Mall in Oakleigh, Victoria has a beg button for motorists on Chester Street. By default, the lights give pedestrians a green man. The arrival of vehicles triggers the lights to change to give them a green. A few vehicles are let through, before it returns to green for pedestrians. (Image credit: Daniel Bowen)
These strategies must be implemented in conjunction with broader pedestrian-first policies. Such as lowering speed limits to 30km/h on local streets and town centres. Changing road rules to give cyclists priority over turning vehicles and make every intersection a crosswalk. Giving legal stature to the hierarchy of road users. Legislating Presumed Liability.
These are all current Bicycle NSW campaigns to make life better for pedestrian and bike riders. We are working on it!
But is there one easy win that would cut the wait times, fast?
UK charity Living Streets believes 30 seconds is the longest pedestrians should have to wait for a green signal. Research has shown a delay of more than 30 seconds at a signalised crossing will tempt pedestrians to cross against the 'red man'.
Campaigners in London successfully worked with Transport for London to reduce unnecessary wait times. Crossing users reported a significantly better experience where wait times had been reduced to 30 seconds or less.
Asking nicely has not worked. Living Streets took to social media to show decision makers how difficult it can be to cross roads, particularly for the young and old (Images: Living Streets via Twitter)
It seems simple, right? Traffic phasing is controlled by a central computer. Change some settings, and at the flick of a switch the experience of walking and cycling in our cities instantly improves. No concrete, no planning dramas, no major cost.
We know this change can be made.
Big thanks to David, Lena and Jake for their excellent work in this space. For more insights at the cutting edge of policy, technology and academic research, check out David’s posts for WalkSydney and Jake’s blog.
Would you like to help Bicycle NSW campaign for better intersections?
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