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This Vancouver intersection is trying out ‘all-walk’ crossings

Pedestrians are now crossing simultaneously at all four crosswalks at the intersection of Hornby and Robson, as the city tests out the "all-walk" model.

Ivy Lee didn’t notice anything different about the intersection she crossed on foot Thursday morning.

Neither did Krystle Mishra or Kenny Fung.

All three pedestrians who used the crosswalks at Hornby and Robson streets unknowingly participated in an experiment the City of Vancouver launched this week.

 The City of Vancouver launched a trial this week at Hornby and Robson streets that allows pedestrians to simultaneously cross all four crosswalks at the intersection. Photo by Dan Toulgoet/Vancouver CourierThe City of Vancouver launched a trial this week at Hornby and Robson streets that allows pedestrians to simultaneously cross all four crosswalks at the intersection. Photo by Dan Toulgoet/Vancouver Courier

“I didn’t notice any difference, but now I see it,” said Lee, standing on a sidewalk on Hornby Street.

What Lee saw was pedestrians crossing simultaneously at all four crosswalks at the intersection. The city modified the signals this week to allow for what city engineers are calling an “all-walk trial.”

The modification means one-way vehicle traffic heading north on Hornby Street and vehicles travelling east on Robson must stop at a red light when the all-walk signals are activated.

So must cyclists using the Hornby bike lane, although it was evident Thursday that not all were stopping as they rolled up to the intersection.

As well, some pedestrians wandered outside the painted crosswalks and walked diagonally across the intersection when the all-walk signals were in effect.

That wasn’t the intention of the signal change, according to Winston Chou, the city’s manager of traffic and data management, who spoke to reporters from the plaza on Robson that overlooks the intersection.

“[Pedestrians] are encouraged to stay within the crosswalk area,” said Chou, noting the motivation for the change to the intersection was to better protect pedestrians.

An estimated 2,500 pedestrians travel through the area on a typical busy hour. The area also has steady vehicle and bicycle traffic.

“Cyclists have all the same rights and responsibilities as motorists,” he continued. “So we’re encouraging them to follow the rules of the road as they cross at this intersection.”

Unlike a so-called scramble intersection like those in Toronto and New York City, the all-walk’s purpose is not to allow for pedestrians to cross to whichever corner they want.

Pedestrians should also be aware the all-walk is not continuously in effect at Hornby and Robson.

The feature is only in play on the third of three cycles of signal changes at the intersection. It lasts about 25 seconds.

The first cycle gives vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists a green light along Hornby Street. When that cycle ends, vehicles and pedestrians travelling east on Robson are given a green light.

Ten seconds after the second cycle begins, the all-walk is activated.

It’s the second cycle that Chou referred to in explaining why the city didn’t experiment with a scramble option.

It has to do with keeping a steady flow of pedestrians walking east on Robson while simultaneously allowing vehicles to continue east on Robson and turn left onto Hornby.

“Trying to allow as much time for pedestrians to cross is important here,” Chou said. “That’s why we’ve allowed that crosswalk [on the south side of the intersection] to be open at this time, and we’ll see how it operates and go from there.”

New signs advertising the change are at the intersection and an audio message—“walk sign is on for all crossings”—can be heard coming from the push buttons on the signal poles.

All three pedestrians who spoke to the Courier weren’t aware of the signs or the audio message until they stopped to look and listen to the changes at the intersection.

Lee said she expects the all-walk feature will reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles. So does Mishra, who works in the neighbourhood near the intersection.

“It eliminates traffic and that’s what we need,” Mishra said. “It’s helpful for me because I walk this two or three times a day.”

Fung, who lives in the neighbourhood, walked two dogs through the intersection.

“It seems like it works,” he said, noting he didn’t think it would cause delays for vehicles. “Even if it does, what’s another 30 seconds? Traffic’s not backing up now, so it looks OK.”

As a regular user of the intersection, Fung said the conflicts he’s witnessed usually involve pedestrians crossing against a red light or not looking for cyclists who have the right of way on Hornby.

Chou said the city will monitor the intersection over the summer and into the fall. The monitoring will include a look at what effect the all-walk system may have on delays in traffic.

In the meantime, the city has plans to implement the same signal system at the intersection located at the east end of the Robson plaza at Howe and Robson.

Asked whether an all-walk or scramble system will one day be in place at a major intersection such as Robson and Burrard or Georgia and Granville, Chou said:

“It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t rule any of those out. But the other things we need to consider are impacts to transit, as well, at those major intersections.”

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung visited the intersection Thursday to observe the new system. Standing on the plaza, she pointed out a person walking diagonally across the intersection and cyclists crossing on a red.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if behaviour changes,” she said. “I think some people haven’t really clued in to the change, and other people are beginning to observe it. It’s going to require some education and adjustment for folks.”

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