City & Politics, Planning

Fixing Intersections: River and Harkness at Donald

Sometimes urban intersections create immense problems for pedestrians that are easy to fix.

Those of us who live east of Harkness on River, cross Harkness and Donald on foot knowing that we’ll have to wait long after pressing the cross button to get a pedestrian signal. And since there is no automatic signal, we always have to wait. That is part of why so many residents instead clog up the streets and jostle for on-street parking to go to the convenience store, rather than taking a 5 minute walk. Both intersections could be made much more pedestrian friendly with small tweaks to the traffic signals, and a bucket of paint. Maybe then seniors would feel comfortable crossing the street in their own neighbourhood.

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Drivers on River heading west through Harkness get about 5 seconds every 50 seconds to cross (when they trigger the sensor). Pedestrians, who are often more numerous, don’t get a signal without pressing the button. If they push it right as westbound River’s signal turns red, they get a 3 second walk signal 2 minutes later. This is barely enough time for a healthy adult to cross the south side, but not nearly enough for someone with limited mobility. One frequently witnesses seniors getting caught in the middle of the road after oncoming traffic receives a green light. Moreover, even pressing the signal can be daunting for a senior carrying groceries.

Harkness can be crossed from either side of River. The crossing is narrower at the south end, though it is closer to the exit from Stradbrook from which cars hurtle into the neighbourhood at up to 60 kilometers per hour. Thus, crossing on the north side is safer, especially if jaywalking (which most pedestrians do).

Crossing Donald east. Photo: Steve Lafleur.
Crossing Donald east. Photo: Steve Lafleur.

Donald can be even more intimidating to cross. It also lacks an automatic pedestrian signal. It is more responsive than Harkness, changing 30 seconds after pressing the pedestrian button immediately after a red light, but gives the same 3 seconds to cross a longer intersection. Like Harkness, the light often turns green while people cross. This is particularly worrisome when crossing on the south side. River is one way at that juncture, and three lanes of traffic turn left. Since they don’t have to cross an intersection (and the turn is more of a veer), drivers crawl right up to pedestrians. Some intentionally intimidate pedestrians they believe to be walking slow by nudging forward. Sometimes cars in the two far lanes don’t see pedestrians because large trucks block the inside lanes. One can’t help but wonder how many local seniors become shut-ins as a result of such anti-pedestrian infrastructure.

There are many cases where making intersections more pedestrian friendly requires significant funding, or notable inconvenience for drivers. While I’m all for being very utilitarian about moving people around the city, urban neighbourhoods must be accommodating to their own residents. Urban residents pay a premium specifically to live in the core because they expect walkability. But improving these two intersections could be done with little cost, and minimal inconvenience to drivers.

The solution is two-fold. First, the northbound signal for Harkness should be de-coupled from the westbound turning lane onto River. The intersection currently nudges people towards the south crossing, since there is a median that can allow pedestrians to cross in two cycles – which no one wants to do. It should be tweaked to nudge people to the north side. This would also ameliorate the crossing at Donald, since pedestrians crossing on the north side have a much smaller volume of traffic to deal with compared to the south side, where at peak times drivers line up all the way from Stradbrook to merging westbound onto River. Most vehicles crossing these two intersections originate from Stradbrook, then turn left onto Donald via River. Simply nudging people towards the north would reduce the amount of conflict. De-coupling the signals would allow the city to create a more responsive walking signal at the north side of River without impeding the large volume of westbound traffic. Since crossing to the north side is extremely easy, this wouldn’t inconvenience most pedestrians.

As an alternative (or compliment) to the above suggestion, the city could create a pedestrian crossing north of the intersection on Harkness (originating from Mayfair Park East) to encourage pedestrians coming from downtown via the Main Street Bridge (Donald Street) to take the stairs down from the bridge and walk through the park. That would have the added virtue of increasing foot traffic in a park that is otherwise fairly deserted. As a rule, increasing traffic through such underutilized urban spaces should contribute to public safety, since it tends to scare away people who would otherwise conduct illegal activity (as they’re wont to do where they don’t expect witnesses).

The second step is to convince pedestrians that crossing northbound would be quicker and safer. This is where the paint comes in. The city should paint a bright pedestrian crossing on the north side of River and Harkness with large pedestrian signs on and arrows on the ground. This would send the message to pedestrians that this side of the road was built for them. It would also remind drivers to look out for people crossing. This should also be done on the north side of the Donald crossing. Ideally this pedestrian priority route would start on the north end of the Osborne crossing to encourage pedestrians along the way to stay on the same side of the road the whole way through so they don’t end up crossing Donald and Harkness on the south side by default. When you arrive at the south side of Donald, you have to cross heavy one-way traffic on River to get to the north side. By the time you’re at Harkness, it’s too late to cross to the north side. Additionally, nudging people to the north end of Osborne would facilitate drivers turning left onto that street from River.

Steps to Mayfair Park. Photo: Steve Lafleur.
Steps to Mayfair Park. Photo: Steve Lafleur.

While paint and signs seem like a suspiciously easy solution, people are very prone to follow such nudges. Moreover, it serves as a reminder to drivers that pedestrians are around, and have the right of way.

The crossings on River at Harkness and Donald are purely co-ordination problems. With minimal investment and a bit of ingenuity, we can make River Avenue safer for pedestrians, while having a neutral to positive impact on traffic flow.

Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (