Whoever programmed these traffic lights is treating pedestrians with contempt

If they want to encourage people to walk, they should at least ensure it’s as easy as possible.

But in many cases, traffic lights are programmed to make it difficult – even where fixing it wouldn’t disadvantage motorists at all.

Example 1

Here’s the T-junction at Centre Road and Eskay Road, Oakleigh South.

I’m walking along Centre Road, crossing Eskay Road. It’s a quiet street with virtually no traffic – so by default the traffic light is green for Centre Road traffic. But not for pedestrians.

Pressing the button has no immediate effect. The signals stay as they are… for over a minute.

80 seconds later, the green man suddenly pops up.

Governments spend millions trying to cut car commutes by a few minutes. Meanwhile, this deliberate decision by whoever programmed the traffic signals makes people wait 80 seconds for no reason.

I suspect the signals are programmed to wait and see if a car on Eskay Road triggers the sequence giving green for them, which would then provide a green man in the next cycle for Centre Road.

But because no car turns up, eventually it gives up and just gives the pedestrian the green man anyway.

This is absolutely appalling treatment of pedestrians. It almost begs them to walk against the lights. (Alternatively, I could walk 20 metres from the crossing and legally cross whenever it is safe. That of course would be a ridiculous outcome.)

By the way, this is next to where the Vicroads office used to be. Treating pedestrians like this is the perfect way to remind people coming on foot or from the bus (say, to apply for a driver’s licence) that they should have driven instead.

Example 2

This is not a once-off scenario. Further west down Centre Road, I found an identical situation outside the Moorabbin Hospital (in East Bentleigh).

This one “only” made me needlessly wait 40 seconds for a green man.

Obviously outside a hospital you wouldn’t want people walking. It might benefit their health…

Example 3

Okay, so maybe this is a problem with old installations.

Vicroads are doing some good stuff with priority for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, but I’ve heard that there are issues with getting enough qualified staff to be able to re-program old traffic lights.

So brand new traffic lights would be much better, right?

Well, here’s a brand new set. Oakleigh Road and Grange Road in Ormond. Installed earlier this year. I’m walking along Grange Road, which gives traffic the green by default, and crossing Oakleigh Road.

This was always a hairy intersection for drivers going straight or turning right from Oakleigh Road. Ditto, pedestrians crossing Grange Road. So it will bring undoubted safety benefits.

But it has made things far worse for pedestrians walking along Grange Road.

The lights don’t wait for a while to provide a green man, as in the above examples.

Instead, they switch to giving a green to Oakleigh Road — which doesn’t have any traffic at the time — then switch back to green for Grange Road, with the green man.

Yes, these traffic lights prioritise non-existent traffic over pedestrians.

What should happen?

Why should I even need to press a “beg” button? Why don’t traffic lights provide an automatic green man?

It’s possible. It’s used in the CBD, and in some suburban shopping areas, as well in areas with large Jewish populations on the sabbath.

Okay, so sometimes the traffic sequence might be too short to easily provide a green man. But why can’t they at least provide it when it is long enough, particularly in situations as shown above where one road is the default to get the green for traffic.

Motorists usually don’t have to stop and “beg” and wait. In some cases they have to trigger a sensor in the road to get a right turn arrow or a green from a minor street (as above), but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe there’s not the political will to give pedestrians higher priority than cars, especially in the suburbs. There should be, to encourage more walking, but there isn’t.

So how about at least not treating pedestrians with contempt?

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

16 replies on “Whoever programmed these traffic lights is treating pedestrians with contempt”

VicRoads must have policy documents, instruction manuals, and training material instructing its staff on designing traffic light sequences.

Have you thought about making a ‘Freedom of Information’ request for them? It would be interesting to see how the designers were instructed to prioritise road and pedestrian traffic.

Cynically, I wonder if the request would be refused because ‘security’.

Pedestrian crossings that don’t exist on one side of an intersection, forcing you to cross 2-3 times rather than once.

Roadworks where car lanes remain prioritised over pedestrian access on one or both sides of the road.

Level crossings where the footpath ends on either side for no visible reason.

Pedestrian crossings where the red man starts flashing before you reach the median of a 10 lane road.

Apparent refusal by authorities to acknowledge Rule 128 even exists, let alone enforce it.

For crossing with Sydney Road traffic the lights almost do the right thing, but it’s still not truly automatic: you still have to press the beg button to get a green man.

At least the green signal does trigger instantly if you’re early enough in the cycle. But I can’t see any earthly reason why the green man wouldn’t just trigger automatically without waiting for someone to press a beg button first.

Of course, it’s still only for crossing the side streets along Sydney Road. To cross Sydney Road itself you have to wait an inordinately long time, which is rarely justified by the volume or speed of traffic. It seems to me we could halve the cycle times in Sydney Road with no practical effect on traffic capacity.

There’s at least one good example in Sunshine where it does work properly – Hampshire Rd and Derby Rd – green traffic defaults to Hampshire Rd, and if you push the button you get a green man straight away, unless there is a car waiting on Derby Rd.

Poor example in Braybrook near Tottenham Station at Rupert St and Ashley St. Shared bike path from West Footscray is on the southern side of Rupert St, and connecting shared bike path to Sunshine starts diagonally opposite. How do you get from one to the other – cross two roads, needing two green men/bikes, of course?

And the pedestrian entrance to Sunshine Station from Hampshire Rd in the south, across the carpark entrance, is poorly designed – not a traffic light issue, though. But on carparks with traffic lights at the entrance – usually the same deal if you need a green man to cross – these should be green by default.

There’s no technical reason to leave the red signal as the default until a button is pressed. It’s just what they do. When the phase is long enough to fit a green pedestrian signal, they should provide one by default. But they don’t. This frustrates me and has for years, and I’m a qualified traffic engineer.

There’s a couple of pedestrian lights that give an automatic green man in Ararat, but they come with their own dangers. I pressed it, stepped on the road, and was nearly hit by a car turning left who wasn’t expecting Pedestrians to cross.

At least when I used to live in town, the drivers turning left were mindful enough to give way to me, and that was even if I had a red man. The obvious exception was when they had a green left arrow.

Not so in Sydney. When I first moved there, I was honked at by a car turning left, and it didn’t even attempt to stop. As I was walking opposite to the general flow of traffic, I glanced back to check if the car had a green arrow, but no – it was just a generic green light. Granted, I had a red man, but I wonder why couldn’t the car wait for a few more seconds.

The last example you give at Grange Road/Oakleigh Road is an interesting one as the signals change within 10 seconds of you pressing the button. With no cars waiting in Oakleigh Road, clearly it is the pressing of the button that has triggered the change. This is not a bad result in terms of the traffic lights responding to the button push as the green for Grange Road only started 3 seconds before you pressed the button (giving only 13 seconds of green time for Grange Road traffic).

You questioned why the signals didn’t simply trigger a green man to let you cross the road. My guess is that it is because this intersection has a newish feature that (perversely) is intended to improve safety for pedestrians. You might notice that every time a green phase starts for Grange Road there is also a red right turn arrow that appears for a few seconds and then disappears. This is intended to give pedestrians a head start over turning traffic. This means that every time the pedestrian phase runs it also brings up the red right turn arrow.

This is all well and good except for situations when the pedestrian phase wants to introduce whilst the green phase for Grange Road is already running (i.e. the situation you faced). It is not possible to introduce the red turn arrow in the middle of a green phase for Grange Road as there could be a vehicle in the middle of the intersection waiting for a gap in on-coming traffic to turn right. To circumvent this issue the traffic lights make all traffic in Grange Road come to a stop in order to clear any potential right turners and introduce a short green phase for Oakleigh Road even if there is no traffic waiting.

I agree the situation seems illogical but that would be my guess as to the logic behind it. In my opinion a better solution would be to forget about requiring the red turn arrow and just let the green man introduce without it in the situation you faced.

If anyone’s feeling energetic, there’s a doozy of a cycle setup at the corner of Victoria Pde and Lansdowne St in East Melbourne, outside ACU. This intersection was “upgraded” when the bus lanes were added in 2015 and the whole cycle is very pedestrian unfriendly.

E.g. if you’re on Vic Pde’s south side wanting to cross Lansdowne, the green man comes on allowing you to cross half the road before the red man begins flashing. Then when it stops flashing, the green man comes on AGAIN for another short cycle. (I complained about the short cycles to VicRoads and was told the cycles are within standards to cross a carriageway – which I took to mean half of Victoria Pde, even though I was talking about crossing Lansdowne St. The reply came from a staff member at VicRoads’ Sunshine office. I suspect he didn’t have a clue which intersection I was referring to.)

Every (week)day at this intersection I see people crossing on a red man. Main reasons are because they’re forced to wait too long between greens, and they’re rushing to make a connection with the trams or the bus (on the north of Vic Pde). The latter is a concern of mine as a number of Transdev drivers like to “race the timetable” and rumble through 2 minutes early, leaving the following bus crowded.

So yeah, if anyone wants to do a case study, get a video camera and park yourself at that intersection. It’s got everything.

Tony mentioned Sydney Road last October. One of the worst signalised crossings I I know is the one on Sydney Road between Donald and Mitchell Streets near the Brunswick Tram Depot. I haven’t yet timed it but it takes a very long time to change often doing so after the traffic has cleared. I appreciate that the signal activation should not work so frequently that it unnecessarily interrupts traffic flows but this one is excessively ungenerous to pedestrians. It should at least work instantly when pressed after a decent interval.

VR began losing technical expertise in all areas as baby-boomer aged staff retired or took redundancy. This began to occur early ‘00s and accelearated under Bailleau/Napthine from 2010. Younger staff did not receive the same technical grounding and many moved along to new agencies like LXRA and similar entities that oversaw things like Eastlink and, now, NEAST Link. No doubt Transurban has picked up some ex-VR expertise as well but the process of corporatising, de-skilling and privatising the state’s once strong and stable statutory authorities (MMBW, CRB/RCA/VR, SEC etc) has been proceeding under all governments since the mid-1980s.

We now have a fractured system with no state controlled strategic planning, implementation or maintenance of vital infrastructure such as roads or public transport, despite what some policy wonks at InfraVic or DoT or politicians might tell us.

There is, however, the opportunity for the creation of new agencies which could be put in charge of strategic planning for the future in areas such as walking/cycling, integration of PT (trains, buses, metro etc), management of public spaces, provision of renewable energy, waste management etc. These are all areas that are more important than the continued political obsession with major roads projects, and younger engineers, planers and experts would be itching to get their hands on such responsibilities in my opinion.

We should give them the chance to build for the next generations the same sort of legacy in these areas that our forebears did for us with power, water, sewerage, roads and rail etc.

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