Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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Letter to Council: revert reds

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Good morning, colleagues.

At our next Council meeting, I'm bringing my motion on ending revert reds. I don't believe that the vote at Transportation Committee reflects the will of Council, and I don't believe that arguments by some delegations and councillors can stand without further debate.

As simply as I can, a revert red occurs at many of our intersections where cross-street traffic flow is prioritized.

At the corner of Princeton and Churchill for instance, there is far more traffic on Churchill than there is seeking to cross from Princeton. The light stays green for Churchill traffic unless a pedestrian, vehicle or bike is sensed. If one of those is sensed or the pedestrian button pressed, the Princeton crossing is facilitated by giving them a green light to cross.

Vehicle sensors work well. Cars have lots of metal in them and the sensors are large. The sensors extend past the stop bar. If pedestrians press the button, they'll get a crossing signal (even if, as often happens, they get impatient and jaywalk if the light takes too long - you know you've done the same). 

Bikes, though, are trickier. First, I'll say that most of you, like most residents, are probably unaware that we have revert reds! Your parents, your kids, anyone visiting you probably doesn't know how they work. We can blitz with information, but those are ad hoc efforts and memories are short.

The issue I'm trying to address here is that unless cyclists are very carefully positioned in the intersection (on the three yellow dots), either they won't get a green light at all (and will generally run out of patience and just go whenever they think it's safe, like pedestrians do, let's be real), or, often, they'll trigger the light by being correctly positioned but then, for whatever reason, come off the sensor in which case the call for a green light will be cancelled.

This second scenario is the danger

Let's say you're a cyclist. You're cycling on Dovercourt (a cycling route) approaching Churchill and then either intentionally or unintentionally get yourself correctly positioned. You've got a red light, and you're waiting. Like drivers and pedestrians, you're watching the Churchill light:

  • the light for Churchill traffic turns yellow....
  • the light for Churchill traffic turns red...
  • you start to move forward in anticipation of getting a green, you may not be in the intersection, but you're off the dots and getting some momentum...
  • a few seconds later the light for Churchill turns green again, and you may well have made your way into the intersection, particularly if you don't know what a revert red is, or how and why you've triggered a change in signal.

It's dangerous. The cyclist isn't trying to break the law. They're doing what many pedestrians and drivers do all the time, anticipating the light and getting going. Many cyclists are already worried about not having enough time to cross. 

If they were a driver or a pedestrian, the light would behave as they expect. If the opposing traffic light turns yellow, then red, we all expect that our light will turn green. But lights work differently for cyclists.

I want to be very clear that eliminating revert reds does not require any changes to the Highway Traffic Act. It would continue to be illegal for drivers, pedestrians or cyclists to proceed into an intersection on the red. There are other Ontario jurisdictions that don't use revert reds at all: we can find no indication that Toronto does, for instance - another large jurisdiction with lots of competing road uses.

I'd also like to highlight the two very different views of how cyclists can stay safe that we heard expressed at the Transportation Committee meeting. I have the support for this motion from Bike Ottawa, which is our key partner in implementing the measures we need to achieve our modal share targets. We also heard a "vehicular cyclist" point of view that persists in asserting that education and skills are key to keeping cyclists safe. The latter is very much out of touch with how jurisdictions approach cycling - and road safety - in 2022. In every progressive jurisdiction in North America, we've accepted that education and skills are inadequate to make our streets safe for a wide range of road users, including with thoughtfully designed systems and segregated infrastructure. I would caution that the delegation speaking against ending revert reds is not aligned with current thinking by bike advocates or even the mainstream of transportation engineers.

Colleagues, we recognize that people don't behave in ideal ways. At our intersections, there is an all-red period because we know that drivers try to beat the light and make bad choices. On the whole, that probably accounts for many more hours of red phase in the city than however many cases where a cyclist may have stopped on some dots to trigger a change then turned right. We've made that accommodation for safety, and I'm asking us to make another. 

I think the final thing I'd ask you to consider is that revert reds are not a system that we'd likely approve today if explicitly asked. That is to say, if we didn't have them but it was proposed to add them, you'd have a lot of concerns about having a system that's difficult to explain, about which awareness would be extremely difficult to maintain, and that runs counter to how we think traffic lights work. When the danger was explained, I don't think any of us would vote "yes" to building this from scratch.

I would be very happy to discuss further, of course.

Posted January 26, 2022