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An intersection in Steveston, B.C. on May 24, 2012 with a 'scramble crossing.'John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Hoping to make it safer to cross the street at busy intersections, some Canadian cities aren’t waiting for high-tech solutions.

Instead, they’re bringing back an idea they’d scrapped half a century ago.

“There’s a lot of conversation around smart signals and adaptive signals, and quite frankly, the technology isn’t there yet and we needed to do something now,” said Olga Messinis, director of transportation operations with the city of Edmonton.

In the fall, Edmonton started testing pedestrian scrambles – which let people cross the street in all directions, including diagonally, when they have the walk signal – at two major intersections.

“They’re locations that have a high pedestrian volume and high instances of left- and right-turn collisions between pedestrians and motorists,” Messinis said. “We wanted to study how a pedestrian scramble would minimize that.”

Cars in all four directions get a red light – and aren’t allowed to turn on that red – while all the pedestrians cross.

Return of an old idea

The idea dates back to the 1940s. In the early fifties, Vancouver had one of the first scramble intersections in the world. Scrambles quickly spread to major North American cities.

And then, as cars became king, scrambles mostly disappeared. Edmonton pulled out its last two in 1959.

Several cities across Canada have been trying scrambles again. For instance, Toronto and Calgary have had them of them for over a decade. Victoria’s installing one and Vancouver’s planning two.

In most scrambles, pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross while traffic is going through – even if they’re crossing in the same direction as the cars with the green light.

The idea is that cars can make left and right turns without having crossing pedestrians in their way. Then, all the pedestrians cross at once without cars in the way.

“The main idea of the scramble is the separation of the movement of pedestrians and cars,” said professor Tarek Sayed, director of the UBC bureau of intelligent transportation systems. “It varies significantly, but usually they reduce traffic-pedestrian conflicts between 10 and 30 per cent.”

Pedestrians may get frustrated with waiting and cross anyway – but Sayed said that tends to decrease as people get used to the scrambles.

Dylan Reid, a co-founder of Walk Toronto, called these scrambles “car-centric.”

“[They’re] designed for the convenience of vehicles so they can turn without impediment, where pedestrians can only cross during one-third of phases,” Reid said.

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Pedestrians use the new 'scramble crossing' at the intersection of Bloor and Yonge Streets in Toronto, on Oct. 9, 2009.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Scrambles come with trade-offs

Scrambles let a lot of pedestrians cross at once. In a scramble in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, it’s estimated that as many as 2,500 people cross the street at once when it’s busy. But they don’t work everywhere.

“The scramble has never been eliminated, we just needed to find an appropriate place without creating more congestion,” said Winston Chou, manager of traffic and data management with the city of Vancouver. “All vehicle movements are stopped, so that creates delay – we considered using one at Broadway and Cambie, but we saw that there would be a significant delays to [buses] and that’s a major transit corridor.”

In 2015, Toronto shut down one of its three scrambles, at Bay and Bloor streets, after rush-hour delays tripled and rear-enders increased by 50 per cent.

But Toronto’s scrambles aren’t typical – while they have the scramble phase where cars can’t go and pedestrians all cross at once, they also allow pedestrians to cross with traffic when there’s a green light.

Walk Toronto’s Reid calls these scrambles “pedestrian-centric.”

Because they’re at intersections where turns were already restricted, Toronto’s goal wasn’t really to prevent pedestrians from getting hit. Instead, the goal was to get them across the street faster so they weren’t overcrowding the corners, the city said.

“Staff evaluation did not find a reduction in pedestrian-vehicle collisions as a result of implementing the scramble crossing feature,” city of Toronto spokesman Eric Holmes said in an e-mail.

Toronto has no plans to introduce more scrambles, Holmes said. And, when Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) came up with a list of 15 ways to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists – scrambles weren’t on it.

But in Edmonton, while the city is still waiting for data on collisions, it’s already adding three more scramble intersections, which cost about $30,000 each to set up. So far, traffic delays have been “minimal,” Messinis said.

“Our early observations are that the scrambles are successful,” Messinis said. “A lot of pedestrians are saying that they feel safer.”

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