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  • Writer's pictureDave Shellnutt

Pedestrian Signals & Cyclists

Updated: Jul 18

On June 28, 2023, the City of Mississauga confirmed “Head Start Signals” would now give pedestrians and cyclists a 5 second head start into crossing before the motor vehicle traffic light turns green. However, further down in the press release it appears as though cyclists will not be allowed to use the pedestrian “Head Start Signals” to safely enter an intersection before motor vehicles – only Bike Head Start Signals (where those are separately installed).

That uncertainty is felt in other jurisdictions like Guelph, London, Ottawa (pg. 73) and Hamilton. These municipalities also have LPIs but cyclists are excluded from those traffic safety features.

In Toronto where Pedestrian signals exist, it is hotly debated amongst the cycling community what is legal and what is the safest option when that Pedestrian Head Start Signal/Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) pops up. Many cyclists prefer getting out in front of motorists to increase their visibility by advancing with the Pedestrian Head Start signal - a safe choice.

However, while the Highway Traffic Act explicitly reference Head Start Signals, we know cyclists are considered vehicles pursuant to the HTA. Cyclists therefore must obey the same traffic signals as other vehicles. (And, cyclists shall not ride in the crosswalk.)

Meaning, as the law presently stands, advancing with the Pedestrian Head Start Signal is illegal on a bicycle.

Toronto Police have been fining cyclists for this. Just yesterday, TPS was ticketing cyclists $325 for advancing on pedestrian walk signals at Yonge and Dundas. Yes, these same bike cops ticketing cyclists are the ones we’ve caught biking on sidewalks and rolling stop signs with impunity.

According to the City of Toronto the LPI/Pedestrian Head Start Signal provides an advanced walk signal so that pedestrians begin to cross the street before vehicles get a green signal. The purpose of LPI is to increase the visibility of pedestrians in the intersection and reinforce their right-of-way over turning vehicles.

LPIs have been shown to reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections.

With all these positive outcomes, we would like to know who made the decision that clear benefits afforded to one group of vulnerable road users would not be applied to other VRUs, like cyclists. What data, studies and reports were consulted in determining that only pedestrians should have a Head Start.

The data we do have does not in any meaningful way suggest that cyclist and pedestrian conflicts leading to serious injury occur at any frequency comparable to that of motorist and pedestrian collisions. Like not even in the same stratosphere.

There is no reason why allowing cyclists to proceed with a Pedestrian Head Start (of course yielding when turning to pedestrians) would create hazards for pedestrians.

It seems initially, the City of Toronto hinted that the LPI or Head Start would apply to both cyclists and pedestrians. That idea was for whatever reason yanked. Thankfully, we have other jurisdictions we can point to that are leading the way. Our hope is that our newly elected Mayor and council can right this safety wrong, rein in anti-cyclist police, and ensure all vulnerable road user safety is prioritized in Toronto.

In 2018, New York piloted a program allowing cyclists to follow the Pedestrian Head Start Signals. The reasoning provided by the NYC Department of Transportation was that their studies found that 65% of cyclist fatalities and 89% of cyclists killed or seriously injured in vehicle crashes were struck at intersections. In 2019, the LPI bill allowing cyclists to use the Head Start passed in NYC:

“the vast majority of people biking currently proceed on the LPI and no conflicts or near misses were observed [with pedestrians]. The majority of cyclists prefer to utilize the extra green time and can do so safely.”

Of course, cops in NYC pushed back. In Ontario, police services could do the same, so municipal changes must be met with Provincial Highway Traffic Act amendments.

As my friend and mentor Pat Brown of Bike Law pointed out, there are some provinces that are doing this right:

As of April 2019, Quebec’s Highway Safety Code permitted cyclists to cross intersections on the pedestrian walk signal rather than to wait for traffic signals to turn green. This change was designed with the intent to make cyclists more visible to cars as a way to ensure cyclist safety.

As lawyers for injured cyclists, the vast majority of whom are struck by motorists at intersections, we call on the City of Toronto, Hamilton, London, Guelph and other municipalities to permit cyclists to advance on the Pedestrian Head Start/LPI. Encourage Province to back up your road safety efforts.

Our lives depend on it.

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