Intersections: Pedestrian-Controlled Traffic Lights Just Confuse Everyone

Question about pedestrian-controlled traffic light intersections

Pedestrian-controlled intersections are confusing. Scenario:  North and South have normal intersection traffic lights. East and West (this situation side street) have a stop sign.

Does East West traffic not have an obligation to still stop at a stop sign before proceeding or does East West traffic now have the right to not stop to beat the light before North & South traffic proceed on the green light?


The short answer is No, no one has the right not to stop at a stop sign.

Stop means stop. In real life, drivers sometimes recognize this intersection as an opportunity to ‘gun it’ while the light is red and may or may not stop, or even pretend to stop. Any car that does not stop at a stop sign is technically in violation of the law.

For the long answer: I think what you’re referring to are actually pedestrian-controlled traffic lights (these are flashing green traffic lights rather than solid green).

So the North/South traffic is facing a flashing green light (or a yellow/red light in the case someone has activated the pedestrian button), while the East/West traffic is facing a stop sign.

This is a very common type of intersection that we encounter in the lower mainlandOpens in a new tab.. Here we have Kingsway and 12th Avenue in Burnaby, but there are many intersections like this, especially along Broadway and 4th Avenue in Vancouver, and along Hastings Street in Burnaby, and along many other busy streets.

These often coincide with bicycle lanes to allow cyclists an opportunity to get across busy thoroughfares safely.

North/South traffic view

pedestrian-controlled intersection

East/West view

pedestrian-controlled intersection traffic light

The purpose of having a flashing green traffic light at an intersection such as this is to give pedestrians and cyclists an opportunity they may not otherwise have to safely cross a busy street.

Virtually every intersection is a legal place for pedestrians to cross the road; on a typical intersection there are 4 legal ‘unmarked’ pedestrian crosswalks, areas where drivers are legally required to yield (only crossing in the middle of a block, not at an intersection corner is considered jaywalking).

But does this happen in real life? I am not convinced that drivers either know this, or seem to care. Besides, attempting to cross an intersection like this one in rush hour – 4 lanes of speeding traffic – without assistance from some type of pedestrian-activated signal, seems sort of suicidal, even though it may be legal.

The fact that when the pedestrians press the button, causing the light to go red and forcing the North/South traffic to stop, and the vehicles facing the stop sign now have a wonderful opportunity to quickly go in whichever direction they may chose (barring any pesky pedestrians who might be in the way, of course) without having to worry about the North/South traffic at all, is not much more than a side-effect of engineering’s good intentions to allow pedestrians and cyclists to proceed safely across the intersection.

It was never designed to be a free ride for the drivers facing a stop sign, although yes, it is nice that pedestrians are helping drivers in a strange sort of way.

But hopefully drivers are putting pedestrian safety before their own urge to get to where they’re going a little quicker.

This exact same intersection, without the presence of the pedestrian-controlled light, is sometimes a lot more time consuming and frustrating for many drivers.

Many drivers ask their passenger to get out of the car, go press the button, and then get back in the car while the light goes yellow for the other traffic, allowing them to get across with relative ease compared to the alternative (that may be a story for a different day).

When the light is red, drivers at the stop signs sometimes seem to think they are at an imaginary green light, and right of way rules seem to proceed according to those rules drivers would follow when facing a green light, where left turns yield to straight thru traffic, left turns yield to right turns, etc.

What drivers should be doing is behaving exactly as they would any other time they are at a 2-way stop intersection, since that is what this is. It may sound like a subtle difference, but there would be significant legal implications here in the event of a crash.

pedestrian intersection

This is all great until the light goes green again, and the vehicles with the new flashing green light are getting ready to assume that they can go.

Right-of-way rules state that we must yield to any vehicle that is in any space before us, so if there are still cars in the intersection when the light goes green, legally, you must yield.

If the drivers facing the stop sign have half a brain, though, they’ll be sure to clear the intersection before the light changes to green again.

Cars facing stop signs are required to stop, and only to proceed when they know it is safe.

To the unskilled or unaware driver, this can turn into a very dangerous situation if they decide to gingerly cross those 4 lanes of traffic just as the light changes to green. (This is why the drivers facing the fresh green light should always scan intersections before proceeding). 

Drivers facing the stop sign must be aware of how much time they have left before the light goes green. This can be done by observing the pedestrian signal, although there may be no way to 100% guarantee the exact timing of it, unless you actually get a lawn chair and sit at the side of the intersection beforehand with your stopwatch for a while.

pedestrian walk and don't walk signs

But, if you can still see the pedestrian ‘walk’ signal, then you know the light will stay red for the traffic.

After the walk signal, it will normally change to a ‘flashing hand’ symbol. Once it changes from a flashing hand to a solid or non-flashing hand symbol, then you will be pretty much out of time.

pedestrians pushing buttons

Pedestrian-Controlled Intersections

Please drive carefully and remember that pedestrians are very vulnerable; their safety should be the priority here.


Carmen became a driving instructor at the age of 22 in North Vancouver, Canada and is an experienced writer, blogger, photographer, artist, philosopher, certified day dreamer and generally complicated human.

17 thoughts on “Intersections: Pedestrian-Controlled Traffic Lights Just Confuse Everyone

  1. In the article, you incorrectly state, “Virtually every intersection is a legal place for pedestrians to cross the road; on a typical intersection there are 4 legal ‘unmarked’ pedestrian crosswalks, areas where drivers are legally required to yield”

    I wholeheartedly disagree! Mainly because of MVA 129.

    Just because a crosswalk exists. Does not mean it is legal for a pedestrian to use it. They are jaywalking when they go against the big red/orange hand and/or red light.

    MVA 127 1b states, “At an intersection, at a green light, a pedestrian may proceed across the roadway in a marked or unmarked crosswalk, ‘subject’ to special pedestrian traffic control signals directing him or her otherwise, and has the right of way for that purpose over all vehicles.

    MVA 127 2ci states, “a pedestrian must not enter the roadway in the vicinity of the signal until the traffic control signal facing the vehicular traffic exhibits a red light”

    MVA 128 1b states, “a pedestrian facing the yellow light must not enter the roadway”

    MVA 129 4a states, “a pedestrian facing the red light must not enter the roadway unless instructed that he or she may do so by a pedestrian traffic control signal”

    (unrelated) MVA 180 states, “When a pedestrian is crossing a highway at a point, not in a crosswalk, the pedestrian must yield the right of way to a vehicle.”

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