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. Someone should run a data-driven study to observe and compare the incidence of accidents, near-accidents, and other risky behavior (hurried acceleration, rolling stops, etc) between these pedestrian-controlled intersections and regular (4-way) lighted intersections, in order to speak defensible and with certainty about whether or not such intersections contribute to or degrade public safety. My assumption (to be supported or disproven) is the behavior these intersections are designed to promote is in fact not happening, with unintended negative behavior resulting from a flawed intersection design.

  2. So when I make the left turn on a stop sign while the side street is stopped by a red light, how do i make this left turn? Move my car forward and get ready to make that left turn, and only turn when there is no more crossing pedestrain? Of course, but can I still proceed if it is still red light? Or i have to legally wait for the green light while stuck in the middle of the road?

  3. Thanks! That’s what I thought too.

    Although, my kid’s school thinks otherwise when they sent out the following message yesterday:

    “Please note that the crossing guards are not there to allow vehicles to cross the street – they are only there to allow pedestrians to cross the street. They have been given specific directions to only push the button for pedestrians. In fact, it is illegal to use the pedestrian signal for cars without pedestrians.”

    Illegal as they say. Which I, along with other parents, do not think so.

    This concerns the pedestrian controlled traffic light at the intersection of 10th Ave and Henley St. in Burnaby/New West area.

    1. The laws are not a secret, they are online and anyone can read the Motor Vehicle Act British Columbia here:

      There is no law that says who is allowed to press the pedestrian button and who is not! That is just absurd if you ask me.

      Is the school management angry that people are driving their kids to the school instead of walking, or what?

      These intersections are ridiculous in my opinion; if the intersection is so busy that everyone wants to push the button just to get across then clearly the intersection is popular and difficult to turn in heavy rush hour (and I know that 10th is a very intense road) and really should have a regular traffic light to keep up with demand.

      Why would the school be concerned about stopping traffic to make it safer for their students/parent vehicles? Red lights are a normal part of driving, people are not going freak out because one more light went red.

      Plus what are your alternatives?

      – Wait for a safe gap in the speeding traffic, which means you may be waiting there for about an hour, causing a big traffic jam and road rage in the school parking lot?
      – Take a risk on your turn, possibly endangering others or traumatizing/stressing yourself or others
      – Turn right when you want to actually turn left,..

      If the button is there and it makes your life easier then push the damn button. That’s my opinion anyway.

      This is all it says about “flashing green lights”

      (5) When rapid intermittent flashes of green light are exhibited at an intersection or at a place other than an intersection by a traffic control signal,

      (a) the driver of a vehicle approaching the intersection or signal and facing the signal must cause it to approach the intersection or signal in such a manner that he or she is able to cause the vehicle to stop before reaching the signal or any crosswalk in the vicinity of the signal if a stop should become necessary, and must yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully in a crosswalk in the vicinity of the signal or in the intersection, and

      (b) a pedestrian may proceed across the roadway with caution and at an intersection only in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

      I guess someone could argue the following point, but still the vehicle is not being parked, it’s just stopped momentarily .., and if the passenger is pushing the button then the car is not unattended.

      Leaving parked vehicle

      191 (1) A motor vehicle must be equipped with a lock or other device to prevent the unauthorized use of the motor vehicle.

      (2) A driver must not permit a motor vehicle to stand unattended or parked unless the driver has

      (a) locked it or made it secure in a manner that prevents its unauthorized use, and

      (b) if the motor vehicle is standing on a grade, turned the front wheels of the vehicle to the curb or side of the highway.

  4. “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).”

    Is it legal to do so?

  5. What about pedestrians? If north/south traffic has the red pedestrian-controlled light, and east/west traffic is to be treating the intersection as a 2-way stop intersection, and I am a pedestrian wanting to travel north… do I wait until the light turns green again for north/south traffic before I cross the intersection? Or should the east-west traffic yield to me?

    1. Good question. I really don’t like these intersections.
      Legally speaking, you are not supposed to cross the road if you are facing a red light, but if you start walking across, you are supposed to hurry and the cars are supposed to yield to you. (Red light section under the motor vehicle act)

      (4) When a red light alone is exhibited at an intersection by a traffic control signal,

      (a) 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,

      (c) a pedestrian proceeding across the roadway and facing the red light exhibited after he or she entered the roadway

      (i) must proceed to the sidewalk as quickly as possible, and

      (ii) has the right of way for that purpose over all vehicles.

      Legalities aside, be careful as a pedestrian when you know that there may be cars trying to race across the interaction when they see that the other cars have a red light. **

  6. Is it true that at these types of intersections, the cars stopped at the red light, can treat the light as a stop sign? Meaning that they come to a stop at the light and then process through the intersection when safe to do so without the green light ?

    1. No! Wherever did you hear such a thing? Maybe you are thinking of a flashing red light? All of the rules for a regular red light would apply; red means stop and do not proceed until it is green (unless you are turning right). If you were meant to treat as a stop sign, then there would be a stop sign there.( or a flashing red light).

  7. I don’t like them either! Confuse the hell out of student drivers to boot. A lot of them are so busy, it seems like they should just have a regular traffic light. Oh well, I guess we’re stuck with em.

  8. I’ll be honest, these intersections annoy me; I think of them as accidental traffic planning.

    Back in the ‘old days’ – circa 1960, that is – when it was generally understood by road users that pedestrians should generally be given the right of way at intersections (provided the traffic light in their direction was green, if it was a traffic-signal controlled intersection) it was realized by somebody with influence in the provincial legislature that there were places where many people were crossing the road mid-block in situations where it was a damn long walk to the nearest intersection. And with the recent advent of laned traffic, and the increasing number of vehicles, this was proving hazardous to their health.

    And so, the (very good, but unique to BC) idea of pedestrians being able to push a button which would, within 5 to 55 seconds, change the traffic light from flashing green to amber and then red was introduced.

    It was never intended to be used at intersections, only in the middle of the block.

    But traffic engineers (where there were any) in municipal jurisdictions never seemed to grasp that concept; so wherever people complained about difficulty crossing the road – typically where a single lane side street controlled by stop signs intersected a main road – they would use the comparatively low-cost option of installing a pedestrian controlled traffic light with the stop signs left in place, but that flashing green signal facing traffic on that main road; pedestrians being able, on demand, to push the button in order to change the light and stop the traffic to let them cross.

    Theoretically, it could also benefit the car driver on the side street at the stop sign when a coincidental pedestrian had done this – pedestrians would not / should not be crossing his path, because this is illegal in the absence of walk/don’t walk signals when the traffic light is red. Yes, that law is still on the books, and that’s why you never see a pedestrian walk/don’t walk device facing these pedestrians, because they’re controlled (theoretically at least) by the traffic light.

    But pedestrian-controlled signals, placed at intersections, are out of sync with modern times, and in more ways than one. All too frequently, they haven’t been electronically upgraded (to correspond to main road traffic flow, whether synchronized or green window) to work with other lights in operation on the arterial road. So basically, all it takes is one person wishing to cross the road a.s.a.p. to bring half a zillion cars to a halt … every 50 metres or whatever.

    The ‘logical’ solution – to upgrade the intersection to full traffic light control in all directions – is avoided by the municipality, due to the cost of installation and the impact on local neighbourhoods when their side street suddenly becomes a functional artery for drivers.

    So meanwhile, we have a traffic control device that was conceived just to enable pedestrians to cross the street safely (and traffic to then continue, even if the light was still red, as noted in another place in this BC Driving Blog) in the middle of the block has created situations where pedestrians frequently continue to walk even when facing a red light, and in spite of traffic on the cross street even though their behaviour is illegal and selfish – while drivers on the cross street feel entitled – or perhaps impelled – to charge through the stop sign so long as they feel they can get away with it while the opportunity exists in order to access the main road.

    What a mess!

    Food for thought: if there is one fundamental rule regarding right-of-way, it is this. If you’re stationary, and you move, and this provokes or otherwise causes an accident/collision – then it’s your fault.

    But if there’s another fundamental rule, particularly in regard to stop signs or red lights – then it’s that the only time you can ignore them is at the direction of a flag person or police officer; so you had better stop first, and then refer to the paragraph just above. Because otherwise, you’re toast.

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