News / Canada

Calgary considers simple solution for pedestrian safety: Have them carry flags

Putting flags in buckets for pedestrians to carry as they cross the street at many of Calgary’s roughly 3,000 signed crosswalks could cheaply and easily reduce collisions, says the city’s leader of traffic safety operations.

"The flag doesn't really make you any safer, but it's actually the instruction on how to use the flag,” Tony Churchill told members of city council Wednesday. “You hold the flag out until you have a driver's attention and they stop, and you don't step in front of the vehicle until the vehicle is stopped. Then you cross part way and you make sure the next vehicle is stopped.”

Churchill said he’s seen “great examples” of the low-tech method’s effectiveness in Washington state.

The City of Halifax recently approved the same approach, and it has the support of at least one councillor in Calgary.

“It really helps the pedestrian pay attention and it's highly visible,” said Coun. Druh Farrell. “I think we should be trying these things. That's a really old method, but it's really effective."

Churchill said flags and buckets can be installed at a fraction of the cost – including both the up-front installation and ongoing maintenance expenses – of overhead crossing lights, street-adjacent rectangular rapid flashing beacons, and even simple ladder crosswalks that involve painting streets.

"What I really like about the flag one … is it gives information about how to cross safely,” Churchill said. "Pedestrians and drivers – it's a joint responsibility to have that safe crossing."

But Kimberley Nelson, a pedestrian advocate in Calgary, was a bit taken aback by the suggestion.

"Wow," she said, when informed of the flag idea. "To me, that sounds almost like you're over-complicating walking."

Not only would the flags likely be stolen, Nelson said the concept "makes walking sound dangerous" and doesn't fit with the city's broader pedestrian strategy of encouraging more people to get around on foot.

"If you have to stop and get instructions on how to cross the road, then you're failing active mobility in every way, shape, and form," she said.

But Jim Darrell, president of the Meadowlark Park Community Association, thought the flags would be a welcome addition at some Calgary crosswalks.

Darrell encountered similar flags this summer while travelling in Port Orchard, Wash., just outside of Seattle, and said they "worked great" for pedestrians trying to get from one side of a high-traffic street to the other.

"It was like parting the seas," he said of motorists' behaviour when he grabbed one of the flags and signalled his intention to cross.

Based on conversations he had with merchants in the area, Darrell said flag theft might have been a small issue initially but not for long.

"I think after a while people get bored of stealing them," he said. "And they're so cheap."

Churchill said the idea is  just one of many being considered as Calgary looks to advance its pedestrian strategy and upgrade its crosswalks.

"Having a range of enhancements … there's a benefit to that," he said.