Scrambling For Inspiration From The Past

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Scrambling For Inspiration From The Past

20080729StarCoverage.jpg
Image of The Star‘s coverage from June 21, 1954.
News of the city’s upcoming experiment with a pedestrian scramble crossing at Yonge and Dundas has been discussed widely. But until Torontoist reader Don Cumming sent us a tip, few of us realized that Toronto first experimented with this idea over 50 years ago. The concept of stopping all traffic so pedestrians can cross an intersection in every direction is also known as a “Barnes Dance” after its originator, Henry A. Barnes, a traffic engineer who had stints working in Flint, Denver, Baltimore, and New York City. Barnes had a brash and confrontational personality, which could be troublesome for politicians he perceived to be meddling in his work. But his success spoke for itself, and his traffic-management innovations consistently decreased commute times, traffic accidents, and fatalities. Despite having no formal training beyond night school classes, Barnes was considered one of North America’s foremost traffic experts in the 1950s and 1960s. His ideas soon started turning up in Kansas City, Vancouver, and all over the continent.
In 1954, Mayor Leslie Howard Saunders proposed that a “Barnes Dance” be tried out in Toronto. Under pressure from Saunders, city council begrudgingly agreed to a two-month trial of the system at Bay and Richmond streets over the objections of the city traffic engineer, Robert Burton, and several hesitant aldermen.


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Photo of a “Barnes Dance” in Baltimore, 1968, from the Maryland Historical Society.
The all-way pedestrian signals went into operation on June 21, 1954. With Police Constable Al Kearns on the corner, barking directions to confused pedestrians through a loudspeaker—and adding humourous comments when the new traffic signals were misinterpreted—The Star described the first day as having a “carnival-like atmosphere.”
Reporters noted that only a few bold pedestrians crossed on a diagonal. Most were reluctant to make the attempt in the twenty second interval available and continued to make two-stage crossings as they’d always done. Others continued to jaywalk.
The city’s traffic experts kept a close eye on the scene, but didn’t hide their skepticism of the pedestrian-friendly system. Burton shared his appraisal with The Star: “Let’s say its worth is debatable.” To the Globe and Mail he added: “In some instances, it has caused pronounced tie-ups. Of course, we had tie-ups before. We won’t know the results for sure until the traffic count. But one thing is sure now; you can’t fit it into any progressive system of signals.” His words betray that as an experiment isolated from widespread signal or traffic reform—it pre-dated the implementation of one-way streets through the city core—the all-way pedestrian crossing was probably doomed to failure from the outset.
Having done a traffic count as part of his final report to the Civic Traffic Committee, Burton’s conclusions affirmed his earlier suspicions. “It’s fine for pedestrians,” he told The Star, “but it’s not so good for drivers. It has cut the capacity of traffic at the intersection by 10 or 12 per cent.” He also concluded that the new signals had increased the number of traffic infractions at the intersection. Motorists and the general manager of the TTC also complained about cars and streetcars getting caught in the intersection’s frequent traffic snarls. Even defenders of the Bay and Richmond “Barnes Dance” admitted the system’s problems, but called for the city to try tweaking the system before abandoning the project as a failure.
Nevertheless, on September 23, the traffic committee recommended that the use of the signal system be discontinued. The city council endorsed the committee’s recommendation on October 4, despite the mayor’s protests that Burton had not given the signals a proper test. Although the council’s decision left open the possibility of future trials at more isolated intersections, for all intents and purposes the city’s flirtation with scramble crossings was over. If nothing else, the city’s short-lived experiment in 1954 provides a lesson for today’s Yonge and Dundas trial. Half-hearted experimentation of this sort is easy, but real pedestrian-friendly reform will require political will and unfettered support from municipal departments to succeed.
As an aside, one newspaper article from 1954 mentions a similar signal system being in place for three years at Bloor and Parliament streets until being discontinued in 1953, but no other evidence of this precursor experiment could be found in the newspaper archives. If anyone knows anything about this possible earlier trial, let us know.

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