'Red revert' intersections here to stay despite concerns for cyclists' safety

One Ottawa city councillor has tried but failed to get rid of a traffic-flow technology that he says endangers cyclists at intersections.

Councillor's move to eliminate the traffic technology fails in 7-4 vote

The revert red technology in place at most Ottawa intersections can cause close calls for cyclists, Coun. Jeff Leiper argued. (Kate Porter/CBC)

One Ottawa city councillor has tried but failed to get rid of a traffic-flow technology that he says endangers cyclists at intersections.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper asked his colleagues on the city's transportation committee Wednesday to do away with so-called revert red lights. All of Ottawa's 1,200 intersections are equipped with sensors that allow a vehicle or bicycle to trigger a signal change. The function isn't used at the 200 intersections where the timing of the signals is fixed.

If a vehicle or bicycle moves past the sensors in the asphalt too soon, the busier cross-traffic that had a red light for a few seconds can get a green light again. Leiper said that leads to close calls for cyclists.

"I'm not asking that we encourage cyclists to begin crossing when the light's not green, but I am asking that if they make a mistake that it's not a deadly one," said Leiper as he introduced his report.

The committee debated the topic for two and a half hours before rejecting his request in a 7-4 vote.

Councillors favour awareness campaign

Brett Delmage, a cycling safety instructor and former cycling advisory committee member, urged the committee to oppose it. Under no circumstance should a cyclist edge into the intersection before they have a green light, he said.

Councillors who voted against Leiper's report agreed they did not want to endorse cyclists entering an intersection illegally. Instead, they favoured an awareness campaign, such as putting up signs at key intersections to educate cyclists about red revert technology and how to enter an intersection safely and legally.

The technology is designed to help traffic flow along busy streets, added the city's traffic services director Phil Landry. If a vehicle or cyclist turns right, their green is no longer needed and the traffic on a main corridor can keep flowing to avoid congestion.

Revert reds an 'unacceptable risk'

Érinn Cunningham of Bike Ottawa argued that other cities don't have red revert technology, and right turns on red lights are even prohibited in Montreal.

"There's no reason to presume that streets in those cities don't move transit and emergency vehicles in a timely fashion," he said, arguing that red reverts pose an "unacceptable risk."

Staff have also designed an "amber lock" that they plan to implement at more intersections. It would ensure that a side street gets a green light so long as a bike or vehicle stays within the sensor zone until the end of the main street's amber light.

That differs from a red revert, where all lights turn red for five seconds, requiring the bicycle or vehicle remaining detected on their sensor until the end of the all-red period. Cyclists can sometimes get caught in the middle of the intersection if they move early.

The city has programmed 34 locations with amber locks, and intends to do another 158 before next summer.