Transportation committee defeats attempt to eliminate 'revert reds' in Ottawa

A sensor at a traffic light on Carling Avenue and Maple Drive in Ottawa. (Tyler Fleming/CTV News Ottawa)

The city of Ottawa's transportation committee has defeated an attempt to remove so-called "revert reds" from lighted intersections, which some have argued pose a danger to cyclists.

Coun. Jeff Leiper brought a report to the committee that aimed to put an end to the practice.

“If you’re a pedestrian or you’re a driver you have some expectations about how a traffic light is going to behave. If you see that the traffic that’s crosswise gets an amber or a yellow light you have a really strong expectation that you’re about to get a green,” Leiper said.

A revert red happens when a vehicle trips a sensor at the intersection, which leads to a traffic light change. Before the light changes, a final check ensures if there is still a car or bicycle on the sensor. If there is, the light turns green but, if not, the light stays red and the crossing street returns to a green light after five seconds.

The issue at hand was that some cyclists would leave the sensor too quickly.

“Should a person on a bike move off the sensor before the traffic light has turned green, a red revert will result in them ending up in the middle of the intersection while traffic in the crossing directions reverts to green, resulting in a safety hazard,” the report on Leiper’s motion says.

Leiper proposed that multi-use pathway traffic signals hold the call for the light to change back to green, even if the bike moves off the sensor area. The adjustment would be made at signalized intersections that have a bike lane.

City staff and emergency responders, however, were opposed to the idea, arguing it could impact service delivery or travel times for public transit. Staff stressed that cyclists should not attempt to cross an intersection before their light turns green.

Seven committee members voted against Lieper's report, while four voted in favour, defeating the plan. Councillors Matt Luloff, Laura Dudas, Eli El-Chantiry, Catherine Kitts, George Darouze, Allan Hubley, and Tim Tierney voted against the report. Councillors Diane Deans, Mathieu Fleury, Shawn Menard and Jeff Leiper were in favour.

Tierney, the chair of the committee, said staff had a major concern about removing the red reverts.

"It's pretty simple," Tierney said. "When the light's green, go. When the light is red, you stop ... We issue 4,000 tickets a month for red light running. We don't want to take that chance. We're really there to protect our cyclists and pedestrians and staff did not support it."

Tierney said the city is looking at an education campaign to highlight how revert reds work.

"We have to focus on the education component," he said. "It could include (public service announcements), it could include placards, and it could include social media and (traditional media)."

In the meantime, staff say they will continue to add amber locks to nearly 200 intersections, which ensure the light stays green if the cyclist stays on the sensor until the end of the yellow light on the main street. Thirty-four intersections have this technology now, and the goal is to have the technology in place in 192 intersections by the end of the first quarter of 2022, Tierney said.