Signs and Signals

The Region of Waterloo manages approximately 500 traffic signals in its cities and townships. The Traffic Systems Management Centre helps co-ordinate the efficient movement of vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

To report a problem or concern with signs or signals call 519-575-4400 or Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TTY) : 519-575-4608


The Region looks after all traffic signs on Regional roads including all GRT signs not on Regional roads.

The Region follows provincial guidelines developed through the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) for installation and location of various traffic related signs such as:

  • Regulatory signs Regulatory Signs
  • Warning signs    Warning Signs
  • Informational signs Informational Signs
  • Temporary condition signs  Temporary Condition sign
  • Tourism signs   Tourism Sign

The overuse of signs, especially for conditions which are not clear, may lose their effectiveness.  For example, warning signs can have an initial positive effect but soon lose the warning of regular motorists.  It is important that signs are the same design and used the same way to provide clear guidance for all road users.

Common misconceptions about traffic signing
  • a sign is the best way to improve a safety issue
  • more signs are better than fewer signs
  • changing standard signing practice will make the information clearer to the public
Understanding traffic signing
  • Signing is an evidence-based science that depends on factors that a driver expects to see, what is easily recognized and what information will be processed
  • Overuse of signs produce disregard and lessens effectiveness
  • Unnecessary signs and posts create a hazard to motorists and can cause an obstacle to pedestrians and cyclists
  • Unnecessary signs; are a waste of taxpayer dollars, create continuing maintenance costs and become visual distractions
Emergency Detour Route signs (EDR)

Emergency Detour Route SignEDR signs are used during the unscheduled closure of a provincial highway when Police detour all traffic off the highway.  The EDR markers are located along other routes and give direction to motorists around the closure and back onto the highway.


Traffic control signals are used to give the right of way to conflicting movements.  They are essential for the efficient movement of a variety of users including pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.  The Region of Waterloo operates 500 traffic signals in its cities and townships with the majority being controlled at the Region's Traffic Systems located Centre. 

To submit a request for current or historical signal information, or to request synchro network information please submit your application via our automated application and payment site located on the Regional Website.


How signals are installed

The Region follows the warrant practice established by provincial standards developed through the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO).  Criteria used to establish the need for traffic control signals includes collision history, vehicle and pedestrian volume and a detailed assessment of the roadway features.

We follow signal warrants to:

  • Make sure signals are installed on a fair and equal basis
  • Promote an efficient, environmentally friendly transportation network
  • Be consistent with other jurisdictions

A common misconception is that traffic signals should be used for safety.  Although this may be true under rare circumstances, traffic signals generally result in an increase in collisions, especially rear-end collisions.

In Waterloo Region, on average, more than twice as many collisions occur at signalized intersections compared to a stop-controlled intersection with similar volumes.

Collisions usually increase when a new signal is installed.  Regional staff compared 2 years of collisions at 47 intersections within Waterloo Region before and after installing signals.  Traffic volume increased an average of 3 percent during this time, while overall collisions increased by 20 percent and pedestrian collisions jumped from 2 to 8.  Excluding angle collisions, injury collisions increased by 70 percent.

How signals operate
Each signal operates in one of three ways:
This type of operation is used when the volume of traffic is about the same on both streets. The signal cycles continuously, giving a predetermined period of green light display to each street.  "Walk" and flashing "Don't Walk" symbols appear with the green signal.
This type of signal is used if there are significantly lower traffic volumes on the side street or if there are peak periods when volumes vary.  The signal on the main street stays green until a vehicle on the side street (vehicle sensors are placed in or over the road) or until a pedestrian presses the pushbutton for a "Walk" symbol.  With this type of signal, the "Walk" or flashing "Don't Walk" symbols are not displayed unless a pushbutton is pressed.  The traffic signal will change at a  pre-set time to minimize interruptions and maintain co-ordination on the main street.

Vehicle sensors are installed in all lanes and a minimum amount of green time is displayed unless additional vehicles are detected.  Pedestrian pushbuttons must be pressed to display "Walk" and flashing "Don't Walk" symbols.

Note: Only fixed-time and semi-actuated signals can be co-ordinated. They will always display a green light on the major street at pre-set times. It is not possible to co-ordinate fully actuated signals since their green lights are based on vehicle demand, which is always changing. 

Frequently asked questions about traffic signals


What do I do if traffic signals are not working properly?

  • When signals are flashing amber: proceed with caution.

  • When signals are flashing red: treat as an all-way stop.

  • When signals are black/no display: treat as an all-way stop.

  • To report a traffic signal that is not working properly call 519-575-4400 (remember do not use your cell phone while driving)

Why are signals well coordinated on some streets, but not others?

  • Good coordination for both directions of travel on two-way streets is not always possible. The direction carrying the highest traffic volume is usually favoured.
  • You may also notice changes in coordination throughout the day due to changing traffic patterns. One direction may be favoured during morning peak periods while the opposite direction is favoured in the afternoon.
  • Coordination is set based on the posted speed limit. Driving the speed limit may result in fewer stops. Slower traffic speeds caused by volume of traffic are also considered when coordinating signals. Coordination is usually set up for through traffic, but in some cases heavy turning traffic is favoured.

Why are there delays on side streets? 

On low-volume side streets there are vehicle sensors that are placed in or over the road. They allow the signals to remain green on the major street until a vehicle is detected or a pedestrian pushes the pushbutton. The signal will change at a pre-set time to minimize interruption to traffic on the major street.

How does the traffic signal know my vehicle is at the intersection?

A vehicle is detected in one of two ways:

  • Overhead sensors mounted above the roadway are aimed at the vehicle stop line.

  • Vehicle sensors are placed in the roadway and produce a magnetic field. When a vehicle passes over the sensor the metal in the vehicle changes the magnetic field.

When a vehicle is detected, a message is sent to the signal controller to change the light. Sensors also allow the green to be extended by additional vehicles at actuated traffic signals. The sensors do not sense weight.

What happens to the traffic signals if the Central Traffic computer fails?

The traffic signals still operate because of a device called the Time-Based Coordinator (TBC) installed at all intersections. A TBC device contains a copy of the signal timing plans and will control the traffic signals until the computer failure is corrected.

What happens to traffic signals if an emergency vehicle is responding to a call?

All emergency vehicles are equipped with devices which pre-empt traffic signals. When the signal is pre-empted, a green display is given to the street the emergency vehicle is travelling on. When that vehicle clears the intersection, the signals go back to normal operation. It may take the traffic signal two or three cycles to re-establish coordination.

Some signalized intersections close to railway crossings are pre-empted when a train crosses. After the train clears the crossing, traffic signals go back to normal operation.

Pedestrians and signals

Signals generally do not improve safety; most pedestrian collisions in the Region occur at signalized intersections.

Pedestrian Countdown Signals

A pedesPedestrian Countdown Signaltrain countdown signal (PCS) is used to provide pedestrians with the amount of time left to cross a roadway at a signalized intersection. The PCS provides a numeric count down display that  indicates the remaining time, in seconds, for a pedestrian to complete their crossing of the roadway.

The signal starts counting at the beginning of the flashing "Don't Walk" showing how many seconds a pedestrian has left to finish crossing the road. The pedestrian sees both the flashing "Don't Walk" and the countdown in seconds. The starting number displayed in seconds is based on the width of the longest crosswalk for the road being crossed and will vary from one intersection to another.



Frequently asked questions about pedestrians and signals

Why doesn't the "walk" symbol stay on until I'm all the way across the street?
The "walk" symbol lets pedestrians know when to begin to cross. It is timed to allow pedestrians to get approximately halfway across the street before the "don't walk" symbol flashes. As long as you are partway across the street, you will have time to complete the crossing safely.
Why doesn't the "walk" symbol come on every time the light turns green?
At some traffic signals there are separate timing plans for pedestrians and vehicles. In these cases, the intersection with pedestrian pushbuttons and the "walk" symbol is only displayed if someone presses the pushbutton.
Why is there a delay for the "walk" symbol after I press the pushbutton?
Pressing the pushbutton sends a message to the signal that a person wants to cross the street. The signals will change at a pre-set time to maintain coordination of the signal and minimize the interruption to traffic on the major street.
How do I activate the pedestrian signal to cross a road?"
  • First, look for a pedestrian pushbutton. If there is one, you must push it for the direction in which you want to cross or the signal will not change. Once the "walk" symbol is displayed, begin to cross. The timing of the signal for pedestrians is based on average walking speed; you don't have to run, but do walk briskly.
  • Pedestrian information signs have been installed at many signalized intersections in the Region. They describe how pedestrian signal heads operate, remember to look for them.
Why do some intersections have pedestrian signal heads while others do not?
General practice in the Region is to install pedestrian signal heads at any new traffic control signal where there is pedestrian activity. Pedestrian signal heads are also being added to existing traffic control signals as budgets permit.
How do I safely cross from a right-turn island to the curb when there are no pedestrian signals?
Pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to turning vehicles. Do cars have to stop for me? No. In most cases, the crossing between the island and the curb is not controlled by traffic signals.
Accessible Pedestrian Signals (formerly known as an audible signal)

Accessible Pedestrian Signal

Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) advise pedestrians with disabilities when they have the right-of-way  to cross a roadway.

The Region of Waterloo is committed to meet the needs of pedestrians with visual impairments or other  disabilities. The Region of Waterloo works with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in  order to effectively address the needs and to establish a standard for the installation of APS.

An APS is a device that relays information about the most appropriate time to cross the street (during  the walk interval) using non-visual methods such as:

  • audible tone
  • verbal speech messages
  • vibrating surfaces
  • tactile messages 
  • receiver or any combination of the above methods

APS devices should be used as a supplemental device to existing orientation and mobility techniques to  assist visually and/or hearing impaired individuals with street crossings. APS provides improved security for pedestrians with visual and/or hearing impairments by allowing them greater mobility.

How accessible pedestrian signals work?

Two audible tones are used to distinctly indicate the direction and pedestrian symbol in which the pedestrian has the right-of-way:

In addition to the "Cuckoo" and "Canadian Melody" sounds, the APS pushbuttons are equipped with a continuous tone called a "locator tone". This tone is produced from the pushbuttons to assist pedestrians, who are visually impaired, in locating the pushbuttons.

The APS sounds and locator tones automatically adjust to background sound levels. During peak traffic periods where volume levels are higher, the APS sound automatically adjusts and is louder. During the overnight or off-peak periods they drop to their lowest volume level.

Pushbuttons in the Region of Waterloo are also equipped with a raised tactile arrow that points in the direction of the pedestrian crossing. This arrow vibrates when the APS Cuckoo or Canadian Melody sounds are activated.

How can I get an accessible pedestrian signal installed?

  • The Region installs accessible pedestrian signals at existing signalized intersections based on available capital funding. 
  • Locations are requested through our local chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).
  • In addition to the passing of Bill 118 accessible pedestrian signals will be installed at all new or reconstructed intersections. 
Traffic Systems Management Centre

Almost every signalized intersection in the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo is controlled by a computer in the Region of Waterloo's Traffic Systems Management Centre.

Traffic Control Centre Monitors

Benefits of computerized traffic control
  • Co-ordination among traffic signals along major streets
  • Standardization of signal equipment
  • Maximized capacity of road network
  • Reduced
    • traffic congestion
    • delays
    • number of stops
    • fuel consumption
    • vehicle emissions
    • overall travel time
    • driver frustration
    • rear-end collisions
    • idling time
  • Improved
    • response to changing traffic conditions
    • response to signal failures and malfunctions
    • data collection and traffic reporting
    • legal documentation
Factors influencing traffic coordination
A major objective of computerized traffic control is good coordination between signals to minimize delays for motorists travelling on major streets. However, no matter how sophisticated the equipment, green lights are not possible for all traffic all the time.

Many factors influence coordination, including:

  • Direction of the major traffic flow
  • Changing traffic volumes throughout the day
  • Large number of vehicles turning
  • One-way or two-way streets
  • Distances between traffic signals
  • Left-turn arrows
  • Heavy pedestrian volumes
  • Vehicles speeding or travelling too slowly
  • Bus manoeuvres
  • Heavy trucks
  • On-street parking
  • Emergency vehicle pre-emption ( green light for emergency vehicles)
  • Collisions
  • Equipment malfunctions
  • Changes in signal timing plan

 Scheduled changes you might notice:

  • Presence or absence of left-turn arrows
  • Longer or shorter green lights
  • Changes in co-ordination between traffic signals

Signal timing plans

Special signal timing plans can be implemented to provide:
  • Customized pedestrian plans for school crossings
  • Special events, such as street festivals and fairs
  • Christmas shopping hours
  • Shopping and entertainment centres
  • Construction detours
  • Emergency vehicle pre-emption

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