Traffic Circles: A commuter’s rant

Traffic Circle
A typical Vancouver Traffic Circle

Traffic circles are common at intersections of Vancouver’s residential streets. In theory, they’re great – keep the flow of traffic moving, rather than the start-stop stutter of 2-way/4-way stop signs. In practice, they’re terrible, and I believe it’s mostly to do with poor signage & education. The city provides a page with a nice description of how traffic should flow around them. There’s even a video (warning: WMV file. Why this isn’t just up on a City YouTube channel beats me). But based on my experience as a driver and increasingly as a cyclist, no one knows these rules.

Nearly every day I have a dangerous interaction at  a traffic circle: both in my car & on my bike – because no one seems to know how to interact with them. This is made worse by the city’s well-intentioned, but ultimately poorly-thought-out “adopt a circle” project, wherein community gardeners can tend to the greenery within the circle. Sure, it makes them pretty, but it reduces visibility dangerously as the plants grow taller & thicker. Several times I’ve had a close encounter with a pedestrian or cyclist whom I simply couldn’t see through the plants growing in the circle.

What the rules are:

  • Vehicles travel counter-clockwise around the circle
  • Vehicles already in intersection have right-of-way
  • Arriving at the same time, yield to the vehicle on your right

These seem like a pretty simple set of rules,  right? If crows can keep 3 things in mind at once, surely drivers can too? Sadly, no.

What drivers actually do:

  • Drivers going straight assume they have right of way.
  • Drivers turning left go clockwise around (the shortcut)
  • Drivers turning always cede right-of-way to cars going straight
  • Drivers sometimes yield to cyclists, regardless of who was there first.
  • Drivers sometimes think they can go around the circle at the same time as a cyclist.
  • Drivers assume pedestrians will stop for them
  • Drivers yield to the car on the left instead of on the right.
  • Cyclists assume they always have right-of-way.

Here’s the thing. The sign on our traffic circles are not helpful. Several people I’ve asked thought that the black shield (see photo above) was a yield sign, so they should yield left. Why not use a sign that indicates, with arrows, traffic flow & yield rules? Even the standard European round-about signs would likely better:

Clearer instructions: Yield, go counter-clockwise

I think we need an educational campaign in the city about how to interact with these circles, while at the same time improving the signage on all of them. Maybe Preventable could get involved too.