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.

In which I narrowly avoided being crushed

This morning on my morning commute I was speeding down Ontario, quite pleased with myself for how I was catching every green light on my route (due almost entirely to the efforts of a woman who was much faster than I, but ended up stopping at each light so I would catch up with her).

Coming down from the roundabout at 10th to Broadway, the woman ahead pressed the button & the light changed green for us. I sped up, so as to catch the light – it was still green as I entered the intersection. Because I had a solid green light, I didn’t do my customary traffic-check that I do as lights change (either red->green or green->yellow) – I just went. I was also riding fast, so looking ahead. I suddenly felt, rather than saw, something large immediately to my right. Turning, I saw the grill of one of those large Cube trucks seemingly feet from me. I utterly froze, convinced I was about to be hit by this truck that was in the intersection with me. Through some combination of my momentum and pure luck, the truck missed me – by inches.  I’m honestly still amazed that I wasn’t hit.

I’m going to assume the truck driver wasn’t actually trying to kill me, but just wasn’t paying attention, as the truck just kept motoring west on Broadway – no brakes, no stopping to make sure I was ok, no honking horn – nothing that would indicate he (or she) had any idea of how insanely close to hitting me they were, nor even that they had just run a red light.

I, on the other hand, had to immediately stop. I was shaking so badly I couldn’t get my legs to work right. I nearly fell over trying to get out of my clips to sit on the sidewalk for a few minutes to collect myself. A really nice homeless guy stopped to ask if I was ok, and offered some sympathetic expletives regarding the truck driver.

I’m not sure if this miss made it a bad morning or a fantastic, lucky morning. I will say that I truly enjoyed my coffee upon arrival to work.


Nighttime cycling, open data, app idea

Last night I had a board meeting that ran until about 9pm – this being the fall, it was dark when I rode home, for the first time since I’ve started this daily bicycle commuting thing. I’m generally well-prepared: I wear reflective clothing, my saddle-bag has a reflector, I have a back light that flashes. I don’t (currently) have a front light because it mysteriously disappeared the first time I forgot to take it off my handlebars. I think I’d also like a helmet light to help my vision too.

My route, from Broadway & Fir to home took me along the 10th ave, Ontario & Ridgeway bicycle routes – all ones I’m well familiar with during daylight hours. However, these all become significantly less fun at night. Why? Because there are so many lights that don’t work, dozens more lights who are almost entirely obscured by trees, others yet so dim as to barely light the ground at all. The nicest portion of the ride is the stretch up on Ontario from 12th to 16th, where those new bright-white lights that seem more focused (less light pollution?) have been installed. The stretch of 10th from Hemlock to Ash was by far the worst.

The streetlight across from my house (which is also on a bike route) has been out for sometime. Last night Leah called the city to let them know about that, which you can do via the 311 service But given that there’s a data feed of street lamps for Vancouver, maybe we can automate this a little more. I don’t have the time in the next couple of days, but if anyone has time to cobble together an app, here’s what I was thinking of:

  • Map that shows street lights, let me click on a lamp to indicate it’s not working, obstructed, dim, etc.
  • Twitter service that, based on location of the tweet (using @replies), maps that to the above.
  • Sends a service request to the city (is there a 311 API?)
  • A cool feature would be to “darken” bits of the map based on this data, so you could “show” a map of Vancouver at night based on where lights are on/off, etc – this could be the most useful service, particularly if mapped against bike routes, running routes, etc.


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