Neglecting pedestrians in Vaughan Centre

This afternoon I visited Vaughan Metropolitan Centre to see the progress in one of the largest urban transformations underway in Ontario. The City of Vaughan, with a lot of help from York Region and the Province of Ontario, is turning a big-box commercial area best known for Ikea and Wal-Mart into a high-density mixed-use centre featuring highrise office and residential towers. The hub of the development is Vaughan Centre station, which will be the interchange between the Toronto Transit Commission’s Line 1 subway and York Region Transit’s Viva Purple bus rapid transit line.

I was impressed by a lot of the transit infrastructure I saw, especially Vaughan Centre station. I was also happy to find a relatively pleasant pedestrian environment along Highway 7 for such a busy and high-speed road. But my pleasant experience was abruptly ended when I decided to cross Highway 7 to head back along the other side of the road.

Because it took me almost four minutes to do so.

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Posted in Traffic Signals, York | 7 Comments

Do pedestrian buttons actually work?

When people find out I have a working knowledge of traffic signals, this is often the first question they ask.  “When I press the button, does it actually do anything to the signal timing?”  The short answer is: sometimes.  Because there’s more to pedestrian buttons than just getting a walk light to cross the street.

There’s two parts t0 the answer here, which are:
1. There are some pedestrian crossings where someone needs to press a button for the walk light to be displayed, and other crossings where there is no need for anyone to press a button,
2. Pedestrian buttons are being installed at all pedestrian crossings, whether or not those buttons actually have an effect on signal timing.

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Posted in Traffic Signals | 12 Comments

Richmond-Adelaide cycle track review

In November 2011, City of Toronto council voted to introduce separated bicycle lanes on Richmond Street, Adelaide Street, Simcoe Street and Peter Street, creating a continuous network of bicycle routes through the core of the city.  Prior to the Richmond-Adelaide bicycle route project, the financial district had been a notable blank spot in the city’s cycling network.

The backbone of this new part of the bicycle network is the Richmond-Adelaide route.  It consists mostly of separated bicycle lanes on Richmond Street and Adelaide Street, a pair of one way roads that form the main east-west motor traffic route into the financial district from the Don Valley Parkway.


In general the Richmond-Adelaide route is a huge improvement over the previous options for cycling through the centre of downtown.  It also includes some notable steps forward in important areas of design.

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Posted in Reviews, Toronto | 1 Comment

Ontario to legalize bicycle-shaped bicycle signals

The Province of Ontario is taking a step toward more intuitive and less cluttered roadways, exempting bicycle signals from the requirement to be circular and instead permitting bicycle-shaped signal lenses.  Ontario is now inching toward the convention of virtually every other jurisdiction, where each signal’s intended audience is self-evident in its design.

Outside of Ontario, road users encounter a variety of shapes on traffic signals.  Arrows identify a turn signal, vertical and horizontal bars identify a transit signal, and of course bicycle shapes identify a bicycle signal.

Bicycle, left turn, and general traffic signals in New York

Bicycle, left turn, and general traffic signals in New York

Right turn and bicycle signals in Québec

Right turn and bicycle signals in Québec

But in Ontario this intuitive system is outlawed by the Highway Traffic Act’s Regulation 626, which states:

Every traffic control signal shall consist of one circular amber and one circular red indication in combination with [a combination of circular or arrow green indications]. (emphasis added)

Every signal therefore looks the same when it’s displaying red or amber, which is when it’s most critical for its intended audience to be clear. When a signal needs to apply to a specific road user group, we instead need a sign explaining who should obey it.

Bicycle, transit, left turn and general traffic signals in Ontario

Bicycle, left turn, transit and general traffic signals in Ontario

This system is considerably less obvious than having distinctively-shaped signals, and it also contributes to a more cluttered streetscape.

Fortunately, the Ontario Legislature has passed Bill 173, which contains the first step toward icon-based signal differentiation.  Along with some changes to rules about pedestrian crossovers and distracted driving, section 29 of the bill legalizes bicycle-shaped lenses on bicycle signals starting on January 1st 2017:

29.  (1)  Section 133 of the Act is amended by adding the following definition:

“bicycle traffic control signal” means a traffic control signal where the coloured lenses each display a prescribed bicycle symbol; (“signalisation de la circulation pour bicyclettes”)


(2)  The definition of “traffic control signal” in section 133 of the Act is amended by adding “and includes a bicycle traffic control signal” at the end.

The amended Highway Traffic Act’s wording effectively defines the bicycle shape as being equivalent to a circular indication, thereby getting around the restriction from Regulation 626.  The bill also adds more flexibility in signal placement for bicycle signals, which makes sense given that bicycles are smaller and slower than motor vehicles.

While this change does not take effect until January 2017, some jurisdictions just can’t wait.  In 2015, the City of Waterloo installed bicycle-shaped lenses on one of its signals, more than a year before doing so was legalized.

Bill 173 brings us a small but welcome step toward a more intuitive system of signal definition.  Now to complete the package, I’d like to see similar changes made for turn signals and transit signals.

Posted in Traffic Signals | 8 Comments

Why do left turns go first?

In most jurisdictions in Ontario, the convention is that left turns will precede the straight-ahead (through) movements in the same direction.  Why is this the case?  There’s actually more to it than meets the eye.

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Posted in Traffic Signals | 3 Comments

A new design for University Avenue and Keats Way – Waterloo

When I was in my third year at the University of Waterloo, I lived in the west end of town, off Keats Way.  My commute by bicycle commute was generally quite enjoyable by North American standards, it took place almost entirely on quiet streets or in dedicated bicycle lanes.  And it was very fast too!  The 2.1 km trip took about 8 minutes, and if I was lucky with the one traffic signal, I could make the entire trip home without stopping once.

Here was my route, categorized by my comfort level (green is relaxed, red is stressed):

The worst part of my journey was making the right turn off University Avenue onto Keats Way.  Right-turning cyclists share the right turn lane with motor traffic turning right, which often results in motorists speeding past and cutting in front of cyclists to save a few seconds.  Even when drivers would remain a safe and respectful distance behind, I felt pressured to ride quickly to avoid delaying them, adding stress to my otherwise relaxed commute.

Cyclists travelling straight along University are also exposed to this same conflict, as the bicycle lane runs between the through lanes and the right turn lane.  While it’s not statistically clear that this is actually a dangerous situation, it certainly feels very unsafe – making cycling along this route an unattractive prospect for the majority of people.

Keeping the bike lanes always on the right of the traffic lane rather than merging them together would completely eliminate interactions with motor traffic for right-turning cyclists.  This would move the conflict point onto the actual intersection for through cyclists, where it can be addressed separately.

I think that the best solution here would be fully-protected signal phases.  This means that turning cars and bicycles would each have their own dedicated signal, which only allows one to proceed while the other is stopped at a red signal.

The usual way of managing this conflict – where turning cars yield to bikes and pedestrians – would be considerably more dangerous.  In order to allow large vehicles such as GRT’s Route 29 bus to make the turn, the corner radius needs to be very large.  This would then translate to high turning speeds for cars, which increases the risk that a car fail to yield to a cyclist or pedestrian crossing Keats Way.

Here’s what the intersection could look like with protected bike paths and traffic signals:

Overhead view of a fully-protected Keats Way and University Avenue

Overhead view of a fully-protected Keats Way and University Avenue

Protected signal phases can actually be implemented efficiently here because the bulk of the movements are compatible with each other.  For the most part, people are travelling straight along University or turning off Keats Way to/from the east.

KeatsUni_WatBikes3Phase_KW KeatsUni_WatBikes3Phase_Uni

Hardly anyone makes a left turn from University to Keats Way or a right turn off Keats Way onto University since this would be basically sending them back the way they came.  This last signal phase would therefore hardly ever occur:

Phase 1

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Posted in Redesigns, Waterloo | 14 Comments

Queen’s Quay Boulevard Cycle Track: Reconciling cyclists and pedestrians

Last week I gave a quick overview of the new Queens Quay Boulevard bicycle path, which has been completed between Spadina Avenue and Bay Street in Toronto.  It is a joy to ride, being laterally separated from motor traffic as well as from pedestrians.  But there is one area which can be stressful: pedestrian-bicycle conflict points.  Fortunately this issue  is quite easy to fix.

Two issues typically occur at these conflict points. During the green light for east-west bicycles, many pedestrians inadvertently wander into the path of bicycle traffic, and during the red light for bicycles (green for north-south pedestrians), many cyclists stop too far forward, blocking the crosswalk.

Pedestrian's view crossing Queens Quay - It's easy to miss the bike path.

Pedestrian’s view crossing Queens Quay – It’s easy to miss the bike path.

It seems fairly obvious why pedestrians could easily wander into the bicycle path. At these conflict points, it is paved in the same tiling pattern as the sidewalk, delineated only by tiled elephant’s feet.  While these may be the correct markings to put in such a location, the fact that they are made of tiles makes them easy to mistake for simply another aesthetic flourish like the tiled maple leaves.

The solution to this issue is to make the path obvious by extending the asphalt paving through the pedestrian crossing point.  Ideally there would also be a slight elevation change – a ramp down to the cycle track and back up on the other side – but that would be unreasonably expensive to retrofit at this point.

The explanation for cyclists stopping in the wrong location also seems fairly obvious.  At intersections, the bicycle path has a large blue square, followed by a white bar then the granite-tiled pedestrian crossing point.

What does all this paint mean?

What is the road trying to tell me?

I spend a great deal of time looking at road designs all over the world, yet it took me a while to figure out what all these markings were supposed to mean.  The blue box seems to be some sort of stopping area, but it covers the entire width of the path, which does not make sense.  If people were to wait all the way across the box, they would be blocking people going the other direction.  Similarly the white bar is presumably a stop bar, but since it also covers the entire width of the path, it is unrecognizable as such.

This confusion can be easily eliminated by using the standard North American road markings that we’re all familiar with. Here’s what a typical intersection would look like with these changes.  Technically the centre line should be a single dashed line to indicate that overtaking is permitted, but I’m not as concerned about that.


There are a couple intersections where this standard design might not work as well: York Street, and Spadina Avenue.

At York Street there is a very large distance between the pedestrian crossing point and the eastbound bicycle signals.  It is not reasonable to expect cyclists to stop before the pedestrian crossing and remain there until the light turns green, since cyclists will be able to clearly see when it is safe to proceed to the edge of the roadway crossing.

In this case, I think the pedestrian crossing can be treated separately from the traffic signal, since there is a sufficient distance between them for cyclists to react to them independently.  A simple priority arrangement would do the trick: either pedestrians would be given priority by adding a zebra crossing and a pedestrian crossing sign, or bicycles would be given priority by extending the asphalt through the crossing and adding bicycle markings for clarity. Here’s what it would look like with pedestrian priority: QQYork_Crossing

At Spadina Avenue, there are no signals for the bicycle path at all.  Since there is very little space for pedestrians to wait between the bicycle path and the signalized intersection, I think the only option is to formalize pedestrian priority using a zebra crossing and a sign. Here’s what that would look like:


I have very high standards when it comes to cycling infrastructure.  So the fact that the issues I have with this path can be addressed with measures as simple as pavement markings is a testament to the quality of the design.  Waterfront Toronto really nailed the basic design of the street, and with these conflicts clarified, the street would be on par with international best practice.

Posted in Redesigns, Toronto | Leave a comment