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
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, 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.