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.

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9 Responses to Ontario to legalize bicycle-shaped bicycle signals

  1. I wonder whether transit signals and arrows for left and right turns are also being examined and implemented in this way, and also whether the white rectangles would also be used or not. In Edmonton we have double red lights for the protected prohibited signals, most of Canada except for Saskatchewan and Alberta use a three head signal and stick a left turn signal sign on it. I don’t think there have ever been transit specific lights in Alta, but I think Calgary (don’t you have hockey you right wingers instead of voting?) will get them with a new dedicated transitway that is being built over the next 2 years or so. Bicycle signals are used, there’s one in Edmonton right now, 2 more specifically, one per direction, and several in Calgary. I also suggest a no right turn on red allowed except by bicycle. Works in Europe. Don’t see why it wouldn’t cause a problem here.

    I wonder whether simultaneous green for cyclists is being examined, and if so, what are the options?


  2. With regard to Waterloo’s bicycle shaped signal, I wonder if that signal is governed by the HTA at all. It faces a trail (which I believe is not governed by the HTA), crossing a road, thus no road users are actually facing this signal. Despite the best efforts of legislators to make laws cover all circumstances, they really don’t.


    • That’s an interesting thought, though that wasn’t my interpretation of the Act. The way I read it, multi-use trails are regulated because bicycles are legally vehicles, thereby making bicycle paths public highways.

      From the HTA definitions:
      “highway” includes a common and public highway, street, avenue, parkway, driveway, square, place, bridge, viaduct or trestle, any part of which is intended for or used by the general public for the passage of vehicles and includes the area between the lateral property lines thereof; (“voie publique”)

      “vehicle” includes a motor vehicle, trailer, traction engine, farm tractor, road-building machine, bicycle and any vehicle drawn, propelled or driven by any kind of power, including muscular power, but does not include a motorized snow vehicle or a street car; (“véhicule”)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect legally it is an open question as to whether trails should be considered public highways or not. (They would effectively be a highway with only bike lanes). Clearly a pedestrian only pathway would not be, and that is where they evolved from, but you are right they do fit the definition.

        Aside from the signal restrictions, considering them highways does however, open up some new and interesting possibilities. I would argue this means that the city could use any traffic control devices they wish at trail crossings. Right now, they seem to only consider crosswalks, signals, or PXOs. However, if they are indeed highways, one could use, a stop sign…or even…a yield sign, which is perhaps the actual behaviour you want at a trail crossing for cyclists. Maybe we can just avoid the PXO + crossride problem that way.

        Of course, whether the city finds this argument compelling or not, there’s a big leap between the possible, and actually implementing it. I’m sure the city would (rightfully) fear that a stop sign, and especially a yield sign, would simply be ignored by drivers. And trail users are so used to yielding to drivers, you would need some indication that trail users should not yield, which is of course, even more risky. It is unclear to me how to go about changing culture in this way.


  3. @ Daniel Brotherston:
    The way I see it, a multi-use path is a simply roadway where motor vehicles are not permitted. In fact some of the multi-use paths in Waterloo literally are roads where cars have been banned, such as Old Albert Street, Quiet Place (formerly Bearinger Road) and Forwell Creek Road (formerly Lexington Road). Given that MUPs generally evolved from footpaths, I can understand how municipalities continue to think of them as footpaths where cycling is permitted, but based on the generous definitions of the HTA I think it would be more correct to think of them as roads where cars are not permitted. Indeed many newer MUPs, such as the Finch Hydro Corridor trail in North York, visually reflect the latter definition, with proper MUTCD signage and road markings, and ordinary vehicular traffic control.

    I’ve always maintained that bicycle paths can make use of any traffic control, for that reason. I’m not convinced there ever was a “problem” with priority crossings, while there may have been a “concern”. Traffic engineers are understandably cautious when it comes to changing the status quo. When they implement something unconventional, they will be legally responsible for defending its validity. But when they’re just following the “book” or the “standard practice”, they’re pretty much safe even when the design has been proven to be dangerous, as is the case with so many of our standard bikeway designs (especially for MUPs). So when implementing any variance from convention, they will try to consider every possible negative outcome of the change because they don’t want to be caught liable and/or negligent. But upon further investigation, not all of these concerns will turn out to be unsurmountable problems, or even problems at all. I expect that the legal concern is just that, a concern, but upon further investigation it will turn out to be no problem at all.

    It reminds me of how in 2009 someone in Toronto claimed that contraflow bike lanes were illegal, which halted progress on all projects involving them for 5 years while the City and MTO conducted a review. But after all that, the verdict was that there was never any legal issue in the first place. Nevertheless, the HTA amendment described in this post does add a line specifically permitting contraflow lanes to put traffic engineers at ease. (More on that here:http://www.ibiketo.ca/blog/how-cycling-activists-saved-contraflow-bike-lanes-purgatory)

    Using a PXO as a MUP crossing doesn’t make any sense in the context of bicycles since it doesn’t have the same strictness of yielding that is associated with Stop or Yield control. Drivers are technically not required to give way until the pedestrian is actually on the roadway (this is the subject of an upcoming post), which wouldn’t give anywhere enough reaction time to avoid collisions with bicycles.

    I don’t think any culture change is necessary in order to implement priority path crossings. A bicycle path crossing is no different than any other priority junction, so there’s no new behaviour for drivers to develop. We already have countless intersections where a minor residential street has priority over another equally minor residential street (so most of the time there wouldn’t be anyone to yield to). I’m not aware of any issues with these examples where drivers on the side street fail to give way to traffic on the priority street, whether that be cars or bicycles.

    I could see drivers failing to respect a more specific traffic control such as a PXO, but I don’t think there’s any chance of drivers completely ignoring a fundamental traffic control such as Stop or Yield.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The culture change I was specifically referring to was a yield signs. They barely work with normal intersections, and here we usually just use a stop sign. Drivers already often don’t yield to pedestrians properly. I think in a lot of ways, drivers in Ontario don’t understand the concept of yielding. Which is why designers prefer to use the simpler idea of a stop sign or traffic signals.

      There is also a problem with our MUT designs. Perhaps, as you say some other cities are different, but at least in Waterloo Region they’ve very clearly designed as wider sidewalks (the Weber trail is *NOTHING* more than a wider sidewalk). Just slapping a stop sign at that will legitimately confuse drivers.


      • Ah, I see what you’re saying. I think the issue with Yield signs is that people aren’t used to them since jurisdictions in Ontario tend not to use them as much as they should. The solution is to use Yield signs more, so people become more familiar with them. This would be gradually implemented, first with the most inconsequential locations, then working up until all the places which should have Yield control do have it. This first step has already been taken in the City of Waterloo: T-intersections in residential areas are generally controlled by Yield signs rather than by stop signs as they would be in many other municipalities. A good next step would be to change the Stop signs along multi-use trails to Yield signs wherever the visibility allows it.

        Effective traffic control does depend on effective design, and as you’ve mentioned the most “boulevard multi-use paths” in Waterloo Region are terrible. But since they’re adjacent to arterial roads, they automatically have priority, regardless of any signs at all. As is the case with any other sidewalk. So drivers are definitely not confused by the concept of yielding to trail users.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. @reaperexpressblog Well, not more confused by the concept of yielding to trail users any more than they are to sidewalk users. I.e., cars frequently don’t stop before the crosswalk, especially when making a right turn.

    And yes, using yield signs more would help. Although I’m surprised you say we use them here, I suppose Kitchener and Waterloo may differ on this, but I can’t recall seeing one anywhere in Kitchener. I do know the street I grew up on had a yield sign at one end (it was a dead end street), and had acceptable visibility, and yet, it was replaced with a stop sign at some point due to excessive collisions. Something that would definitely help would be a lower residential speed limits and narrower residential streets.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pug says:

    Very interesting article. I noticed Oakville, ON is getting bicycle signals (they covered them with bag bec they are not ready like this https://imgur.com/a/S7UIn) near their new hospital. Recently, Hamilton, ON have them running in bay street this year. I think they will install bicycle signals for other street which have bike lane too.


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