Vancouver: a Grid of Chaos

Posted on 04. Feb, 2015 by in Transportation

Vancouver, with its lack of highways, is one of only a few cities which rely exclusively on surface streets. This fundamental difference makes analysing the effectiveness of some of their transportation infrastructure choices very interesting.

The heavy reliance on a grid roads to move traffic around makes the effectiveness of intersections extremely important. There are three types of intersections used in Vancouver which warrant discussion: four-way signal-controlled intersections, two-way signal-controlled intersections, and pedestrian crossings.

Four-way signal-controlled intersections in Vancouver are laid out very much like any other city. Unfortunately, due to space constraints there is often not a lot of room to spare at intersections. The main side-effect of this is a wide-spread lack of dedicated left turning lanes. Most intersections don’t have the room to spread out the lanes to make room in the middle for a turning lane. This means that traffic looking to make a left turn has to wait in the inside lane, blocking other vehicles looking to go strait. Left turns can cause serious congestion at busy intersections when paired with a lack of advanced turn signals. This seems like a highly ineffective situation considering that the only way to traverse a grid street system is to make left and right turns.

While there are four-way signal-controlled intersections at major intersections, many smaller crossroads are not so lucky. Intersections between roads of unequal size are often setup as two-way signal-controlled intersections. In these cases the bigger road has a traffic light while the smaller one has a stop sign and pedestrian crossing. Such intersections are indicated using a flashing (as opposed to a solid) green “go” phase of the traffic light. This flashing green can confuse drivers from other provinces as many jurisdictions use flashing green lights to indicate a priority signal. The main drawback of two-way signal-controlled intersections is that drivers often get stuck waiting at the stop sign during peek hours. Many drivers have resorted to getting out of their cars to activate the pedestrian crossing to halt traffic. This hardly seems like an efficient way of moving cars around as it disincentivizes drivers from using side roads because they want to avoid getting stuck at the intersection. If more drivers chose to use side roads they could help alleviate the congested main roads.

With the density of Vancouver, and the proliferation of foot traffic, there are many dedicated pedestrian crossings. While having areas for pedestrians to cross is important, it’s just as important for them to be safe. Unlike traffic lights, or even stop signs at intersections, it can be hard for drivers to tell where along a section of road there might be a pedestrian crossing. The main concern is that many are not well marked, or properly lit at night. While there are signs at the side of the road where the crossings are it is impractical for a drivers to be scanning the side of the road along their whole route. Under typical conditions most signs along the sides of roads refer to parking regulations or bike lane locations. Even intersection turning restriction signs are placed on traffic light arms so they are in direct line of sight. To make the pedestrian crossings safer they should consider putting lit pedestrian crossing signs above the road to alert drivers of the crossing. This practice is use in Halifax with much success.

Overall Vancouver is a nice city to drive, walk, or bike in. With world class bike paths, walkways and public transit any concerns with Vancouver’s roadways are of little consequence overall. While many cities cannot function with out highways, adding them in Vancouver would  would fundamentally change part of what makes the city so great.

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