Traffic circles: Studies show they’re dangerous to Vancouver cyclists

A little over a year ago, I wrote a bit on proper use of traffic-circles. In case you’re not familiar with them, traffic-circles are mini-roundabouts. They typically replace 2-way or 4-way stops on residential roads. Use of traffic circles is straight-forward: 1) Slow down before entering the traffic-circle, 2) Yield to traffic already in the circle, 2) Proceed in a counter-clockwise fashion around/through the intersection, signalling appropriately. The City of Vancouver uses traffic circles as “traffic calming” devices, intended to reduce the speed on residential roads and reduce collisions at intersections.

In Kitsilano, there are at least 19 traffic-circles on the designated bike routes, as the map below shows.

Traffic Circles in Kitsilano

On my daily commute (which takes me through Fairview Slopes, Kits, and Point Grey), I pass through 8 traffic-circles, twice a day. Over the past 15 years of doing this commute by bike, I’ve developed some quite strong opinions about the traffic-circles, mostly owing to the number of dangerous situations I’ve had to deal with.

By far, the biggest problem at traffic circles is failure of traffic (usually motorists) to check to their left before entering the intersection. This is compounded by a failure to reduce their speed. Last week I had to use emergency braking to avoid being taken out by a pickup truck that flew southbound through the traffic-circle at Trafalgar and 8th Ave as I was travelling westbound. The look of shock on the driver’s face when he heard my yells and *finally* looked to his left as I was nearly at the driver’s door said it all: He didn’t look left until that very moment. I estimate that I have two “interactions” a month at traffic-circles where I have had to perform an emergency manoeuvre to avoid being T-boned by a motorist who hasn’t looked left entering the traffic-circle.

Failure to yield isn’t the only problem with Vancouver’s traffic circles, but it is the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered. Other problems I’ve personally experienced include:

  • Cyclists and motorists turning left through the intersection by going the wrong way through the traffic-circle.
  • Motorists with right of way grinding to a stop in the middle of the traffic-circle, perhaps ceding right-of-way to me. Note, while the thought is appreciated, this only leads to more confusion on the roads. Also, understandable given a high percentage of cyclists are guilty of failing to yield to traffic in the circle.
  • During the winter when the roads are icy or when there has been some snow, the traffic-circles become tricky to navigate. Because getting though the traffic-circle requires turning your front wheel significantly, the ice that tends to accumulate in triangles by the circle means the chances of losing traction and falling are not inconsiderable.
  • Visibility issues. The City seems to encourage local residents “beautifying” their traffic-circles. This leads to visibility issues as the plants or other decorations obscure oncoming traffic. This is particularly bad at 7th/Cypress where there’s a tree that locals usually decorate with various things that hang down and further obscure the view.

So, despite the City’s efforts at making intersections safer, I’ve long held the opinion that traffic-circles are in fact more dangerous for cyclists. Recent studies on Vancouver’s cycling infrastructure have shown that very thing. A UBC study that I’ve linked to in the past suggests that, and a recent study comes to the same conclusion. (Hat-tip to Stephen Rees who also has a poor opinion of Vancouver’s traffic circles).

In fact, one of the recent study’s main conclusions was:

Intersections of two local streets had much lower risks than intersections of two major streets, but traffic circles increased the risk of these otherwise safe intersections.

Another of the that study’s points was that a significant number of injuries at traffic circles involved only the cyclist — in other words, the cyclist hitting the centre island.

Traffic-circles have existed on Vancouver bike routes for quite some time. Advocates who claim that education will make them “work” better, must come to the realization that these control features have been in place for well over a decade and if cyclists and motorists aren’t used to them or educated about them now, they never will be. In the interests of safety, no more traffic-circles should be installed, and those that do exist should be phased out. My suggestion is to replace them with diversions like they have in the West End and Mount Pleasant. Allow local traffic, but divert it off the bike route and back to the feeders and arterials. It seems that the City might be paying some attention. Some traffic circles along the 10th Ave bike route east of Yukon were removed as part of that street’s repaving.

For more casual cyclists, or motorists that don’t have to deal with the traffic-circles daily, or multiple times daily, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of concern. However, if you talk to the regular cycling commuters, I suspect you’ll discover similarly strong opinions against them.

What are your experiences with traffic circles on Vancouver’s bike routes? Love them? Hate them? Tell me why.

10 Responses to “Traffic circles: Studies show they’re dangerous to Vancouver cyclists”

  1. S. Morris Rose says:

    I hate them, too.

    Given that we have them, and given that we will have them for a while even if traffic engineers reach the same conclusion, and given that education seems to have failed us wrt traffic circles, I wonder if it might not mitigate a bit to selectively drop a few signs reading “yield to traffic already in circle” and/or “look left.” As you observe, a lot of road users still don’t know how to use traffic circles. Why not tell them? Beats hospitalization by a margin.

  2. Phil says:

    TLDR; I (heart) traffic circles for their efficiency – collisions would be reduced and safety improved if everyone chose to slow down significantly upon approaching a traffic circle regardless of what opposing traffic they perceive.

    I prefer traffic circles to 4 way stops. I experience them as a more efficient way of navigating intersections and save me time. There will always be a risk of collision which is why I always slow down upon approaching them. Sadly this is not something I witness with a lot of drivers or cyclists. I really think this problem has more to do with the user, rather than the traffic circle itself.

    Many traffic circles in Kits are crowded by parked cars, overhanging trees, approaching cars and cyclists. This can make it difficult to estimate (seeing, hearing) if any opposing traffic is approaching and I think most times people *believe* there isn’t, and choose a speed of entry into the circle that assumes they are in the free and clear. And then you reach the circle – and there is opposing traffic – and you’re traveling at an unsafe speed. Bam.

    Traffic circles are a rarity. When most everyone in Vancouver (including myself) is used to the paradigm of stop/start intersections it’s not surprising we’re seeing some poor decisions being made at traffic circles. Any type of intersection is hazardous and mindfulness of your speed and visibility will keep you safe.

  3. Anthony says:

    A co-worker who bikes the 10th Ave Bike Route pointed out to me today that I’m wrong about the city removing traffic circles east of Yukon. In fact, we found at least two instances where traffic circles were added.

  4. Dan says:

    As an avid cyclist in Vancouver, I love traffic circles and wouldn’t want to see them replaced with anything!!! They reduce the ROW confusion that makes for super risky cycling manoeuvres at some 2-way and 4-way stops. The study results are interesting but very limited. The study does not consider the logic for why these particular intersections were treated with circles to begin with: most intersections with existing traffic circles would certainly be riskier for cyclists if they were replaced with a 2-way or 4-way stop control!! Diverters are ok, but are tough to sell unanimously with local neighbourhood residents/drivers…My west side cycling co-workers are with me on the support for traffic circles.

  5. ted says:

    I love them but I also hate them due to traffic that doesn’t look when they are booting through. I wish we as cyclists, could just go straight through them, but odds are they aren’t “curbed”. If they did that, the world would be a better place.

  6. Jayne LeVierge says:

    I loathe traffic circles for all the reasons noted in the above article and it’s not just cyclists they’re dangerous for – pedestrians have traffic coming at them every which way and drivers notice walkers even less than cyclists. Traffic circles are not good for either cyclists or pedestrians. Eighth Avenue at Vine is particularly notorious.

  7. I hate Nimby says:

    They are designed to slow down cars at intersections and do work. If cars enter at regular speed, they will hit the circle. What is annoying is the idiots that ignore the keep right signs. City needs to paint arrows on the road to guide cars.

    If there is no circles, cars will just race through intersections if no stop sign.

  8. [...] same benefits of not stopping when not necessary and they provide some physical separation as well. My principal objection to traffic-circles is that many motorists (and some cyclists) don’t observe the implicit yield. Look left [...]