Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sidney Does A Turnabout On The Roundabout

It seems that most of the traffic engineers in the Victoria area have recently gone to the same convention. There they were sold on the rather dubious benefits of the use of the Roundabout in handling converging traffic, (note, the Roundabout is rather crudely known by North Americans as the 'Traffic Circle'). The objective is to slow traffic down at strategic intersections, and avoid the use of either Stop signs or traffic lights in an effort to reduce pollution and provide for an orderly traffic flow.

The first Roundabout appeared on the road to the Victoria International Airport about two years ago. Obviously impressed by what is touted as the ability of the traffic circle to provide demonstrated economic benefits to the local community, Roundabouts are now appearing on the roadways all through the Victoria area and out here on the Saanich Peninsula.

Unfortunately, the vaunted 'economic benefits' for the local communities arising from the Roundabouts appear to derive mainly from the ensuing towing charges, body shop repair costs, court-imposed fines for traffic violations, and lawyer fees resulting from court actions. Local service stations also report increased gas sales, no doubt from from badly confused customers who have been been sent hurtling down the peninsula on any number of random side roads as a result of their first encounter with these cleverly-designed and cunningly-concealed confusion creators.

Like many of civilization's great catastrophes, the Roundabout started out with a good intentions. Lets move traffic simultaneously in multiple directions in order to minimize stopping and starting, and save both time and fuel as well.

Aware of the potential for 'conflict over right-of-way', (read that as 'collision'), the traffic planners made great efforts to slow traffic down as it approached the Trail By Ordeal that lay just ahead. This they accomplished by narrowing the roadway until it was so narrow that the larger vehicles such as trucks, semi-trailers and the average SUV has just inches of clearance on both sides of the glorified path that passes as a roadway. Also, in order to provide a means of assuring that pedestrians and scooters can safely cross these roadways, the traffic planners cleverly adorned all four corners on the perimeter of the Roundabout with posts connected by steel chain links. The idea is to herd the pedestrians to the actual crosswalks, which are located about a car-length up the roadway. This is intended to allow a vehicle in the Roundabout sufficient time to see the crosswalk, and to pull the car out of the flowing traffic in the traffic circle while waiting for the crosswalk to clear.

Good ideas, all. Unfortunately, they fail completely to allow for typical human behaviour.

The latest of four Roundabouts in the area is now being constructed on the main street in Sidney; down by the waterfront. What with the opening this spring of the spa hotel and the Marine Museum, and the refurbishing and expansion of the park just off the Government Pier, obviously there will be a significant increase in traffic volume in the area. Just the spot to try out another of the traffic engineers' social experiments in conflict management.

So, out came the construction crews, the sidewalks were enlarged to pinch in the street, a big hole was dug in the middle of the intersection, curbs were poured, metal posts and chain links sprouted on the corners, and new signs and road markings were installed.

Perfect? Hardly.

First of all, the big trucks all complained, (correctly), that there is not sufficient room on the newly narrowed street to make it all the way around the circle and stay on the road itself. So far they have been running the trailer wheels over the middle of the traffic circle, (which quickly put to an end any thoughts of landscaping the centre part). However, it is only a matter of time until a rogue set of trailer wheels mows down the newly installed signs and chain links on the sidewalks surrounding the circle.

Furthermore, pedestrians, being humans, are more inclined to view all of the deterrents to their intent to cut across the traffic circle rather than go around, as merely another challenge that can be overcome with commitment and determination. Thus, they walk along the roadway to the traffic circle, tromp or wheel their scooters right across it, and usually end up walking or scootering on the roadway up the street to where the actual crosswalk is located, so that they can access the sidewalk. This is very hazardous for the vehicles in the traffic circle since they have hands firmly clenched on the steering wheel and eyes pasted on the inner rim as they try to avoid hitting the curb. This is all the more difficult when one is simultaneous trying to orient ones self, and find the correct exit point as well.

And then there is the biggest hazard of all; the Wrong Way Harry who has a secret death wish. Whether badly confused by the unorthodox layout of the intersection, or merely not willing to conform with the rules of the road, I have witnessed many vehicles, either deliberately or accidentally, heading the wrong way around the narrow Roundabout.

The basic problem is appears to arise when a person enters the Roundabout with the intention of making a left turn. It is not logical, (and a good deal more difficult to turn right instead of left), and make a full 270-degree turn before exiting. The obvious course of action to take is to simply head left towards the intended exit, which puts the vehicle on a collision course with the other vehicles in the one-way Roundabout. Lest you think that either the concept of a Roundabout or the problems associated are new, a Roundabout on the Trans-Canada Highway at Banff, Alberta, had to be removed in the 1970s due to the numerous head-on collisions due to exactly this same problem.

It is obvious that many trucks are simply not willing to try to negotiate the narrow roadway all around the traffic Circle; they simply honk their horns, wave off the other cars, and blithely strike out on the wrong way on the circle.

Fortunately, the city planners, no doubt seeing the entertainment value inherent in this unfolding fountain of catastrophe, had the foresight to locate the traffic circle on the main street, right down by the Big Moo, an ice cream shop. The city also was sufficiently thoughtful to install two large benches facing the Roundabout, where the local can lounge while eating their cones, sipping their Double-Double, and enjoying the fresh sea air, all the while watching the chaos unfold.

My brother-in-law, eager to try out the Roundabout, whipped a van-load of passengers twice around the Roundabout and pronounced it the best ride in Sidney, by a long shot! I have to admit that I, too, saw the Roundabout as a challenge to my sports car, and tore through it at a considerable clip, much to the amusement of the spectators.

No doubt that come this spring, with the opening of the hotel and marine museum, and with the annual influx of tourists underway, the Roundabout will prove to be one of the major entertainment centers in Sidney! Unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

Sidney Snaps

  • an actual street sign in Sidney, brought to you by the same traffic engineers that conceived of the Merry-Go-Round Of Death known as the Roundabout. Would you have any idea if you can or can't park here?

  • some of the impressive fleet of Smart Cars found at the Sidney City Hall. (I wonder if each driver pays 50% of the cost of the parking?)l

  • Some pictures taken today around the waterfront in Sidney