War on the Car: Majority of Casualties Due to “Friendly Fire”

We hear the phrase “the War on the Car” every now and then, and I believe it is safe to say that the casualties of this war is the lost time due to gridlock. Anything that is seen to slow down a car is an attack in this war. I should note that since the main component of our transit network is buses, gridlock is just as much a problem for transit as it is for private vehicles.

Median-located LRT lines are attacked as slowing down traffic as they will “take away space for cars”, even if this is not the case or, in the case of Sheppard East, will actually provide additional space for cars on the road. LRT is denigrated with the use of the term ’streetcars’ partly because people see how both lanes of traffic must stop when a streetcar stops to take on or discharge passengers where there is no loading island.

I am not saying that transit plays no part in gridlock. Though the effect of those streetcars on downtown streets are nothing compared to the greater number of buses that would be required on the same streets to replace the streetcars - the streets with on-street parking that would cause a bus to have to stick out in the traffic lane when it ‘pulls over’ to a stop. I am saying that transit plays a very minor role in the cause of gridlock, and some would argue that transit plays a less than zero role because of the number of vehicles it is potentially taking off the street.

What I am getting at, and this is not due to any official study or look at data, is that the majority of the gridlock in the GTHA is due to what I call “friendly fire”. That is, other cars or the road infrastructure itself.

Based purely on anecdotal observation, mostly as a driver but also as a transit user, I am left to conclude that a full third of all gridlock is caused by badly designed road infrastructure. I am also left to conclude that another full third of all gridlock is caused by ass-dragging, navel-gazing drivers who have no concept of the notion that there are other people who need to get somewhere, and possibly more urgently than they need to. The remaining third is made up of numerous “other reasons”, some due to unique situations (e.g.: accidents, construction, etc.), and some due to regular occurrences.

Badly designed road infrastructure includes things like lane design, signage, and signal control. Turning lanes that are too short for the needs of an intersection or places where additional lanes should be provided to provide non-interfering paths between through traffic and turning traffic can be seen all over the city. Eastbound Steeles Avenue at Woodbine is a wonderful example. The curb lane is supposed to be for cars needing to turn northbound on Woodbine as well as use the northbound on ramp to the 404. I have found that the best way to get to the northbound 404 without having to wait through three cycles of the traffic light is to use the THIRD lane from the curb and begin to change lanes in the intersection, which, by the way, is legal in Ontario.

Poor signage is an area where corrective actions can be just as bad. Anyone who has driven in the USA will be aware that their roads are the most over-signed and under-signed roads possibly in the world. Those sound like mutually exclusive conditions, but somehow they are not in the USA. They are over-signed because in places where the right lane exits, not only do they post a sign next to the right lane that says “Right lane MUST turn right” (emphasis on MUST is not mine), they will likely post the same sign to the left of the left-most lane, even when there are four or five lanes on the road. They will have signs telling you of an upcoming intersection every 500 feet, which gets confusing when signs for neighbouring intersections overlap in their coverage. Yet, despite all that, it is not uncommon to not see the occasional most important signs needed to help guide your way. Signs telling you of an exit a mile away, 3/4 mile away, 1/2 mile away, 1/4 mile away, and 1000 feet away are all large and difficult to miss, but the sign telling you the exit is here is practically wallet-sized.

All that aside, most jurisdictions in the USA are very good at providing signage for lanes at intersections that give information on where that lane will get you once you get through the intersection. We suck at this. For instance, on East Beaver Creek at Highway 7, there are two left turn lanes. After making this turn, entry to the lane for the on ramp to the 404 southbound is about 100 metres away. Anyone wanting to get on the 404 southbound should be in the right-most left turn lane, but every light cycle during rush hour, there are several cars that are not. There is no signage telling anyone that the right-most left turn lane is needed to get on the 404 southbound, the way there is signage on Don Mills Road at O’Connor Drive telling motorists that the right-most left turn lane is needed to go south on Greenwood. Of course, signs won’t make people use the correct lane, but they will alleviate the situations where someone didn’t realize or forgot the road layout.

The other part of bad infrastructure is poor signal control. When this is mentioned, many people think of timing signals so that they can ride a “green wave” when travelling on a main road. This is not a simple thing to accomplish, except in a few rare cases because travel patterns in most every part of the city are not in one direction. Very often, attempting to do this for one direction can mess up things pretty badly for other directions. In some cases, it can be easy to do this on a road, but only for a speed that is not practical either due to heavier volume at peak times, or just due to speed limits. I suspect that anyone reading this who has driven in this city likely knows of a street where they can ride such a “green wave” if they are travelling 85 km/h, but the speed limit is 60.

What I notice more often is that many traffic signals are simply not timed correctly for the conditions. Very often, cycles are too short and this leads to a continuous backlog of traffic waiting to get through the intersection. Sometimes, cycles have to be short because the distance to the next signal is fairly short, but that is often a cop-out for proper timing. Leaving a green light on longer in such a case can lead to a back-up from the next light, but this is due to the two lights being operated totally independently from each other. Even when one light turns red, the back-up from the next light is not always alleviated as vehicles turning from the other road during the red light add to the back-up almost as badly as the through traffic would if it still had a green light.

I have heard arguments that lengthening a light cycle doesn’t have an effect besides making people wait longer for a red light. If both directions have a 30 second green light, there would be no benefit if both directions were to have a 60 second green light. This logic forgets that there is wasted overhead in each light cycle while the lights are changing. If a yellow light is on for 4 seconds and both directions get a red for 4 seconds each time the light changes, then the 30 second green light timing results in each direction of traffic receiving a green for 39.5% of the time. Increasing the green time to 60 seconds for each direction results in each having a green for 44% of the time. The bigger effect of this comes from the reduction of driver reaction time, which I will get to shortly.

Finally, I get to the single biggest contributor of gridlock: drivers themselves. I did say that I believe that this and poor infrastructure are each about a one-third contributor, but I rate this as a bigger contributor because infrastructure repairs require policy and procedure changes, and in some cases, money. Changing drivers attitudes and practices may cost next to nothing to do, but is likely more difficult than herding cats. Unfortunately, a number of the infrastructure problems exist because of drivers themselves. That intersection with signals that give each direction only 30 seconds of green time is a bigger problem than it should be because of ass-dragging drivers. Whether they are daydreaming, busy texting, studying the insides of their eyelids, or just naturally slow to react, when the light turns green or the driver of the vehicle ahead of them lifts their foot off the brake, the average driver appears to take 3 or 4 seconds to lift their own foot off the brake, when they should do so within a second or two. So what’s two seconds? For the eighth car waiting at the intersection, that is eighteen extra seconds from when the light turns green until they lift their foot off the brake, and fewer than half the vehicles that could get through on the light will have done so.

Far too many people seem to be solipsists, and this plays out more often with drivers than anywhere else. Solipsism is the theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing. In other words, too many people drive as if they are the only one in the universe who is driving, at least except for what is in front of them. When it is time to move, there is no rush because there is no one behind them to hold up. The same goes for drivers who have to get over to the far right or far left lane as soon as possible despite not needing to be in the lane for a turn because it is several kilometres away. Instead of waiting for an opening that allow them to smoothly flow into it, they move over immediately causing numerous other divers to hit the brakes and add to gridlock.

Then there are the drivers in an area they are not familiar with. Paying more attention to addresses and other items no on the road, they move slower than the traffic flow, but their greater effect on gridlock comes when they suddenly spot what they are looking for only to find they need to change lanes or risk driving past it. What is wrong with driving past it and turning off the road to turn around and come back when it is possible to do so without disrupting traffic? Nothing is wrong with that, but why bother when one is acting as if they are the only one on the road? I can think of other idiotic things drivers do that can be explained by solipsism, and while they slow down other drivers, they are not direct contributors to gridlock.

The bottom line is that transit improvements such as LRT on road medians are not part of the “war on the car”. Most of the attacks come from other vehicles using the road and the road itself.

7 Responses to “War on the Car: Majority of Casualties Due to “Friendly Fire””

  1. W. K. Lis Says:

    In Toronto downtown, many of the main streets are only 2 lanes in each direction. Most of them have parking in the non-rush hours, no parking during the rush hours except for the drivers who are more important than the others and are only stopping during the rush hour to pick up some coffee or whatever.

    When there is parking or a blocking vehicle, that leaves only 1 lane for driving. So even if they replace the streetcar (singular) with buses (plural), the same single lane would be used by both.

    Cal’s comment: Many think that with buses they would pull into the curb lane at stops and that would allow traffic to pass. What they don’t realize is that because there is parking allowed on the street, no parking is permitted just where the stop is located and this is not enough space for a bus to pull out of the left lane completely. This leaves a bus with it’s ass-end blocking traffic just as well as the streetcars do. No wait - since there will be more of them, they will do a better job at blocking traffic.

    The advantage for drivers with streetcars is that the traffic has to stop for the open doors. This allows vehicles in the opposite direction to make left turns.

  2. Andy MJ Says:

    Great job putting this article together. You mention a few intersections that have always been a common annoyance for me. Like you, I do not believe LRT modes of transit are the issue. We need to take a look at how we move traffic and where we can make improvements for everyone.

    Cal’s comment: Exactly. Transit is as much a victim of bad implementation as any other vehicle on the road. So many places where there is simply no traffic light co-ordination (with other lights and with transit) that could not only help move transit, but could at the same time help get cars on their way.p>

    I couldn’t help but notice on my last few times needing a streetcar on Queen (or, as with earlier today, already on such a streetcar), that streetcars almost always seem to have to stop at the light-controlled pedestrian crossing west of Yonge Street. It seemed that this light turns red when the Queen light at Yonge turns red, probably based on the logic that traffic needs to stop another 100 metres anyways. This means that the streetcar has to make two stops, delaying people from entering or leaving at the corner, and holds up traffic at the corner long enough to miss the green light and have to wait longer. If the crosswalk light were to be delayed if a streetcar were approaching, the streetcar could get to the stop and do its loading and unloading business during the red light at the intersection. Cars caught by the red at the crosswalk would be making a single stop for the light while the streetcar was stopped at the intersection and by the time the crosswalk cleared, the streetcar would be moving.

  3. Robert Wightman Says:

    Cal Says:

    “What I notice more often is that many traffic signals are simply not timed correctly for the conditions. Very often, cycles are too short and this leads to a continuous backlog of traffic waiting to get through the intersection.”

    I would argue that the reverse is true in many cases. I will grant that there are some intersection where there needs to be a long left turn phase because of all the turning movements, Steeles and Main (Hurontario) in Brampton is one but in many cases the long cycle time causes people to run ambers (reds), continue to turn long after the turn arrow has ended because they don’t want to wait 2 minutes or more for their next green phase.

    Cal’s comment: Every signal and, in some cases, groups of successive signals, are unique but too often a “one size fits all” approach is taken. Some will have a green phase that is too long or too short in one direction, others simply need the entire cycle time extended so that both get more green time and the percentage of “change” time is lower.

    I would like to see many of these suburban intersections go back to “demand operation” in the true off peak because there are many times I have sat on roads crossing Steeles or Derry Rd in the off peak for almost 2 minutes after the last car has gone on Derry or Steeles. If the lights were smarter they would change more often and keep people moving better.

    Better still, many side streets that have signaled intersections with main roads should switch to flashing red (side street) and flashing yellow (main street), at least for overnight. The one issue with this is that there would be a need for a public education program because this type of operation has fallen out of use in the GTHA. Another public education program has taught drivers well that when signals are not working, the intersection should be treated as a four-way stop. The trouble is, that worked so well and the flashing yellow for the main road is so seldom used that when it is used, too many drivers think the signals are “not working” and treat the intersection as a four-way stop, when in fact the stop only applies to the direction with the flashing red.

    I have been looking at the average speed of streetcar and bus lines that operate on old 4 lane roads and the street cars have a higher operating speed. The street car routes in the rush hour have average speeds between 12.2 and 16.4 km/h. Avenue road runs at 14.9 km/h, Bay at 10.5, 28 Davisville at 9.4, 126 Christie at 12.2, 22 Coxwell at 10.9, 29 Dufferin at 14.8, 26 Dupont at 15.3, 32C branch of Eglinton West at 14.2, 31 Greenwood at 11.7, 83 Jones at 12.7,, 74 Mt. Pleasant at 12.3, 7o O’Connor at 14.5, 63 Ossington at 13.7, 72 Pape at 13.6, 65 Parliament at 11.6, 161 Rogers Road at 15.0, 75 Sherbourne at 11.7. The fact that the vehicle can go around obstructions does not seem to actually improve the average speed. I remember that a TTC commissioner made a comment that the Bay bus ran a couple of mph slower than the Dupont Car and put it down to the fact that the street cars controlled the flow of traffic better. Not only was the TTC service slower after bussing, so was the automobile traffic.

    I would bet that if you could find the average speed of autos on St. Clair and Spadina that it increased after the reservations went in.

  4. Robert Wightman Says:

    Cal says:

    Better still, many side streets that have signaled intersections with main roads should switch to flashing red (side street) and flashing yellow (main street), at least for overnight. The one issue with this is that there would be a need for a public education program because this type of operation has fallen out of use in the GTHA. Another public education program has taught drivers well that when signals are not working, the intersection should be treated as a four-way stop. The trouble is, that worked so well and the flashing yellow for the main road is so seldom used that when it is used, too many drivers think the signals are “not working” and treat the intersection as a four-way stop, when in fact the stop only applies to the direction with the flashing red.”

    There are 2 problems with this:

    1, Pedestrians. I know there are not a lot out there in the wee hours but to try and cross a road with 3 lanes of traffic in each direction plus a left turn and a right turn lane is really putting you life in the hands of God, or at least some speeding motorist who isn’t looking for a pedestrian because they have the light.

    Cal’s comment: Simple solution: pedestrians pushing the crossing button cause the traffic lights to revert to a cycle of operation before returning to the flashing operation.

    2, ME! I don’t want to try and cross those 8 lanes of traffic because there might be some idiot travelling at 20 km/h over the speed limit without any lights on who doesn’t see me.. On the suburban semi expressway called arterials I would much prefer a demand light than take my chances on a flashing red. Up in Muskoka on hwy 11 and some side road OK.

    First I have to question how many places one need to cross “8 lanes of traffic”. There are few examples of arterials that wide, not counting right turn/bus bay lanes. Even within Toronto, what used to be “Metro” roads (basically, those that interchanged with expressways) were a maximum of 7 continuous lanes (3 each way plus a double left turn lane) and few ever needed to cross all the way across. Making a left turn only requires crossing three through lanes and entering one.

    More to the point, such a speeder is more dangerous now to someone using a stop sign controlled side street as there is no warning whatsoever to the speeder of their presence. At least the flashing yellow should alert them to the need to be aware that crossing traffic may pull out. The signaled intersections become a focus of their attention as they try to anticipate that a green down the road may be about to change and give them tunnel vision that blocks all else (never mind their solipsism). Since the flashing yellow is likely to stay that way (notwithstanding pedestrian control suggested above), it aids in the ability to stay vigilant about each intersection, including non-signaled intersections. There is also a possible reduction in the urge to “make up time” after being stopped unnecessarily. I’m not saying that it will eliminate speeders, but I would be willing to bet it would be reduced a small percentage.

  5. Robert Wightman Says:

    Cal says;

    “First I have to question how many places one need to cross “8 lanes of traffic”. There are few examples of arterials that wide, not counting right turn/bus bay lanes. Even within Toronto, what used to be “Metro” roads (basically, those that interchanged with expressways) were a maximum of 7 continuous lanes (3 each way plus a double left turn lane) and few ever needed to cross all the way across. Making a left turn only requires crossing three through lanes and entering one.”

    I don’t know about York but Peel has a lot of roads that are 3 lanes in each direction with 2 left turn lanes plus right turn lanes and some of these are bus queue jumping lanes so the roads are quite wide. The flashing yellow light is not much warning to someone travelling at 90 + km/h. I don’t turn at any of these roads but cross them. I would prefer a demand cycle light that would activate when someone arrives. There are many of these but they don’t tend to be at major intersections but only at minor one on 4 lane streets.

    Cal’s comment: As I said, “not counting right turn/bus lanes”, because these lanes are generally not continuous. Also, I am not talking about using the flashing cycle at main intersections, but only at small side streets in some locations. A demand operation should be in place at main intersections, and it is not like it is unheard of. In many places I have driven in the USA, such operations at main intersections exist, and the detection of the demand uses sensors some distance away resulting in the light changing by the time a vehicle arrives at the intersection.

    The traffic on many roads through industrial commercial areas is very light at night so there is no need to keep the signals sequenced. This is where I want demand lights.

    The other thing that bugs me about what is done here is that when we actually have demand lights, it only works to give the start of the green to the side street that needs it. The timing of it’s green is fixed, so if there is only one car needing it, it stays green for its usual duration. It only takes a software change to have that light start changing back within a few seconds of the car leaving the loop sensor. In other words, the light should start changing once the car needing it is half way through the intersection. If there are multiple cars, this would occur when the last car is half way through the intersection. Instead, if you get stopped at a light for a side street, you end up waiting practically until the car has not only made it’s turn, but disappears at the horizon.

  6. W. K. Lis Says:

    A problem I have with pedestrian signals is the active nature some of them have, especially the suburbans ones. A pedestrian may have to consciously press a button to active their signal to cross. A motorist, from the same direction, has to just stop their vehicle over the signal loops in the pavements behind the stop line, in effect passively triggering the signal change without consciously doing anything else. (I have, hoever, seen motorists stop after the stop line and the signal loops which delays the signal change forever or until another motorist comes up behind.)

    If a pedestrian does not press their activation button, and the motorist signal light turns green because of a motorist, the pedestrian signal stays STOP. Most pedestrians then usually end up crossing with the green motorist signal and could get ticketed for crossing against their pedestrian signal.

    Bicyclist can also trigger a signal change by positioning their bikes (e-bikes, motorcycles, [walkers]), over the signal loops. Some loops have 3 white buttons painted on them, but most don’t know what they are for (bicycle signal triggers).

    It would be nice if the pedestrian signals could be activated by just their presence, but then racoons, deer, or pedestrians just passing by could also trigger them.

    Cal’s comment: Personally, I believe that if the expense of installing pedestrian signals was spent, they should always be activated as part of the cycle where appropriate (i.e.: not when an advance turn phase for cars conflicts with pedestrians. The push button should be used to cut short the cycle time to reduce waiting.

    If we had more “true demand” signals, I could see the need for a pedestrian button. By “true demand”, I mean a light that stops a main street’s traffic to allow someone waiting to turn from a side street that begins changing back almost as soon as the car has cleared the waiting position. In such a situation, the time the main street receives a red signal is quite short, and not long enough for a pedestrian to cross the street. A push button for pedestrians would be needed not only to request the signal, but also to get a signal long enough for a pedestrian to cross.

  7. Robert Wightman Says:

    I know that when I was in university most of the demand activated signals, there used to be a lot along Eglinton between Yonge and Laird, would only leave the cross street on green for about 2 seconds after the last car cleared the detector. The walk signal did not come on because the timing was too short for a pedestrian to cross. When the walk signal came on the light stayed green long enough for a pedestrian to cross at what was then an average speed of about 4.0 to 4.5 ft/s. We have slower pedestrians these days because the design speed is now 1.0 m/s and they are considering lowering this.

    I loved the traffic signals in Bangkok, Thailand. When the light went red a countdown timer came on for the street with the red light. Outside my hotel this sometimes started at 205 seconds. When the number got down to 6 you could hear the cars revving their engines for a Le Mans start. There was no one who was slow to start moving as he would be run over by the cars behind.

    Cal’s comment: I found it interesting that many main intersections in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) have countdown timers that display for all colours displayed (and the digits are in the colour being counted down). Somewhere, I read that a study had been done to find out if there were any safety factors in countdown timers. The results were that the presence of a timer with the green light (essentially what some pedestrian signals here are) actually increases the rate of accidents, while a counter with the red lowers it. A counter that appears for both (or all, including the yellow like in the DR) has a negligible effect, possibly because of the countering effects of red-time and green-time counters.

    Perhaps red-time counters could help eliminate the ass-draggers we have here. I’m starting to think I should take on the practice of a quick double-toot of the horn the moment the light turns green and I’m not one of the lead vehicles. That’s the way it is done in Bangalore (and, I suspect, most of India).

    The walk signals were animated and they shoW a person walking at a normal speed across the intersection. As time went by the speed increased until the poor guy looked like Wile E. Coyote with legs a blur.

    New York did install proximity detectors near the signals in areas with a high Orthodox Jewish population to turn the walk signals for people walking to the synagogue because it was against their religion to do any work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. The people soon realized that their approaching the signal was causing it to change so they started crossing in mid block to by pass the proximity detectors. New York finally had to remove them and put the signals on standard pedestrian cycle for every light on the Sabbath. Perhaps they have some of these detectors left over that they are willing to sell us.

    Let me get this straight: did the city install the proximity detectors with the intent of having people not push a button with the idea that pushing a button would be considered ‘work’ at a time when they were not supposed to be doing work. Then, when people figured that their presence was setting off the sensors, they avoided them as they considered doing so ‘work’. Forgive me, but does that logic not have the natural extension that walking to synagogue is ‘work’?

    At least we can be thankful that we have pedestrian signals at every intersection. I spent almost a year touring the central and eastern US and there were many roads that had no pedestrian signals inside the city limits. These would be roads with 4 lanes of traffic in each direction plus turn lanes and a wide median strip. If you were walking against the traffic there was no signal for you to see unless you were 2 lanes into the intersection and you looked back over your shoulder to the light for the on coming traffic. Not a wise move when the speed limit is 45 or 50 mph. The Toronto Medical Officer would have a heart attack if he saw those conditions.

    My favourite memory from this trip was the Christmas Tree in Corpus Christi TX. The lights were empty 12 gauge shot gun shells and those long strings or red berries had a Winchester 30-30 shell every sixth spot along the string. I was told not to mention my thoughts on guns to anyone in Texas.