Complexity confuses



Is it just me, or is there a fresh proliferation of new symbols and signs we are supposed to recognize and obey?  I find a lot of them not very clear at all.

The new pedestrian crosswalk and cyclist crossride at Fifth and the Canal is an overdue intersection improvement and I am grateful that it is there. And I look forward to a lot more safe crossings in our road-traffic-dominated city.

But the proliferation of symbols and signs is a sight to behold. Look at the above pic. The nearest crosswalk is marked with solid white lines and concrete sidewalk squares on the backside of the curb. The curb itself is marked tactilely for the pedestrian with a plate of raised dots, instead of the sidewalk groves used elsewhere in the city. Beside it is the new bike  crossride, marked with bike symbols and a long dashed line. It’s launching pad is asphalt with a road-type stop line painted on the surface.

On the far south side of the intersection, there is another pedestrian crosswalk and a bike crossride, but the crossride this time is marked with two sets of long dashed lines, because the bike lane is set out from the Fifth Avenue curb, as is clear from this photo:



Upon reflection, the rationale for the two crosswalk markings is apparent, but on site it struck me as confusing.

But what is that off to the left? It’s yet another crossride, this time bi-directional, connecting the path on the west side of The Driveway with the path on the east side (where this photo was taken).  This crossride is marked out not with dashed lines, but large square blocks. Is it a crossride only, or are pedestrians welcome?

The overall impression of the intersection when you arrive at it is complexity and confusion. This isn’t helped by the suddenness of the approaches, particularly from the northwest, where the intersection appears quickly. And there will be many more first timers arriving at this intersection, more possibility for confusion, and from confusion comes danger.

There isn’t an easy, obvious solution to the confusion, as each item in the composition makes sense by itself, addressing its own need (sidewalk+crossride; sidewalk set off from crossride; bidirectional crossride with no pedestrian crosswalk). Technically correct but in sum, not user friendly.

I did wonder if green asphalt marking out cycling routes would make it clearer or easier to recognize. Or maybe I just have to grow some new brain cells and figure all this out and learn to recognize long dashes and square blocks as the new reality.

The signage is also curious:


Surely all that text — in two official languages — could have been abbreviated by the simpler bike symbol with an arrow downwards to the left, and the pedestrian symbol with an arrow downward to the right.

Elsewhere, I have noticed some noticeably politer language on cycling signs. The Sparks Street Mall has replaced its large cyclist-with-a-red-stroke sign with a politer version asking cyclists to walk their bikes (i’m sure I took a snap of it, but my camera seems to have lost it…).

And at Carleton U, this polite sign that both gives direction to the cyclist while providing a rationale for the sign, and a learning experience for the users.



Tomorrow: a simpler crossride / crosswalk intersection example.

8 thoughts on “Complexity confuses

  1. Do the prolongations of the bike lanes across the intersection even count as “crossrides”?

    It was my understanding that crossrides are for cases where some kind of MUP crosses a road and where the old crosswalk usage created a legal problem both for the builders and cyclists but where typical road lane vehicular markings also couldn’t be used as pedestrians would be using them. Note that we wouldn’t have this issue if they were “bike paths” rather than “multi-user paths” since for a bike path vehicular markings could be used.

    It seems here we’ve got three different kinds of road crossing reflecting three different types of facility: a prolongation of bike lanes across an intersection for cyclists, crosswalks as extensions of sidewalks for pedestrians and a crossride extension of a MUP for both.

    I think your confusion is stemming from ascribing the bike lane prolongations as crossrides.

  2. I drove past this new intersection the other day and I agree, there were so many lines and marks and messages that I just ignored them all in favour of watching for traffic / other confused drivers. Not to mention the traffic lights themselves. Perhaps a partial solution might be to make the crosswalks to include both peds and bikes (i.e. one very wide X-walk), and then have a broken line running down the middle of it to keep the two separate. At least it reduces the number of lines.

  3. I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with Ottawa’s bike riders – they seem to believe that rules of the road don’t apply, and that coasting through stop signs isn’t a problem, since they’re protected by magic,car-proof bubbles. They treat pedestrians with the same disdain that other vehicle operators in Ottawa do, too.

    As a pedestrian, I’m becoming increasingly weary of bells ringing and horns honking because I have the temerity to cross at a crosswalk when the lights tell me to do so. It would indeed be nice if Ottawa’s finest could be bothered to enforce the rules of the road, just for a change of pace…

    1. True story: a few years ago I attended an AGM of my local community association, the absurdly named “Westboro Beach”. The transportation guy enthused about how they had succeeded in getting stop signs added to Churchill Ave at Selby, which is a block south of the SJAM Parkway. This was all being done because motorists who had allegedly headed north on Churchill to get to the Parkway and found that they couldn’t get to it would turn around and tear out back along Churchill at full throttle to make up for lost time. Thus the stop sign was to slow them down.

      When I chimed in that this new stop sign was on a major north-south cycle route and would needlessly interfere with cyclists going about their business, the transportation guy replied that that didn’t matter since “cyclists don’t stop at stop signs anyway”.

      To that I replied “No wonder, since most stop signs are put in place as ‘cheap and easy’ traffic calming measures to slow down speeding motorists rather than for any legitimate traffic control function.”

      And so an intersection that might have benefited from a mini-roundabout or Churchill getting traffic calming measures like chicanes or speed bumps now has a pointless stop sign that the multitudes of cyclists using that route will simply ignore.

      1. And there is the fundamental problem: cyclists are a law unto themselves. Want respect on the road? Behave like a vehicle. Stop at stop signs. Lose your momentum? Boo hoo.

        As a (mostly) pedestrian, Ottawa’s bicyclists fill me with fear. Their casual disdain for stop signs and traffic lights, and their lack of consideration for pedestrians.

        Pedestrians have less momentum than cyclists. Cyclists crashing through stops risk injuring pedestrians – and they don’t seem to care.

        Indeed, the disregard for rules of the road is such that every time I read about a cyclist being hit, my default assumption is that they were at fault – probably coasting through a stop and hitting a car with the right of way. Unfair? Yes. But it is my immediate reaction based on what I see day after day after day.

        In my perfect world, police would impound any vehicle that fails to stop at a red light or a stop sign – whether a taxi, city bus, delivery van, car or bicycle. Of course, that would leave Ottawa’s streets deserted…

  4. Par for the course. This post caused me to think of those signal buttons that are installed at numerous cross-walks. The buttons I’m talking about don’t actually change the light (even if it’s a really minor intersection), but rather just activate the “walk” signal when the light eventually changes. So — if the button isn’t pushed, the walk signal doesn’t come on, even if the pedestrian direction is with traffic.

    This really annoyed me, so I emailed the city. I asked them: why don’t you just ALWAYS have the walk signal when appropriate, and only put in buttons when the buttons actually exert control over the light cycle? The response was: the buttons DO change the light cycle. When the button is pushed, you get a “pedestrian green”, vs. a regular green with no button push. I timed the difference at intersections that I use regulary: this amounted to about a 5 second difference in some cases.

    So — why not always just have the walk signals? Because that would mean 5 seconds less for car movements in the dominant direction. Extra street furniture, buttons, different light cycles, etc. All this complexity for 5 seconds of extra time in the major direction. In the meantime, (law-abiding) pedestrians who don’t notice/know to push the button keep waiting for the signal to say it’s safe to cross. Madness. A little off-topic I guess — and I think I might of already complained about this! 🙂

    1. There is a code to determine when you need to press the button to get a “walking man” – when the yellow sign is above the button, the button must be pressed to request a walk signal. When no sign is present, the button only exists to actuate the chirping/beeping noises. Note that some intersections (Richmond Rd. comes to mind) have yellow signs but the walk symbol comes up every time, this is because the lights do not display the walk symbol at night unless the button is pressed.

      There are a few different reasons to have the walking man not come on on the secondary direction, usually because the signal will detect that the cross traffic has cleared quite quickly and the green light will only be on for a few seconds, not leaving enough time to cross.

  5. I completely agree. It’s a sad by-product of our new-found concern for adding cycle-friendly lanes and infrastructure that we inevitably OVER THINK the solutions and allow design decisions to be made by committee on a per-intersection basis rather than trying to simplify the whole way-finding system. Readers have correctly pointed out that one major problem is the whole idea of a “Multi-Use Path” that assumes recreational cycle speeds, a limited number of urban intersections, and cheery goodwill between walkers and two-wheelers..
    We need to start moving toward converting our whole “MUP” system to segregated system with painted lines, pavement treatments, and /or grade separation clearly showing where bikes belong and where the pedestrians go. A couple of simple examples:

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