Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Signage improvements

Along with making a road instantly familiar depending on what it does, freeways have two lanes in each direction separated by a median, no at grade crossings and a shoulder, access roads are narrow roads, mixed with cyclists at least in most urban areas and intersections are uncontrolled, distributors have traffic lights or roundabouts or the right of way over side streets, cyclists have their own paths or dedicated lanes, and there is enough room within your own side of the street to operate an ordinary car on it, signs can have a big impact on how people understand a road.

But we have a not entirely great system of roadway signs and signals. We have it better than the US signs which have quite a lot more words on them, but we still have a long way to go. You can feasibly drive throughout Europe with dozens of languages in a small space and know nothing about the local language except for the name of the cities you expect to find and some knowledge about the traffic signs. It would be helpful to know what the most basic words are, like except, but not that many more words are needed beyond that. You even know what the default speed limits are based on a sign posted at the borders. Though do note that the UK uses the imperial system for measurement, which has a crucial difference between 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and 50 kilometres per hour.

They use a system called the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals. It defines what kind of signs and traffic lights are to be used for what purpose. This is why a stop signal is red throughout Europe, and the world for that matter, not purple in Belgium, yellow in France and blue in Germany. It also defines a stop in order to give crossing traffic the right of way sign is a red octagon with either Stop or the local translation of the word on it in white lettering. Same as in North America. We usually just use a stop on the sign, though the Quebecois, doing everything they can to be different, use Arret in it. The meaning is obvious due to the shape. No other sign is allowed to be octagonal, and especially no octagonal signs with red on it. And yield signs are the same as in Europe, although some places use yellow instead of white, but the meaning is similar enough.

The basics of the signs are as follows:

A white or yellow sign with a red border in an equilateral triangle shape with the a point being up is a warning.

A white or yellow circular sign with a red border indicated either a prohibition or a limit, like no vehicles higher than 4 metres or no faster than 70 km/h.

A blue sign with white letters and numbers indicate things you have to do or they set aside lanes for certain types of traffic.

A rectangular sign is either an informational sign, a parking regulation sign if it has the word P on it, or if it's white and right under a warning, mandatory or prohibitory/limit sign, then it's giving extra information, like only applying during certain times of the day.

The exact system of indicating the importance of routes varies country to country, in the UK, motorway signs are blue, primary routes are green, local destinations are white and brown is for tourist destinations. In Germany, the system is blue for motorways, white for local destinations, brown for tourist destinations and yellow for everything else. In the Netherlands, blue signs are for cars, red signs are for cyclists, green signs are for recreational routes for cyclists and I believe that brown signs might be other tourist destinations but I am not sure.

Once you learn the system in one country, you can apply nearly everything to everywhere that has implemented the system.

I am not going to be so radical as to completely implement the Vienna Conventions. I would like to, a sign system that applies to every country is like making every country use the metric system, everyone knows what any sign means in any country, but I am not entirely sure that it would be a good idea to fully implement it, especially if the rest of Canada and the US don't follow quickly. I understand both systems, but not everyone will. I guess the arguments against are sounding like the arguments against metric. I think the problem is making it a system that people will actually use in more places. Most people in Canada stay in Canada or the US, and switching systems like that is a challenge. A lot like when I try to decipher a 45 mph limit on a US road.

But we can make a lot of changes without making it too difficult to understand. Australia and New Zealand has a useful way of indicating a speed limit. A red ring around a number with the limit being that number in kilometres per hour. This could be implemented now. To make it clear that it is a speed limit sign, km/h could be added under the sign, a weatherproof sticker perhaps, until people can get to know it. It is a symbolic way, or in this case non worded (anything worded has the potential for a mistranslation, and it's just harder to understand at a glance) way of saying the speed limit is X km/h.

The default speed limit can be indicated with a sign on the provincial boundaries and on signs at the exits of airports with flights going inter provincial or international. It has the name of the province in question, and the categories of roads. In Alberta, the limits could be 50 in urban areas, 70 in rural areas, and 130 km/h on roads for motor traffic only and freeways. It is a simple sign, adopted from Europe, where these are ubiquitous. And to distinguish urban areas, renamed the built up areas, to differentiate between the municipal border and where it actually looks like an urban area. No need to have 50 limits in the rural northeast until it actually gets developed into an urban road, even more so if Edmonton get's its way in the Leduc annexation proposal. Also useful because it makes no sense to apply urban regulations to a freeway that happens to run through a built up area. And many areas in rural areas feel like urban ones. Sherwood Park for example, possibly the largest hamlet in the world, a city in all but name. And on smaller scales, like Nisku. It just has the name of the built up area on a white rectangle sign when you enter, and the same idea but with a red stripe through it when you leave, and it displays the new speed limit for that road. Usually 50 or 70, but it can also be different, like 30 through villages or 70  when crossing into an urban through road. A sign with the greyed out version of the sign with a red stripe through it will mean the end of the signed speed limit. Like the end of a 70 limit on a through road. Useful when knowing whether a reduced speed zone has ended or not.

We need some new signs to indicate freeways and motor vehicle only routes. I've mentioned these before, but here is what they would do. For freeways, the international sign that indicates this are a pair of carriageways with a bridge over it. Because our regulatory signs are black and white on a rectangle, we would make ours rectangular and with the background being white with the icons being black. This sign would mean all of the following: Minimum speed of 60 km/h. Speed limit is 130 km/h. No stopping, U turns or parking (unless unavoidable, like if your car breaks down suddenly). No vehicles wider than 2.7 metres or taller than 4.5 metres without a special permit. No animals, horses, farm equipment (unless it is small enough and can go at least 60), no pedestrians, bicycles and no mopeds either. The same regulations apply to roads classified as expressways, or otherwise are signed as a road for motorized traffic only. It has a square white sign with a black car shape on it, looking at the front, and it means that it does not fully meet freeway standards, but has characteristics of a freeway. Not completely grade separated, not completely divided, not completely with at least 2 lanes per direction or not completely having a road shoulder will work like this.

We can also replace "For X kilometres" with just two upwards arrows on either side of a number and km or m, which means metres. And we can use the letter m for metres in general too. Some other worded signs include road closed. We can replace this with a red ring around a white sign with two arrows in opposite direction, with a slash through it. Minimum speed limits can be indicated with a green ring around a number, meaning you have to do it. We can even use the standard sign for a right turn lane to mean a freeway style exit, and use the European symbol for exit and a number to show which exit number we are talking about.

Maximum height signs should be white and in a red ring, as a yellow sign would just be a warning.

We can also simplify parking regulations. On rural roads, you are not allowed to park directly off a road with a white line on the side. In urban areas you are not permitted to park on any road with a speed limit higher than 30 km/h unless specifically signed.  It's a simple idea but it removes a lot of the need for parking regulation signs. And we can also replace seasonal ban with a symbol for ice, or perhaps a snow clearing vehicle.

Bicycle path signs, with green rings and a bicycle in it, would be more common as cycle paths are built. Bus lanes physically separated from the road would have a bus in a green ring rather than the sign for transit lane. Bus lanes and cycle lanes not physically separated would become less common though. And bus/cycle lanes would go away in favour of separate paths for cyclists. Taxis may or may not be permitted in bus lanes in the future, given that the definition of a taxi is spotty (uber) and they shouldn't be the kind of transport we prioritize.

On the approach to intersections, a sign will describe the directional use signs, so the left lane goes to the left, the middle lane goes straight on, and the right lane leads to the right. It varies obviously but is important. I have often made mistakes because I didn't know what the lane use sign meant. And so have many people driving.

Here is a big part of what I propose. On signs where the main message of the sign is inside a circle, and the rest of the sign outside the circle isn't contributing, then make the sign itself circular, and cut away the excess metal. This reduces the clutter and reduces the load that needs to be carried by the posts, and there is less space the wind could catch. People pretty much just pay attention to the message anyway, not really the rectangle. No parking signs are just a red ring around a white background, with a black P and a red slash through the sign. It doesn't really need the background.

Traffic lights have some opportunity to improve. First, advance turn or protected turn will be a solid green, not flashing green, like the right turn arrow is now. Next, amber and red arrows are used instead of the yellow and red circles plus either a no turn on red or a left turn signal sign. If they are arrows, there is no mistaking the meaning, and the signs aren't needed. It leaves it very uncluttered. The signals governing the through traffic uses an upwards arrow, to be very clear about it. Note this only applies if the oncoming left turns are protected prohibited. If you are making a turn where you don't go roughly 90 degrees in either direction, like a continuous flow intersection, then an angled arrow will be used to govern the turn. The right turn on red will be prohibited except to cyclists and mopeds, they will be allowed to make a right on red after yielding. It also gives them an extra advantage over motor traffic. Bus signals are implemented, to govern buses wherever they have their own lanes, same with LRT, like in Downtown Calgary, using white bars.

Flashing red and yellow arrows are added to the mix, flashing red means stop before making a turn, then yield to conflicting traffic, and flashing amber means yield to conflicting traffic, then turn. These will be uncommon, but could be an option in limited cases. In case the traffic lights fail or there isn't enough traffic to justify having them on the separate signals for different directions mode, there will be yield signs, and a new priority road sign (a yellow diamond with a white background) that indicates you have the right of way, to govern the traffic. The lights if they still work will flash, usually amber, and if you face the yield sign, it is like a 2 way yield, if you don't see the yield sign you see a priority road indication, you have the right of way, sometimes if traffic can't be seen well enough, a stop sign might also be used and flashing red will be shown to that direction. Like a two way stop. Countdown timers are added in the yellow head of the signal, so you know when the lights change, useful for reducing frustration. And finally, traffic lights will now be on the nearside of the intersection, with the stop line set back a few meters so you can still see the light.

All of these improvements should lead to a more concise system of signage and traffic lights and reduce the clutter, and make the road more self explanatory. Let's put pressure on those responsible for signs and signals where you live to live up to this system.

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