Standing at the corner of Burrard and Pacific, 5 pm on Monday, watching the traffic flows.  Something seems familiar.

The traffic is moving.  Cars do back up on red lights, but most of the backlog dissipates on the green.  Even the worst bottleneck, where cars line up on Pacific west of Burrard, seems to be working itself out.  Enough merging vehicles get though the free right between onflows from other directions.  The whole intersection functions rather like clockwork.

The way the signals are cutting up the traffic into platoons, merging them together into a southbound flow, like packets on the Internet – it’s like something I’ve seen before.

And then I remember where.

Georgia from Laguna (4)

At Denman and Georgia, the same thing.  Traffic westbound on Georgia and Pender Streets is cut up into platoons by the upstream signals and then merged with flows from Denman Street to be fed onto the Causeway.  The eastbound flow from the Causeway  is cut up into platoons before being fed onto the grid by the signal at Denman and Georgia (pictured above). 

Outside of rush-hours, it’s like clockwork.   And when demand overwhelms the intersections, vehicles are lined up in orderly rows, waiting to be processed. 

Vancouver uses intersection signals as meters on arterials that lead into the core, rather like a switching yard, to regulate the traffic flows on and off the downtown peninsula – at Georgia and Denman,  Terminal and Main, and now at Burrard and Pacific. 

They work  better in some ways than freeways which disgorge an uncontrolled flow of traffic onto surface streets.  But these switching points have explicitly limited capacity.  And Motordom doesn’t allow for limits on the number of vehicles a city is expected to accommodate. 

Hence the sense that these intersections are congestion problems, to be solved with more capacity (or at least not reduced capacity), rather than necessary regulators of a system that seems to work rather well once its limits are recognized.    Like clockwork.


  1. It doesn’t awlays work that perfectly. When I used to live in North Vancouver and commute across the water there were often days when Georgia would be backed up the entire way from Denman to Granville. That’s not always the case, but when it is it can be such a pain.

  2. One improvement I might suggest for the filtering of cars through the intersection:
    For the left turn lanes from westbound Pacific to southbound Burrard, currently the middle left-turn lane forms from the curb lane (and there is a solid white line separating the two left turn lanes, so you cannot legally go straight into the middle left turn lane from the left lane – and drivers DO obey that solid white line). Hardly anyone turning left is in the curb lane (at least not at rush hour) because that lane is clogged (longer line-up) with cars headed to the West End. I have often seen that middle left turn lane completely empty on the left turn signal, when a couple of cars could make it through on that cycle.
    If both of the left turn lanes formed from the left westbound lane, there would probably be more throughput on the left turns.

  3. Ron C., you should send that suggestion to the City, probably to the Engineering department, but also to Cycling and maybe the councillors/mayor as well.

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