I’m really going out on a limb on this one. I’ve said some unpopular things in the past, but this might be the one that ends my blog, and has me run out of town on the end of a burning pitchfork. Against the advice of all whom I respect and trust, I am just going to come right out and say this:
The intersection at the north foot of the Queensborough Bridge functions as well as possible, and could not possibly work better.
I know what you are saying now. It is a fiasco! The last fix was good money thrown against bad! A perfect example of how engineers have no idea what they are doing! An epic boondoggle that has ruined our City for a generation! The cause of the region’s (if not the world’s) worst traffic quagmire!
I suggest this well-worn trope is not true. I do not do this lightly, because I know it is a sore point for people stuck in the queue down 20th every morning, or the people stuck in the Sixth Ave access awaiting light cycles that seem red for 5 minutes and green just long enough to let three cars through, or the people lining up in the right lane on Stewardson behind the endless line of container trucks inching towards the bridge, or even the people scooting up the left lane on Stewardson hoping that one of those trucks will open just the barest fraction of a gap they can scoot into after passing a kilometre of dupes lollygagging around in the right lane.
I commute across the Queensborough Bridge, often by car. I have been all of those people. I not only sympathize with their plight, I empathize with it. I have lived it. I just don’t agree with them that the intersection where Sixth Ave, 20th Street and Stewardson Way all come together is the problem. Or maybe I should say there is no way to change that intersection that will fix the problem.
First, the quick-and-dirty history of the Queensborough Bridge. It was originally built not as part of a freeway system, but to provide community access to the Queensborough neighbourhood back in the late 1950s. Like every other bridge of the era, the Queensborough’s construction was financed and paid by tolls. By the standards of the time, and considering it was connected to local roads at each end, the four narrow lanes and 1.2m sidewalk (all without separation barriers) were appropriate and did the job.
In the mid-1980s, the building of the Alex Fraser Bridge and the East-West Connector suddenly attached the Queensborough to a couple of bustling new freeways, so the Ministry of Transportation took over the bridge and significantly re-built the southern approach. With the SkyTrain arriving around the same time (resulting in re-configuration of Stewardson Way) and the opening of the new Marine Way (a semi-freeway that move Marine Drive traffic down into ALR lands in south Burnaby), the Queensborough was gradually morphed into dealing with “freeway” traffic loads, for which it was clearly not designed. The traffic load was mitigated somewhat by the traffic lights at Howes Street, on Marine Drive to the west of the bridge, and at the foot of 20th, but as traffic increased concomitant with the new highway capacity to the south, the queues on Stewardson and 20th became endemic (in both senses of the word).
Starting in 2003, there was a major re-design of the bridge approaches at both ends. On Howes, an overpass/exchange removed the last traffic light on Highway 91 (until the notorious 72nd Ave compromise), and on the north end, the not-to-standard loop on the east side of the bridge was replaced by a just-meeting-standards loop on the west side. There were also major re-configuring of the pedestrian access (an overpass to 22nd Street, re-opening of the east side sidewalk, hanging the sidewalk off the side to increase traffic lane widths and allow protective barriers be installed). It is, however, the re-configuration on the North abutment that causes the most consternation.
But what changed in that re-configuration?
|BEFORE – click to zoom in.|
Before the change, there was exactly one lane entering the bridge from the east (combining the traffic from Stewardson Way, 20th St. and Sixth Ave.) and one from the West (off of Marine Way). The merge from the east was kind of sketchy, as through-traffic (that bypassing the bridge) from Stewardson and Sixth entered in the left lane and had to get to the right while mixing with vehicles entering from the right who are trying to get left. At the same time, they are entering a low-radius curve, and merging with traffic coming around the loop from the right.
Rather fortuitously, the orthophoto on Google Maps caught one of the big safety issues with the old configuration:
Look at the truck-trailer combo on the curve, and how the geometry of the curve makes it difficult for her to maintain her lane. With cars on both sides, people still completing merges, and the blindness of the turn for anyone in a car- this was not an optimal setup.
In the new set-up, the curve was made larger-radius, and all of the turning happens where it is a single lane, significantly increasing safety and reliability. The merges take place well before the curve, and the two sets of merges are separated by space, simplifying action for drivers. There are also barriers between the curved lanes, removing the risk of head-on impacts. There is no doubt this is a safer configuration for drivers.
But note the number of lanes entering the bridge. There is exactly one lane entering the bridge from the east (combining the traffic from Stewardson Way, 20th St. and Sixth Ave.) and one from the West (off of Marine Way). Exactly as it was before. The only difference is that the merges start further back and are more controlled.
I contend that any alleged increase in traffic back-ups on Stewardson, 20th and Sixth are not caused by the lights and re-configuration, but by all three lanes trying to fit into one lane on the bridge- a condition that existed before the changes and simply cannot be fixed without building a bigger bridge.
“But, But, it is worse now! Look at all the cars! It was never like this!”
That may be true, there may be longer lines and more vehicles now, but that has little to do with the most recent intersection changes. The proof is that the pinch point is not at the intersection or the lights, it is at the merge where everyone is trying to enter the bridge. The light cycles on Sixth seem short, but rarely does it turn yellow when there is room enough to run the intersection. The same with 20th. There is always a line-up of vehicles west of the lights, and the Stewardson Traffic is unaffected by the intersection, but is still congested.
|Where the real traffic back-up is.|
The reality of the matter is that there is no way to stream more cars onto the 4-lane Queensborough Bridge. During morning and evening rush, it is at capacity. Removal of the traffic lights at 20th and Sixth will have very little effect on the queues on those roads.
This is something to keep in mind when people talk about changes on Stewardson, Front Street, or Royal Ave that are designed to “get the traffic moving”. How much will we spend to make this pinch point worse?
Ultimately, the situation on the Queensborough was improved – by allowing queue-jumping by transit buses and making the cycling and pedestrian infrastructure safer- both giving people a better alternative than sitting in traffic and getting steamed over that jerk who scooted up the open left lane and just dove in front of the container truck you have been patiently following in right for the last 10 minutes…