Many Americans are planning to visit Canada this year. For some, it’ll be their first visit to their northern neighbour. If you’re planning to drive up to Vancouver, you may curious about the driving regulations and whether there are any major differences between driving in the USA and driving in Canada.
Driving in Canada is like driving in the USA. But also like the USA, driving rules and regulations are not a country-wide phenomenon; in Canada, they vary from one province to the next. In the province of British Columbia where Vancouver is located, there are certain things you should know, and other driving tips that are specific to Vancouver. To help set expectations, I put together this basic overview to help inform Americans planning their first driving trip to Canada’s third-largest city.
Canada uses the metric system
Speeds, weights, volumes, and distances are measured differently than in the USA.
- Speeds are posted in kilometers per hour (km/h).
- Distances are measured in kilometers (km) and meters (m).
- Heights (ex: elevation) are measured in meters (m).
- Gas prices are in (Canadian) cents per litre (and gas is taxed heavily in Vancouver). It costs me around $45 to fill up my Honda Civic sedan in Vancouver these days, though prices fluctuate. That’s about $35 in US dollars at today’s exchange rate.
Despite this, Canadians still talk about their body weight and height in feet, inches, and pounds. But that’s another topic!
Prices are in Canadian dollars
In short, when in Canada, use the Canadian dollar. It’s as simple as that.
- All prices are quoted in Canadian dollars ($).
- Parking meters and pay stations only accept Canadian coins, though many accept credit cards.
- Gas stations will accept credit cards, debit cards, and Canadian cash.
- Nobody pays with American dollars, though most businesses will accept them as a courtesy to the few American tourists who insist, but the change is always given in Canadian dollars.
- American coins are treated like Canadian coins and will be accepted at Canadian value.
- If you need to get Canadian dollars for cash expenses, use an ATM while in Canada. It’ll withdraw Canadian dollars from your American bank account and will automatically factor in the exchange.
parking is expensive
If there’s one thing I’ve observed, it’s that Americans value access to free, easy parking when they travel. Set your expectations accordingly before driving in Vancouver.
- Street parking is metered from 9am-10pm, 7 days a week, even on weekends and holidays.
- At rush hour, a quarter (25 cents) may give you 7 minutes of parking. A loonie ($1 coin) may get you 20 minutes of parking.
- You can pay for street meters in Vancouver using the PayByPhone app.
- Street meters usually have time limits of 2-3 hours.
- Free parking in the city is often limited to 2-3 hours. Pay attention to street signs.
- Parking garages are also called “parkades” in Vancouver and there are many of them all over the city, such as Easy Park and Impark.
- Few hotels in Vancouver offer free parking. Expect to pay $30+ per night to park your car.
There are no freeways in vancouver
Despite the lack of freeways, traffic still flows. But be patient.
- The City of Vancouver prohibits freeway infrastructure within city limits. For example, driving up from Washington, Hwy 99 turns into Oak Street when it enters Vancouver.
- In Vancouver, you will be driving along regular city roads with frequent traffic lights and 50 km/h speed limits.
REST AREAS ARE RARE
Rest areas are common along USA interstates, but you won’t find them in Metro Vancouver.
- The closest rest area to Vancouver is 52 km (32 miles) east along Hwy 1 in Abbotsford.
- Restrooms are called washrooms here. Provincial and municipal parks will often have public washroom facilities.
- Most locals use the local gas station, Starbucks, or Tim Hortons if they need to go.
- If you’re planning a road trip outside of Vancouver, here is a map of BC’s rest areas.
road signage is not the best
Compared to road signage I’ve observed in the USA, road signage around Vancouver is inconsistent, if it exists at all.
- Don’t rely entirely on signs to navigate your way to Vancouver or throughout the city.
- Street names are well-marked, but exit signs and directional signs often show up last minute.
- Map out your routes ahead of time using Google Maps or a paper road map.
it’s illegal to do a u-turn at an intersection
Here’s a surefire way to get yourself an unsuspecting ticket in BC.
- It’s illegal to do a U-turn at an intersection with a traffic light in BC unless otherwise specified.
- It’s also illegal to do a U-turn in BC if it interferes with other traffic.
- It’s illegal to do a U-turn in a business district, except at an intersection where there is no traffic light. Hmm.
- It’s illegal to do a U-turn in BC on a curve or near the crest of a hill.
drive through the blinking green lights
Here’s something that will be new to you: blinking green traffic lights.
- Blinking green lights exist at pedestrian-controlled intersections all over Vancouver.
- Drive cautiously through a blinking green light as you would a regular solid green light.
- Only when a pedestrian presses the crosswalk button does the green light stop blinking. It’ll then turn amber, and then red, allowing the pedestrian to cross. Then it turns back to a perpetually blinking green light until the next pedestrian comes along to trigger the crosswalk.
Don’t use your cell phone while driving
It’s illegal to use your cell phone while driving in BC, and the penalties for doing so are getting steeper all the time.
- It’s illegal to drive while using (talking, texting, using apps, etc.) your cell phone in BC.
- The fine for driving while distracted is now $368.
- You can use your cell phone if you’re legally parked, but not if you’re stopped at a red light.
- The official details about “Distractions While Driving” can be found here.
be aware of bike lanes
In its quest to be the world’s greenest city, Vancouver has ambitiously built protected bike lane infrastructure all throughout the city.
- Don’t drive in the bike lanes.
- Be mindful of cyclists when turning, parking, and opening your car door.
- Bike lanes run parallel to traffic lanes. Some are divided by paint while some are divided by concrete barriers.
- Bike lanes are sometimes located between traffic lanes and street parking, so be extra careful.
- Green paint at an intersection means the presence of a designated bike lane.
- Some intersections have designated bike traffic lights.
- You can learn more about Vancouver’s protected bike lanes here.
check your tires before driving to Whistler
You don’t need a special car to drive to Whistler from Vancouver, but if you’re driving in the winter months, you are legally required to have specific tires.
- Between October 1 and March 31, you are legally required to have “Mud and Snow” (M+S) tires or snow tires on your car if you want to drive Hwy 99 between Vancouver and Whistler.
- This is a new law as of 2014 and I’d argue that most locals in Vancouver aren’t fully aware of it.
- The official rules about what tires are needed on what BC highways can be found here.
other Vancouver driving observations
- Drivers in Vancouver seem to ignore the “slower traffic stays right” or “pass on the left” custom.
- Drivers in Vancouver typically drive 10 km/h faster than the maximum speed limit even though. technically they shouldn’t. And even then, you may find the occasional driver tailgating you if you’re not going faster than that.
- Legal blood alcohol level is 0.05 in BC. Don’t drink and drive.
- Some right lanes on busy Vancouver streets (ex: Georgia Street) are designated for buses during rush hour.
- You must legally yield to buses turning into your lane.
- There are a lot of “No left turns” at rush hour in downtown Vancouver (ex: Georgia Street).
- There are even “No right turns” in downtown Vancouver (ex: Dunsmuir Street).
- Downtown Vancouver has a lot of pedestrians on its sidewalks. Drive extremely cautiously, especially when pulling in and out of parking lots and alleys.
- Expect a lot of jaywalkers if you’re driving along Commercial Drive.
- Advanced left turn arrows are inconsistent at intersections if they exist at all.
- Granville Street between Nelson and Hastings is only open to buses and taxis, not cars.
- Expect a lot of jaywalkers along East Hastings and around the Downtown Eastside. East Hastings. between Abbott and Jackson has a 30km/h speed limit in place to address this.
- Sometimes it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to leave the car parked and simply walk, cycle, or use public transit to get around Vancouver.
Did I miss something? Is there something else that should be added to my list? Leave it in a comment below.