Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 24, 2014

Starts and Stops, mostly stops

I’m commenting on the “Starts and Stops” article which appeared in the Boston Globe on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

That’s behind a paywall. You may need to log in as a Globe subscriber to see it. (I’m one, but if I recall correctly, there’s a limited number of views till the paywall descends). You can also log in from home in the Boston area using a library card number.

The Globe article describes a bicycle-specific traffic signal on Western Avenue and makes the claim:

The Western Avenue signal is timed so that cyclists get a green light a few moments before their vehicular counterparts headed toward Memorial Drive; that way, cyclists have several seconds of a head start to get out ahead of the cars and become more visible to motorists, especially motorists turning right who may not think to look for cyclists approaching on their right side.

That only works if bicyclists happen to be waiting when the light changes. Otherwise, according to the description in the article, there is a right-hook conflict, with motor vehicles turning right across the path of bicyclists approaching in their right rear blindspot. I haven’t checked out the installation yet; I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more detail.

The article goes on to say:

Additionally, signals like this one address one of the biggest gripes motorists have with bike riders: that they’re constantly running red lights. For cyclists, there can be no confusion whether they’re expected to stop at a red light when that light shows a little bicycle. Many engineers believe that when cyclists are assured that a traffic light is targeted at them and designed to protect their safety, they’re much more likely to wait for their rightful turn to proceed through the intersection.

Here’s the photo which the Globe posted with the article.

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

Wishful thinking. Normal traffic lights also apply to bicyclists. Do we need our own very special, and eexpensive, signal just so we will feel pampered? The traffic light shown in the photo, by the way, isn’t at Memorial Drive. It is at Putnam Avenue, a block earlier. Because the photo doesn’t show the installation which the article describes, I’m not entirely clear about the details.

It was previously possible for bicyclists to approach Memorial Drive in the through lane and enter on the normal green light — or sensibly, though in violation of the specifics of traffic law, at the left side of a right-turn lane lane, and also enter on the normal green. Now, bicyclists and right-turning motorists are, at least as described in the article, forced into a right-hook conflict.

Please, who are the unattributed “many engineers”? Opportunistic bicyclists and pedestrians, motorists too — commit traffic-signal violations because they get annoyed with waiting. Compliance improves if a traffic-light system is designed to minimize waiting time. This one doesn’t, and right-hook conflicts don’t protect anyone’s safety.

I am about to attend the summer meeting of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), where I sit on its Bicycle Technical Committee. Two proposals currently before the Committee, in experimental status, are special bicycle traffic signals, and right-turn lanes with a bicycle lane inside their left side. I would have hoped that Cambridge had submitted a formal Request to Experiment from Cambridge for either of these proposals — which would add to the knowledge base, and confer immunity from legal liability — but I’ve seen none. I should have. The Federal Highway Administration calls on the NCUTCD to review them.

Oh, and also — in the Globe’s photo, it looks as though a car is sitting in the bikeway.

More to come.




  1. Thanks for your comments. The article says “towards Memorial drive” and so I believe they are indicating the direction you would be traveling on Western Ave. to encounter this light at Putnam, rather than indicating the intersection of Western Ave and Mem. drive. I agree that this over-engineering and pampering is not terribly helpful and creates other conflicts. Also, because these kind of special lights and cycle tracks are (and for a long time will remain) rare in Cambridge, they aren’t terribly helpful to most bicycle riders as most of the time we just have to duke it out with traffic and parallel parkers anyway.

    Regarding the specific point on running red lights, as a sometimes motorist, bicyclist and pedestrian, I don’t see any problem with bicyclists safely running red lights, and I think the right solution actually is to change the law to allow them to do so. This is already the case in parts of Europe, and makes perfect sense, since a bicycle running the light is much less of a safety hazard than a car doing so. Obviously if they do it incorrectly and or get into an accident they should be fined. Incorrectly obviously includes running the light without yielding to cross traffic and crossing pedestrians. It’s a similar situation to the way cars have to make left turns on green in most of Cambridge. Allowing bikes to run the light creates all the same advantages as the “special bicycle light” without the infrastructure costs, additional complexity and confusion, etc. and doesn’t actually change anything safety wise since many bicyclists already routinely do it anyway. By making it legal and specifying the correct way to do it, it creates an opportunity to train bicyclists to do it safely and still allows the police to reprimand or ticket them when they don’t do it properly.

    Lastly, it is perfectly legal for a bicycle to occupy the left, middle or right hand side of any car lane as bicycles have full access to the road per state law. Bicyclists who wish to avoid the right hook conflict may therefore enter the traffic lane to pass a right-turning car on the left side of that car. In fact motorists do this all the time, so why would it be illegal for bikes? In addition to bike lanes, cycle tracks and other modifications we make to our roads, I am a strong proponent of putting “bicycle chevrons” in all the major road lanes also (currently this is done only in lieu of bike lanes, e.g. on parts of Broadway), giving motorists clear indication that bike lanes and cycle tracks notwithstanding, they may find bicycles in their lanes and they need to afford them the proper space and consideration so that everybody can arrive safely.

    Comment by Quinton Zondervan — June 24, 2014 @ 11:55 am

  2. John, did you mean right turn lanes with a bicycle lane within their RIGHT side? I hope the NCUTCD will stick with their current design requirement.
    I disagree with Quinton on allowing cyclists to run red lights. Maybe allow right turns on red where motorists are prohibited, but otherwise no. Are pedestrians permitted to walk red lights in Europe? Who would be at fault if a cyclist was hit running a red light?

    Comment by Patricia kovacs — June 25, 2014 @ 7:30 am

  3. Patricia — I meant at the left side of a right-turn lane, so as not to be in a right-hook location. This is to treat the right-turn lane as a dual-destination lane (right-turn and through travel) for bicyclists. At Memorial Drive, there is a receiving lane on the bridge following the intersection. That is important so that bicyclists aren’t merging into the next lane inside the intersection.

    I agree with you about running red lights. As I said in the post, we should be supporting the installation of improved traffic-signal controllers and vehicle detectors so that traffic lights are not red unnecessarily (when there is not conflicting traffic). But even failing that, compliance with traffic signals is important not only to avoid potentially dangerous mistakes, but also to get and deserve respect as road users.

    Comment by jsallen — June 27, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

  4. Quinton — as I said in my reply to Patricia Kovacs, the better solution to the problem of running red lights is not to make it legal, but better signal control so they don’t waste people’s time when there is no conflicting traffic. I agree with you about bicyclists’ right to use the roadway, but please then let’s not use the term “car lanes.” They are general travel lanes. Also remember that paint costs money, People — both bicyclists and motorists — shouldn’t need special markings to inform them of the traffic law. The shared-lane markings are best reserved for special situations where a line of travel needs to be highlighted.

    Comment by jsallen — July 1, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

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