Arlington Center westbound — avoiding the right hook

The Town of Arlington, Massachusetts has proposed changes to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue with Mystic Street/Pleasant Street (really one street, which changes name at the intersection).

I’ve posted a video of a bicycle ride I took through Arlington Center, here:

The ride is easy, and especially because the left turn for Swan Place can only be made when traffic isn’t approaching from the east on Massachusetts Avenue anyway. So, I simply turned into the through lane and kept going. If the leftmost through lane is the only one open, as in my video, it’s an easy merge into the next lane, because the traffic will only be just starting up at the traffic light, at the same time a bicyclist has to merge.

Why Do They shoot Themselves in the Foot?

Graphic from CommuteOrlando site

Graphic from CommuteOrlando site

So, why do other bicyclists in the video shoot themselves in the foot, threading their way along in the narrow space at the right side of the right turn lane — slow, and complicated — and potentially far worse, risking getting themselves right-hooked on the corner?

Just as a refresher about the right hook, CommuteOrlando in Florida has the page, What Bicyclists Need to know About Trucks, including the graphic at the right.

The advice is clear and simple: don’t overtake into the danger zone next to a truck (or a car, or a bus…). The two drawings below convey the same message. You may have seen them already.

Truck blind spots Right hook riskJust in case you might discount the Orlando advice as Not From Here, the drawings below are copied from pages 100 and 101 of the Massachusetts Driver’s Manual (pages 22 and 23 in the PDF of Chapter 4).

All the people in control of the bicycles in my video are grown-ups. All of them will have had many years of experience in traffic, in motor vehicles. Almost certainly, most of them hold driver’s licenses. So, why should they be intentionally and blatantly doing exactly what the Driver’s Manual warns against? These bicyclists are violating the most fundamental principles of traffic safety, just because they happen to be riding bicycles.

To make a complicated explanation simple, it’s because they have been taught to be afraid of traffic coming from behind them, and to ignore other risks — even where those are serious and the risk of traffic from behind is very small. I’m reminded of a saying by the late, great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman:

Never treat anyone in the public sphere like an idiot. If you treat him like an idiot, he will act like an idiot.

But, that’s another discussion. Let’s move on. To ride as I did and avoid the right hook:

  • Check for traffic, and turn right from the path onto Swan Place.
  • Turn left from the middle of the right lane on Swan place into the closest open lane on Mass. Ave.
  • If necessary, merge right into the rightmost through lane. This is easy because traffic will be waiting at the traffic light ahead, and just starting up as you need to merge.
  • Continue across Mystic Street and either keep going straight on Mass. Ave., or turn right at the far side of the intersection to go to the path.

Arlington Center, Massachusetts

Arlington Center, Massachusetts

The assumptions behind this drawing are clear enough: bicyclists are witless wonders, capable of only following a green, painted path — but on the other hand, capable of following it where it abruptly shifts right and left and goes around sharp corners. Motorists are 100% cooperative and attentive, and also have the superhuman ability to see bicyclists outside the range of their rear-view mirrors. We can forget everything we know about safety at intersections: painting the pavement green solves all problems. We can ignore the traffic law which requires right turns to be made from the right edge of the roadway.

Specifics: Westbound

Now, as to specifics, we start again at Swan Place, at the lower right. Here is what the proposed design would have bicyclists do.

  • Bicyclists turn right onto Swan Place. Motorists backing out of the new, proposed parking spaces on the west side of Swan Place will back out into the path of the bicyclists.
  • There is a shared-lane marking before the intersection. Good enough — bicyclists need to ride in the middle of the narrow lane, that’s the appropriate lane position to prepare a left turn, and that’s easy enough on this lightly-traveled street, BUT then the bike lane  to cross Massachusetts Avenue is at the right side of the intersection! Bicyclists are being instructed to bear right, as if they are going to turn right onto Mass. Ave., and then abruptly swerve left. A bicyclist following this designated route needs to be looking back to the left for motorists approaching on Mass. Ave. and back to the right for motorists turning right from Swan Place. The bicyclist’s having first turned right makes it look to motorists as if he or she intends to turn right onto Mass. Ave., risking motorist mistakes and crashes. Bicyclists should instead simply continue across Mass Ave. in line with the shared lane marking. Then they only have to look left and right for traffic. With the traffic light proposed for the intersection, the way will probably be clear on a green light, though it’s best to look anyway. Or is that too simple, and too safe?
  • Bicyclists are next instructed to continue straight across all the lanes of Mass. Ave, to the bike lane on the other side, and swerve sharply left to where the bike lane continues in the door zone of parked cars. The driver of a parked car checking whether the door would strike a bicyclist must look back at the right moment to see that a bicyclist has turned left and is headed for the door. This is worse because the corner in the bike lane is too sharp for bicyclists to negotiate, and they will cut the corner.
  • Here, the bike lane also is directly behind vehicles waiting in the right turn lane.  This requires motorists preparing to turn right to look in their right-hand rear view mirrors at just the right time, or else miss seeing the bicyclist.
  • Where a right turn lane follows the parking spaces, the bike lane is striped to its right, leading bicyclists into a “coffin corner” where they can collide with motor vehicles, and can be swept under the rear wheels of turning trucks and buses.
  • On the corner,  the bike lane is interrupted. It resumes several feet to the right, around the corner. To reach it, the bicyclist again turns right to go straight. But here, there are separate signal phases for right-turning traffic, through traffic and the crosswalk. Which traffic signal is the bicyclist supposed to obey? A bicyclist turning right on the right-turn signal will immediately be in conflict with right-turning motor traffic if swerving left to cross Mystic Avenue. There is no space to wait before swerving left, so bicyclists will pile up on the corner when bicycle traffic is heavy — or more likely, will ignore the bike lane across Mystic Street and continue straight across, still risking the right hook. Is a bicyclist at the right side of the right turn lane permitted to go straight across on the pedestrian signal? on the through phase? Are motorists allowed to turn right on the through  phase? Who knows?
  • On reaching the far side of Mystic Street, a bicyclist has to take care, passing through the crowd of pedestrians waiting, and walking in multiple directions, but may then turn right and head for the path. On the other hand, a bicyclist continuing on Mass. Ave. has to go around another corner. It is very much simpler, faster and safer, as my video shows, to continue straight through on the road.

Now, granted, some — many — of the bicyclists using the Minuteman are children and novices, who would be more comfortable crossing Mystic Street in the crosswalk. BUT the design doesn’t offer any convenient way to get from the street to the crosswalk, even though the sidewalk becomes much wider as it approaches Mystic Street. There is also no ramp down to the bike lane across Mystic Street — there is only a narrow ramp down to the far side of the crosswalk. At the far side of Mystic Street, there is also only a ramp from the crosswalk, none from the bike lane.

Also: how are bicyclists supposed to turn left from Mass. Ave. onto Pleasant Street? They may legally use the left turn lane, driving their bicycles — but if they follow the bike lanes, they will have all of the problems described above and also have to wait for the traffic signal to change once more.

Specifics: Eastbound

I have some problems with the other direction of travel as well.

  • Bicyclists are expected to make the left turn in two steps, meaning that they will have to wait in a small two-way left-turn area. This is too small to hold more than two or three bicyclists at once. The extra wait produces delay.
  • Parking spaces have been removed from Mass. Ave, which is good — no door zone on this side.
  • After the driveway to the parking lot before Swan Place, there is a path to Swan Place, but the plan gives no indication how bicyclists are supposed to reach the path from Mass. Ave.
  • Bicyclists who turn right from Mass. Ave. to Swan Place (or who turn left from Mass. Ave. westbound) ride directly into the path of cars backing out of the right-angle parking spaces on Swan Place.

Some Alternatives

What would I like to see instead?

  • Bicyclists directed straight across from the shared-lane marking on Swan Place, perhaps with dashed lines leading into the intersection.
  • Timing the new traffic signal at Swan Place to clear the westbound lanes of Mass. Ave. before bicyclists get the green light to turn left from Swan Place.
  • Shared-lane markings in the westbound through lanes leading to the intersection with Mystic Street.
  • Eliminate the three parking spaces which create the door-zone bike lane, so there can be a safe bike lane leading to the wide sidewalk on the north side of Mass. Ave.
  • A ramp leading to the wide sidewalk, with a designated part of the sidewalk’s width for bicyclists. This should cross over to the side of the sidewalk away from the street, so bicyclists aren’t crossing through a crowd of waiting pedestrians on the corner.
  • A wide ramp leading down to the crosswalk/bike lane on Mystic Street.
  • That bike lane should be on the side of the crosswalk away from Mass. Ave., so bicyclists again don’t have to pass through the crowd of pedestrians waiting on the corner.
  • A ramp up from that bike lane on the west side of Mystic Street.
  • A signal-protected diagonal crossing so bicyclists headed eastbound can cross the intersection in one step.
  • Forget about the wandering path from Mass. Ave. to Swan Place, so bicyclists just turn into Swan place to get back to the Minuteman headed east.
  • Or as much as I dislike most so-called “cycle tracks”, I’d even go for a two-way path starting at Swan Place opposite the bikeway portal and continuing to Mystic Street on the south side of Mass. Ave., but only if there were no driveways across it, and in connection with a signal-protected diagonal crossing at Mystic Street.
  • Or instead a two-way path in that wide sidewalk area  on the north side of Mass. Ave. all the way from Swan Place to Mystic Street. This would require two street crossings but would not require an additional signal phase at Mystic Street.
  • Find somewhere else nearby to put the few parking spaces that have been eliminated. There’s got to be a better way somehow. Looking at the satellite view, there’s lot of parking in the area and many spaces are empty.

In the long-run, what is really needed here to maintain the quality of the Minuteman is a grade separation for the path. Yes, that’s expensive. But also in the long run, it would pay off in reduced delay and danger for path users, and for everyone traveling through the intersection.

Also see Adam Auster’s post about this project, which covers political issues, and the project’s history.

And I’ve written elsewhere about right hook fatalities and how to avoid becoming one.