The video embedded below was produced by Nick Falbo for a design competition at George Mason University. Mr. Falbo is now employed at Alta Planning and Design, a leading design firm which promotes and designs special bicycling infrastructure.
This is an impressive example of video art, but the video image and narration are far from telling a complete or unbiased story about the design. This article is an attempt to counterbalance Mr. Falbo’s claims.
The design is an attempt at a US version of one type of Dutch intersection. The Dutch traffic control devices (signs, signals and markings) have been replaced by US versions.
The video starts with an animation showing motorists and bicyclists all tailgating each other — unrealistic and fear-provoking. Conventional bike lanes and shared-lane markings are shown, and dismissed out of hand.
The accompanying narration says “sharing busy traffic lanes with cars is absolutely unacceptable” and “we know that protected bike lanes are the key to getting the average person to consider traveling by bike.” Like most absolute statements, these are inaccurate. The royal “we” invites the comment, “who, me too?” What other keys are we leaving off the keychain? Other infrastructure treatments? Decent weather, reasonable distances, secure parking, education, strict driver licensing and enforcement?
The video shows an intersection converted to the proposed design, losing right-turn lanes and so, traffic capacity — but that is never mentioned.
“Protected bike lanes” sounds inviting, but that’s inaccurate too: these are paths, not lanes. In traffic engineering, the word “protected” does not mean “bicyclists have a crossbike, the way pedestrians have a crosswalk.” It means that conflicting traffic movements are separated in time by traffic signals. Contrary to the title of the video, then, this is a protected intersection only if special signal phases prohibit motorists from crossing bicyclists’ line of travel — increasing delay. Except with these options, motorists must yield to bicyclists after turning the corner.
Pulling the bikeway away from the street so motorists must turn before crossing, as shown, does make it easier for motorists to see and yield to bicyclists overtaking on the right. That’s important because the design excludes normal merging before reaching the intersection: bicyclists and motorists must instead cross paths in the intersection. Crossbikes are, however, indicated feebly in the video only with dashed border lines, while the crosswalks behind them are indicated with bold zebra stripes. If more than one motor vehicle is yielding to a bicyclist, then all others behind have to wait.
The claim in the narration that “setback crossings provide the space and time for everyone to react to potential conflicts” is inaccurate. Motorists approach bicyclists from behind and to the left, so the bicyclists must either take it on faith that motorists will yield, or crane their necks and be prepared to stop.
Waiting space for bicyclists is limited. Walking becomes more challenging because pedestrians must cross the bikeway, then the street.
This video, its precursors and successors have also been discussed at length on Mark Wagenbuur’s BicycleDutch blog. Please read his blog post, and my response below.
Wagenbuur endorses Falbo’s design, though he criticizes Falbo’s explanation of some of its features, and quotes Dutch traffic engineer Dick van Veen about the waiting area for right turns: “It is right before the crossing place for people walking and cycling, but it is at the same time out-of-the-way from straight going motor traffic.” — a more positive interpretation of my own observation that if more than one car — or a long truck or bus — is waiting to turn right, then all traffic behind must wait.
Wagenbuur also goes on to criticize problems with various copycat versions of the Dutch design, and to point out alternatives. I agree with most of them but disagree with one claim, that a roundabout takes up less room than a conventional intersection. You might notice in the “before” overhead view in Wagenhuur’s blog post that one of the streets has a wide, landscaped median and the other appears to be located in a linear park. The extra space is taken up by bikeways which are set far back from the streets. The larger context of the intersection is visible here in Google Maps (before reconstruction, as still posted in June, 2014) and on Bing Maps (following reconstruction).
To sum up, Falbo’s video makes inaccurate claims, and also, the proposed design affects traffic capacity, delay, space requirements and safety in ways which he dismisses or ignores. Designs like this are buildable and politically feasible at some intersections in the Netherlands, where the political constituency for bikeways is strong, driver licensing and enforcement are very strict, motorists expect to yield to bicyclists on their right, and crossbikes are indicated with shark-tooth yield markings. To promote a design like this in the USA without considering the downsides and without those other criteria being met is to put the cart before the horse — to recruit citizens into an attempt to to force culture change through infrastructure change — but also to ignore many potential infrastructure alternatives such as Wagenbuur’s blog also discusses, ranging from creating a bypass for through motor traffic and reducing speed limits on bypassed streets, to grade separations, to identification of another quieter parallel street which would make a great neighborhood greenway.