Tag Archives: crash

About the bicycle radar reflector Kickstarter campaign

This is commentary about a Kickstarter campaign for a radar retroreflector integrated into a bicycle taillight assembly.

An image from the Web site:

Image from Ilumaware Web site

Image from Ilumaware Web site



One nice thing I can say about the product is that it is quite inexpensive, so I’ll say that first. The reason is that this is not a high-tech product. This is a low-tech component of a system whose high-tech component is in cars.

Retroreflectors work by concentrating light (or in the case of a radar reflector, radar signals) back toward the source. The product is a single cube-corner retroreflector. Optical retroreflectors are the insect’s eye version, with multiple smaller reflective elements, so they work at the much shorter wavelengths of visible light. The technology is described on another Web page.

Retroreflectors have been around for a long time, but the the product Web site repeatedly uses the term “OTR technology”, without ever spelling out the meaning of the acronym . I couldn’t find a definition anywhere online, either. This term makes the product appear more high-tech than it is. Indeed, the site claims:

Stealth techniques use radar reflection to make an object less visible and/or “invisible” to radar. We have reverse engineered this technique into a product used by a cyclist to make you more visible to a car. This is a revolutionary application of radar technology.

Reverse engineering is correctly defined as analysis of an undocumented product to develop specifications for a duplicate or similar product. Examples are the Wright brothers’ reverse engineering the flight characterisics of birds to design aircraft, and Linus Torvald’s reverse engineering the proprietary Unix computer operating system to construct the Linux operating system. The Kickstarter campaign uses the words “reverse engineered” inaccurately, so as to mislead people who do not understand it, as if to mean design of a product to have the opposite effect of an existing product. And when that product is a stealth bomber — wow, now the new product must be extremely high-tech! Again, the product is a simple cube-corner radar retroreflector, as has been used in boating for decades. The designers describe design and optimization of their product, but this is plain vanilla engineering, not reverse engineering.

As to the effectiveness of this product, I have no doubt that it improves the visibility of a bicycle to radar — but…

A radar retroreflector which works in all directions is more desirable, (though it still will not always work, even if a car has radar, because the radar beam may not be aimed in its direction, and there may be a line-of-sight obstruction).

Radar alone as a robotic aid to a human driver is possible, but not very practical. Only a small percentage of cars have radar as of yet. A human driver uses visual cues. A fully-robotic car also must, because not every potential obstacle will be as large or reflect radar signals as well as a bicycle — think potholes, cats and dogs, etc.

The product, as shown on the Web site, includes an active taillight, but no optical retroreflector — though installed in the same location on the seatpost which is usual for one — following in the long tradition of new products promoted as a panacea for cyclists’ conspicuity problems while ignoring basic legal and functional requirements. Most states require a retroreflector or taillight, but any taillight can go out without the bicyclist’s being aware of that, and so any bicyclist who rides after dark should have a rear-facing retroreflector, not only a taillight.

The online promotion entirely fails to mention the need for a headlight, or the legal requirement for one. The Web site shows a bicycle with no headlight.

A bicyclist must always use a headlight at night, because an optical forward-facing reflector does not alert pedestrians or drivers who do not have headlights aimed at the bicycle (cars backing out of driveways, at stop signs in side streets, other bicyclists without headlights, etc.) Still, unlike the optical retroreflectors on bicycles, a forward-facing radar retroreflector is likely to be effective, because a car’s radar is likely to scan in more directions and its pulsed output is immune to interference from other sources. But the retroreflector here is only rearward-facing.

The online promotion also makes a number of inaccurate statements.

 Riding with a tail light [sic] is important regardless of the time of day.

While a very bright taillight can help to alert drivers — human or robotic —  during daytime, reducing the probability of a collision somewhat, there is no law requiring a taillight (or rear-facing optical retroreflector) when riding during daytime.

* “In 2015, more than 35,000+ collisions occurred between cars and cyclists in the U.S. Approximately every 3 minutes, world-wide, 6 people die and nearly 285 people are injured in collisions involving cars and bicycles. The majority of these accidents are from behind because drivers didn’t see the rider and it is NOT because they did not have a tail light.”

This is wildly inaccurate. While rural car-overtaking-bike collisions are disproportionately serious and fatal, only approximately 7% of car-bicycle collisions in the USA toare car-overtaking-bike collisions. A very large percentage of these occurs to cyclists riding at night without a taillight! In urban areas, most of the serious and fatal collisions involve turning and crossing movements. No rear-facing conspicuity equipment —  optical or radar retroreflector, or taillight, will prevent most of these. Sure, many if not most car-overtaking bike crashes could be avoided, day and night, by use of a radar reflector, if cars have radar connected to a robotic crash avoidance system — but again, as of yet, only a very small percentage of cars is so equipped. Which takes me to my next quote:

* “In 2016 … there are 470 out of 566 unique car models sold in the U.S. equipped with radar (83%).”

This is very seriously overstated. Saying that a model is equipped with radar is not the same as saying that radar is standard. Adaptive cruise control is still often an expensive option. Only some adaptive cruise control systems include automatic crash avoidance. Some systems use laser ranging rather than radar. The fleet of motor vehicles turns over slowly. More even-handed estimates are found in this article in the Detroit News. Quote from that article:

IHS Automotive forecasts 7.2 percent of vehicles produced globally by 2020 will feature adaptive cruise control, up from 2.2 percent in 2014.

More details and a list of vehicles are on Wikipedia.

Why do promotions like this occur? Fundamentally, because regulation of bicycle equipment in the USA at the Federal level, where equipment standards are set, is a Wild West situation, harkening to the interests of the bicycle industry. That is another story, too big to cover here.








Montreal sidepath protects?

A classic right-hook collision occurred on August 26, 2015 in Montreal, where the cyclist was riding on a sidepath.

Here’s a news report on the crash.

As I’ve said repeatedly, sidepaths do not prevent crossing and turning collisions.

The sidepath in this crash is in a block folliwng a steep downhill. The cyclist might have been be overtaking the truck which turned right across his path.

I have cycled through the crash location and shot a video of my ride. It is here.

Rue Berri from Cherrier to de Maisonneuve, Montreal from John Allen on Vimeo.

Duck Boat crashes

We had a duck boat run into a motor scooter from behind on Saturday, May 7, 2016 in Boston, killing one of the riders. It isn’t clear from the news story why this happened, though I expect that the poor forward visibility from the duck boat was a factor. Did the motor scooter operator pull ahead of the duck boat, riding and stopping in its large blind spots? Or did the duck boat operator run into the back of the motor scooter in spite of its being in hiss field of view? As usual with crashes involving two-wheelers — bicycle, motor scooters, motorcycles — and despite there having been many eyewitnesses, the Boston Globe offers no information as to the cause of the crash. Investigation is underway, although if it proceeds as with recent bicycle crashes, detailed results may not be made available for a long time, if at all.

Another duck boat crash occurred in Seattle, 5 killed, 62 injured — but that one was due to failure of an axle, which sent the duck boat into the side of a bus in an oncoming lane of traffic.

What is to be learned from these crashes?

For one thing, the duck boats are surplus from the Second World War. Though they served gallantly in that war, they are over 70 years old now: mechanical failures are not out of the question. The duck boats’ design as amphibious vehicles placed the driver high above the road over a high hood, with poor visibility to the front — a problem which has led to fatalities of pedestrians in crosswalks with large trucks. The duck boats do not have a front bumper, but instead, have a hull which can push unfortunate pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles underneath. These vehicles probably would not be legal, except that they are antiques.

Another issue with the Boston crash may be of education. Did the motor scooter driver not understand the peril of riding in blindspots of large vehicles? Boston is relentlessly installing bicycle facilities which direct bicyclists to ride into blindspots. It does not appear that the collision involved any such installation, but motor scooter operators are permitted under the law to use them, and their existence, along with a lack of instruction as to their perils, contributes to hazardous behavior elsewhere as well.

In the context of all these issues, my misgivings about the Vision Zero campaign described in the Boston Globe on April 17 need no further mention.

Another crosswalk confusion, and a fatality

In response to my post about confused yielding requirements where shared-use paths cross streets, Ryan Reasons has published comments on a recent fatal truck-bicycle crash in the Seattle, Washington area.

The photo below is from the KOMO TV/radio station news photo gallery.

view of crash scene

View of crash scene

My response to Ryan’s comments went into enough detail that I have decided to make a post of it. My response follows his comments below.

Ryan’s comments

@John S. Allen
The sort of confusion you describe may have cost Gordon Gray his life last Wednesday after he collided with a cement truck. The sheriff’s department says that Gray, a 70-year-old bicyclist from Washington state, was cycling on a MUP when he ran a stop sign, entered a street running parallel to the MUP and was struck.

King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Stan Seo says the Kenmore man was biking southbound on 65th Avenue Northeast Wednesday morning when he was hit by a cement truck heading west on Northeast 175th Street. Seo said Friday that according to investigators, it appears the cyclist did not stop at a stop sign and was hit in the intersection. He says the cyclist had turned off the Burke-Gilman Trail shortly before the accident.
The Associated Press, Komonews.com

If one accepts Sgt. Seo’s account of the events leading to the collision, then Gray was cycling on the MUP when he turned onto 65th Avenue to enter Northeast 175th street. (See this Google street map.) [You may  click on the link to open the view in Google maps, or click on the image below  to enlarge it — John Allen]

Location of Gordon Cray crash

Location of Gordon Gray crash

Note that the Google map shows three stop signs of possible relevance. The stop sign on 65th Avenue is located just north of the MUP and crosswalk. The other two stop signs are located on the MUP at opposite ends of the crosswalk.

Once Gray entered 65th Avenue from the MUP and headed south, did Gray have a legal obligation to stop at the stop sign on 65th Avenue? I don’t think so, because after turning south onto 65th Avenue the stop sign was behind Gray and facing north.

Let’s assume Gray committed a traffic violation (running a stop sign) when he turned from the MUP onto 65th Avenue. Does that mean Gray is legally at fault for a collision which occurred on his subsequent turn from 65th Avenue onto Northeast 175th Street?

The account given by local law enforcement suggests Gordon Gray will be blamed for his own death, even if Gray is not fully at fault. That seems like an injustice for Gray, an undeserved vindication for confusing cycling infrastructure, and fuel for more of the ugly jeers that accompany the deaths of cyclists who truly are at fault.

My response:

This is an interesting situation, and especially so as cyclists’ exiting from bikeways into parallel streets becomes more common with the increasing number of sidepaths (or “cycle tracks”, or so-called “protected bike lanes”). The path in question runs parallel to and just north of an east-west street (Northeast 175th Street) and crosses another street (65th Avenue) which Ts into it from the north, with a marked crosswalk. There are stop signs for the path at either end of the crosswalk, and there is a stop sign on 65th Avenue Northeast before the crosswalk, as is usual. So, once Gordon Gray was in the crosswalk, there was no stop sign directing him to stop at Northeast 175th Street.

This is not the same situation I described in the earlier blog post. What I described is the confusion from having stop signs at the ends of a crosswalk. Traffic in the street is supposed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk but confusion arises because the stop signs indicate that cyclists in the crosswalk must yield to traffic in the street it crosses. These two requirements contradict one another. The confusion manifests itself in drivers on the street stopping and yielding to cyclists, whom the stop signs direct to stop and yield to the drivers in the street. It is unclear who may proceed. In practice, the cyclists usually proceed, and often without coming to a complete stop, but also cyclists are faster than pedestrians, and a motorist’s stopping often requires a cyclist to stop when they would otherwise not have to, because the motor vehicle would have passed before the cyclist reached the crosswalk. There are also the issues which occur at other crosswalks, that the first motorist in one lane may stop, but a motorist in another lane may not, requiring extra caution of cyclists due to their higher speed and longer stopping distance than those of pedestrians.

What you describe appears to be that cyclist Gordon Gray entered the crosswalk, and then entered the parallel street. Indeed, there was no stop sign facing him once he had entered the crosswalk, as he did not pass the stop sign for traffic on 65th Avenue Northeast. The legalities here are somewhat confusing. Probably the stop sign before the crosswalk did not apply to entry onto the parallel street. Was Gray required nonetheless to yield before entering the parallel street? He would have been, if he had passed the stop sign on 65th Avenue Northeast. A T intersection without a stop sign is an uncontrolled intersection, and so he would still be required to prepare to yield, perhaps also to yield: in some states, at least Massachusetts, where I live, stop signs are not posted where one street Ts into another, but yielding is required. A concern for self-preservation would also require being prepared to yield, whatever the legalities.

There are a few things which the news report does not indicate:

  • Which way was Gray going? Was he originally westbound on the path? Then he would have had to look behind himself for the truck.
  • Was he attempting to head eastbound on Northeast 175th Street (or westbound on the wrong side), and so he was attempting to cross in front of the truck?
  • Just what was the truck driver doing, or about to do? There is a large concrete plant with two driveways, across Northeast 175th street from 65th Avenue. Concrete mixer trucks in the same colors as those in the news photo are visible parked there in the Google Maps overhead view. It is possible, for example, that the truck driver was signaling a turn, suggesting to Gray that he would turn left into the driveway east of 65th Street Avenue Northeast, but instead was continuing into the next driveway when his truck struck Gray. The location of the truck in the photo at the top of this post suggests that.

Some thoughts about self-driving cars

Google’s report on its self-driving cars:


Most than half of the collisions reported in this document are slow-speed rear-enders of the Google cars. That’s unusual. It might be that the behavior of the Google cars is more cautious than what human drivers expect, so the Google cars stop more often abruptly or at unusual places, and so are not tailgater-friendly. I’d suggest that the Google cars might be equipped with a rear-facing warning device.

It seems to me that self-driving cars will be able to avoid any collision where a human driver could avoid fault, and others. In other words, operators of non-automated vehicles (including bicycles) and pedestrians who follow the conventional rules of the road will be able to operate safely around automated vehicles. Vehicles with automated crash avoidance (not necessarily completely automated vehicles, even) will not rear-end bicycles, and so the premise of fear from the rear evaporates if automated crash avoidance becomes universal with motor vehicles. Self-driving cars will not be able to avoid collisions where avoidance would require violating the laws of physics. Vehicles with automated crash avoidance will be able to avoid some collisions in which the potential colliding vehicle or pedestrian is outside the field of view of a human driver, such as right-hook collisions, as long as there is a clear sight line to the automated vehicle’s sensor. Same for a large truck’s high hood which prevents the driver from seeing a pedestrian crossing in front.

Automated vehicles will not be able to avoid left-cross collisions where the bicyclist or motorist is passing on the right of other vehicles and concealed by them, or pedestrian dart-out collisions. The concept of fully networked vehicles is supposed to address this problem. All vehicles approaching the same place in the road network are envisioned as communicating with each other even when they are hidden from each other’s view. As someone with an electrical engineering degree, I consider this at best a very difficult proposition, and it might be described as a pipe dream. Bandwidth, interference and reliability issues lead me to ask “what could possibly go wrong?” Also, instrumenting every object on the road is only practical on a limited-access highway — no, not even there, because there will still be breakdowns, wild animals, debris. On other roads, is every pedestrian going to carry a transponder? I don’t think so.

Automated crash avoidance is easily hacked by rolling a trash can out into the roadway, and the like. The caution which automated crash avoidance inherently incorporates changes the dynamic from the one among humans, which can involve a game of bluff. To me, this means that automated vehicles will be extra-cautious in the presence of other drivers and pedestrians who do play the game of bluff, and so the progress of automated vehicles will be slow and erratic in, for example, Boston traffic.

All this leads to the question: does behavior change as these vehicles become more common? Does infrastructure change? Every new technology takes a while to find its feet. As Marshall McLuhan said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Do conditions become better or worse for bicyclists and pedestrians? And why? We have some control over this depending on the direction which is set for the technology, but also, time will tell.

Another serious issue I’ve heard mentioned is the car which is not only driverless but passengerless. There is potential for an increase in traffic if a car can be called to meet a person (like a passengerless taxi), or directed to drive around and around the block empty when a parking space can’t be found. I can’t say how serious this problem will be. To some extent, that depends on the extent of freedom afforded to people’s control over the driverless cars. It’s an interesting legal question involving private use of public space. We already face this question with congestion-pricing schemes. But on the other hand, fewer cars on the road might be needed, because the car-sharing model works better when a car can be called rather than only stationed. Again, time will tell.

Change lanes in a roundabout?

Ohio cyclist Patricia Kovacs posted an e-mail asking some questions about roundabouts:

Ohio engineers are telling us to use the inner lane for left turns and U turns. Both the FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] and videos available on our local MPO [metropolitan planning organization] website say this. I shared this when we asked for updates to Ohio Street Smarts. If the FHWA and MORPC [Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission] are wrong, then we need to fix it.

Would you review the 8 minute video on the MORPC website and let me know what I should do? If it’s wrong, I need to ask them to update it. This video was made in Washington and Ohio reused it.

Looking further into the problem, I see a related practical issue with two-lane roundabouts, that the distance between an entrance and the next exit may be inadequate for a lane change. The larger the roundabout, the longer the distance in which to change lanes, but also the higher the speed which vehicles can maintain and so, the longer distance required. I’m not sure how this all works out as a practical matter. Certainly, turning right from the left-hand lane when through traffic is permitted in the right-hand lane is incorrect under the UVC [Uniform Vehicle Code], and results in an obvious conflict and collision potential, but I can also envision a conflict where a driver entering the roundabout does not expect a driver approaching in the inside lane of the roundabout to be merging into the outside lane.

All in all, the safety record of roundabouts is reported as good (though not as good for bicyclists and pedestrians), but I’m wondering to what extent the issues have been subjected to analysis and research. When I look online, I see a lot of roundabout *promotion* as opposed to roundabout *study*. Perhaps we might take off our UVC hats, put on our NCUTCD [National Committee on Uniform Traffic-Control devices] hats, and propose research?

Thanks, Patricia.

This post was getting long, so I’ve placed detailed comments on the Ohio video, and embedded the video, in another post. I’m also working on an additional post giving more examples, and I’ll announce it here when it is ready.

Here are some stills from the video showing the conflict between through traffic in the outer lane and exiting traffic in the inner lane.

First, the path for through traffic:

Path for through traffic in a roundabout

Path for through traffic in a roundabout

Next, the path for left-turning traffic:

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout

Now, let’s give that picture a half-turn so the left-turning traffic is entering from the top and exiting from the right:

traffic in a roundabout, image rotated 180 degrees

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout, image rotated 180 degrees

And combining the two images, here is what we get:

Conflict between through traffic and exiting left-turn traffic

Conflict between through traffic and exiting left-turn traffic

The image below is from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and shows similar but not identical lane use. The arrows in the entry roadways direct through traffic to use either lane.

FHWA diagram of a roundabout with lane-use arrows.

FHWA diagram of a roundabout with lane-use arrows.

Drivers are supposed to use their turn signals to indicate that they are to exit from the inner lane — but drivers often forget to use their signals. Safe practice for a driver entering a roundabout, then, is to wait until no traffic is approaching in either lane, even if only entering the outer lane.

A fundamental conceptual issue here is whether the roundabout is to be regarded as a single intersection, or as a series of T intersections wrapped into a circle. To my way of thinking, any circular intersection functions as a series of T intersections, though it functions as a single intersection in relation to the streets which connect to it. Changing lanes inside an intersection is generally prohibited under the traffic law, and so, if a roundabout is regarded as a single intersection, we get the conflicts I’ve described.

Sometimes, dashed lines are used to indicate paths in an intersection, when vehicles coming from a different direction may cross the dashed lines after yielding right of way or on a different signal phase. More commonly, a dashed line  indicates that a driver may change lanes starting from either side. The dashed lines in a two-lane roundabout look as though they serve the second of these purposes, though they in fact serve the first. These are shorter dashed lines than generally are used to indicate that lane changes are legal, but most drivers don’t understand the difference.

That leads to confusion. If you think of the roundabout as a single intersection, changing from the inside to the outside lane is illegal anywhere. If you think of the roundabout as a series of T intersections, changing lanes should occur between the entries and exits, not opposite them –though there is also the problem which Patricia mentioned, that a small two-lane roundabout may not have much length between an entry roadway and the next exit roadway to allow for a lane change. That is, however, much less of a problem for bicyclists than for operators of wider and longer vehicles. It would be hard to construct a two-lane roundabout small enough to prevent bicyclists from changing lanes.

My practice when cycling in conventional two-lane traffic circles — and there are many in the Boston, Massachusetts area where I live — is to

  • enter from the lane which best leads to my position on the circular roadway — either the right or left lane of a two-lane entry;
  • stay in the outer lane if leaving at the first exit;
  • control the inner lane if continuing past the first exit;
  • change back to the left tire track in the outer lane to prepare to exit.

That way, I avoid conflict with entering and exiting traffic in the outer lane, and I am making my lane change to the right in the slow traffic of the circular roadway rather than on the straightaway following it. This is what I have found to make my interactions with motorists work most smoothly. Why should a bicyclist’s conduct in a roundabout be different?

It is usual to be able to turn right into the rightmost lane of a multi-lane rodway while raffic is approaching in the next lane. I don’t know of any other examples in road design or traffic law in the USA where a motor vehicle is supposed to turn right across the lane where another motor vehicle is entering it. Bike lanes are sometimes brought up to intersections, though the laws of every state except Oregon require motorists to merge into the bike lane before turning. The illustration below, from Dan Gutierrez, depicts the problem.

Right hook conflicts, from Dan Gutierrez's Understanding Bicycle Transportation

Right hook conflicts, from Dan Gutierrez’s Understanding Bicycle Transportation video and course.

Applicable sections or the Uniform Vehicle Code are:

  • 11:304 (b) — passing on the right is permitted only when the movement can be made in safety.
  • 11:308 (c) — a vehicle shall be driven only to the right of a rotary traffic island.
  • 11:309 (a) — no changing lanes unless it can be done in safety
  • 11:309 (d) — official traffic control devices may prohibit lane changes
  • 11:601 (a) Right turns – Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.


When slow is too fast

The basic speed limit, not to go too fast under the existing conditions, is often lower than the posted speed limit.

When facilities like the bike lane in the video are built in which 10 mph, or even 5 mph, is excessive speed, and, worse, when we are required by law to use them, then we get clobbered three ways. If we ride at safe speeds, the utility of bicycling for transportation and exercise is greatly reduced. If we ride faster than is safe, then we may crash, and be held at fault. If we avoid the facilities, we may be cited for not staying in our place, and harassed. And this, when bicyclists rarely can ride at the posted speed limit.

I’ll also quote my friend Mighk Wilson’s comments about the video:

It’s important to differentiate between “fault,” which is a legal matter for our purposes here, and “contributing causes.” If we only address fault we will usually fail to prevent crashes…

So who contributed to your crash? Obviously the motorist…he’s 100% legally at fault. But the designer of the bike lane also contributed, by leading you into blind spots where you’d be in conflict with turning vehicles. You yourself contributed by traveling at a speed at which you were unable to see, react and brake for the turning vehicle. Our bicycle advocacy groups contributed by insisting that bicyclists should always get to pass stopped motor traffic even when it’s risky to do so. Our land use planners contributed by allowing commercial driveways so close to major intersections. I could go on…

Part of the problem here is not only that the bike lane leads to blind conflicts, as Mighk points out, but also that it leads to false expectations of what is safe. I’d also add that planners, and lots of other people, contributed to causation of the crash by generating patterns of land use and mode choice which lead to traffic congestion. It is ironic that while it was only safe to travel at low speed in the bike lane, the traffic in the travel lane was stop-and-go, and had stopped completely. Whether a cyclist would have been able to travel safely at a higher average speed without a bike lane is open to question.

Monsere, Dill et al. — Not Yet a Review, But…

M. Kary, who prepared a review of the Lusk et al Montreal study, has had a preliminary look at the Monsere, Dill et al. study of barrier-separated on-street bikeways (“cycle tracks”) which the bicycle industry lobby PeopleforBikes is promoting as demonstrating their safety. Dr. Kary has given me permission to publish his comments here.

An Introduction To and Overview Of:
Monsere C, Dill J, et al. (2014) Lessons From The Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes In The U.S. Final Report, NITC-RR-583

To begin with a platitude: traffic accidents are rare events. The totals are large only because the overall volumes of exposure are huge. Therefore, if considering safety in terms of outcomes rather than the underlying mechanisms of operation, any facility, no matter how poorly designed, will appear safe if examined over a short period of time.

But collecting data over a long period of time has its disadvantages too: not just cost and delay, but also the averaging, and therefore blurring, of the effects of various changing causes and circumstances. Nor does it work at all for facilities that are yet to be built. In response to these problems, engineers developed the methods of traffic conflict analysis. They can be seen as based on the following logical and kinematic necessities. First, in order for a collision to occur, the vehicles involved must eventually get on a collision course. Second, in order to get on a collision course, they must first get on a near-collision course. On the other hand, not all vehicles once on collision or near-collision course do end up colliding: their operators make course corrections and avoid that outcome. Such potentially dangerous but often ultimately safe trajectories, i.e. traffic conflicts, occur much more frequently than actual collisions, deaths, or injuries. If there exists a suitable relationship between the former and the latter, then conflict analysis can be used to study road safety at reduced cost, with better timing, and even via simulation modelling of facilities that have been designed but not yet built.

The theory and practice of conflict analysis for motor vehicles has been developed over something like a half a century of research. This has evolved to quantitative methods using not just traffic cameras, but also instrumented vehicles, automated data extraction, and theoretical concepts such as time to collision, gap time, gap acceptance, post-encroachment time, and many others. There is no such corresponding body of research for bicycles. Even if there were, it could never be as important to bicycle or pedestrian deaths and injuries as it is for the occupants of cars and trucks: for example, the latter vehicles never topple over at stops or just slip and fall, so that their occupants fracture an arm or strike their heads on a curb. In fact the majority of bicyclist injuries, even those requiring hospitalization, apparently involve only the bicyclist, making conflict analysis entirely or at least largely irrelevant to them.

On the other hand collisions with motor vehicles are major factors in cyclist deaths and injuries, and they are what cyclists worry most about. And even apparently bicycle-only crashes can be provoked by e.g. general fears or specific intimidations, or avoidance manoeuvres leading to loss of control. Thus there are also dimensions of traffic conflicts applicable to bicycling, but either inapplicable or less so to motor vehicle-only conflicts. Nor is every conflict visible or strictly kinematic: consider for example the effects of sudden and loud horn honking or engine revving.

With these fundamental limitations in mind, obviously traffic conflict analysis is a promising method for investigating important aspects of bicycling safety. The theory needs to be developed, so we can figure out what constitutes a high or low rate of conflicts, what types of conflicts figure what way into which accident types, and how vehicle operators and pedestrians cope with them, such as through hypervigilance, or avoidance of the area and thus diversion of problems to a different one.

Not only does the theory need to be developed, but also the methods of data extraction and analysis: the subjective review of traffic camera recordings, typically of low quality, is a mind-numbingly tedious, labour-intensive and error-prone task, that does not scale well.

The work of Monsere et al. (2014), Lessons From The Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes In The U.S., should be considered a pilot project in this effort, although the authors themselves do not describe it as such.

Monsere et al. aimed to address six questions:

  1. Do the facilities attract more cyclists?
  2. How well do the design features of the facilities work? In particular, do both the users of the protected bicycle facility and adjacent travel lanes understand the design intents of the facility, especially unique or experimental treatments at intersections?
  3. Do the protected lanes improve users’ perceptions of safety?
  4. What are the perceptions of nearby residents?
  5. How attractive are the protected lanes to different groups of people?
  6. Is the installation of the lanes associated with measureable increases in economic activity?

Apart from noting that, as with most sociological research, their survey response rates were dismally low (23-33% overall, counting even only partially completed surveys as full responses), to produce a socioeconomically skewed sample (e.g. the bicyclists being 89% white, 68% male, 82% having at least a four-year college degree, and 48% with annual incomes over $100,000)— this overview of their work considers only the first part of their question No. 2.

Monsere et al. installed video cameras along short bicycle sidepaths (“protected lanes”, “cycle tracks”) constructed between approximately the summer of 2012 and the early summer of 2013 as part of the Green Lanes Project. These were in four U.S. cities, San Francisco (two 0.3 mile paths), Portland (one 0.8 mile path), Chicago (0.8 and 1.2 mile paths) and Washington (a 1.12 mile path; no cameras were installed in Austin, although sociological surveys were conducted there). They did their video recording chiefly at intersections, six in these four cities in the summer and fall of 2013. This was then presumably while the users were still in a cautious or exploratory state, as they got used to the new facilities.

Only 12-18, or in one case 20, independent hours of video were analyzed from each intersection. As each intersection examined was given a unique treatment, results cannot easily be pooled. These are very small numbers.

(This makes for substantially less than 120 hours total. The authors seem to say they analyzed 144 hours of video at intersections. This would mean that some of this total came from multiple cameras examining the same intersection at the same time. The authors do show frame captures from some of their cameras. This observer would find it difficult to correctly identify the conflicts from the views on display.)

As noted following the opening platitude, any facility, no matter how poorly designed, will appear safe if examined over a short enough period of time.

The six facilities examined were all so new (less than or little more than a calendar year old) that there were no injury or death data available for them. (For comparison, the entire city and island of Montreal, with all its thousands of intersections, averages of late about five cyclist deaths and 25-50 police-recorded serious cycling injuries per year.) Thus, there would not have been a way to use even many more hours of recording to examine for any relationship between the surrogate outcomes (conflicts, violations or errant behaviours) and the outcomes of most interest, deaths and injuries.

Further, as this was neither a before-after study nor a comparison with standard intersections, there is no way to know whether the numbers of observed conflicts, violations, or errant behaviours, were themselves high or low.

As to the actual results from this pilot project, the much touted headline was that there were only six minor conflicts found, out of nearly 12,900 bicycle movements through intersections. The most basic problems with this headline are:

1. It is the wrong comparison. The conflict rate has to be the number of conflicts divided by the number of occasions where at least two users capable of conflicting are present, e.g. a bicycle and at least one other bicycle, pedestrian, or motor vehicle. Thus the authors give figures of 7574 turning motor vehicles, but only 1997 turning motor vehicles with bicycles present. The corresponding conflict rates (which they normalize by the products of bicycle and motor vehicle movements, not by the numbers of bicycle movements alone) they give for the individual intersections therefore vary by factors of approximately 3 to 10, depending on which figures are used.

2. Six is the total of observed “minor” conflicts, not the total number of observed conflicts. There were also 379 “precautionary” conflicts with motor vehicles, 216 with pedestrians, and 70 with other bicycles.

3. Besides conflicts, there were numerous violations or other errant behaviours: e.g. 9-70% of bicycles and 7-52% of turning motor vehicles in the various intersection designs used the lanes incorrectly, 1-18% of turning motor vehicles in the various mixing zone designs turned from the wrong lane, 5-10% of motorists turned illegally on red arrows at intersections with bicycle-specific signals, and 7-23% of bicyclists disobeyed their signals.

4. Without any theory or model of how any of these occurrences or their frequencies relate to death, injury, or property damage, and without any before-after or non-sidepath comparison data— not to mention, with the very small numbers of observation hours— there are almost no safety implications, positive or negative. The only concrete result is that one of the local authorities apparently deemed the problem of motor vehicles turning from the wrong lane (18%), straddling lanes (another 17%), or entering the turn lane early (15%) to be so severe that they later removed the intersection treatment and replaced it with another design (at Fell and Baker in San Francisco).

5. The sociological surveys tell another story: one-third of all bicyclists surveyed said they had been involved in at least one near collision on the paths, while 2% experienced an actual collision. 23% had a near collision with turning cars, 1.8% an actual collision with turning cars; 19% a near collision with a pedestrian, and 0.4% an actual collision with a pedestrian.

In short: this is an interesting pilot project, whose methods are impractical for the amount of data collection needed for meaningful safety results. Even with better methods, conflicts are only one facet of the bicycling, and overall safety picture; while road designers and road users, whether bicyclists or motorists, have to consider more than just safety. Convenience, transit time, cost, and greenhouse gas emissions also matter. A cycle track that, like the downtown de Maisonneuve track in Montreal, lies largely dormant in the winter, but delays motor vehicle traffic in the winter and ties it up spring, summer and fall, will be of no help in reducing CO2 emissions. The much touted headline results from this study are selective, overblown, and misleading. Any facility will appear safe if examined over a short enough period of time, and surely 12 to 20 hours each is short enough.

Is the NACTO Guide a Design Manual?

In cities around the USA, politicians, under pressure from populist bicycling advocates, have pointed to the NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide and directed their engineering staff to install treatments which it describes.

I’ll say right here that some of the treatments which the NACTO guide describes deserve attention and inclusion in national design standards — though their presentation in the NACTO Guide typically is flawed, inconsistent and incomplete. Why some deserving treatments are not included in the national design standards is a story for another time.

Other NACTO treatments are so troublesome that they are not widely applicable.

Engineers unfamiliar with bicycling issues may take NACTO designs at face value; other engineers may throw up their hands and comply, faced with the threat of losing their employment. Several engineers who have extensive background and expertise in design for bicycling have resigned, been fired or been demoted when they would not accept the NACTO designs.

What leads to these problems? To put it simply, the NACTO guide isn’t a design manual. It is a smorgasbord of design treatments formatted — right down to digitally-generated loose-leaf binder holes on what are, after all, Web pages — to look like a design manual to politicians and the general public. Bicycle manufacturers funded it to promote street designs which they expect will lead to greater bicycle sales. It lacks the vetting necessary for consistency and accuracy. Its purpose is to generate political pressure to apply the treatments it describes. It is weak on specifics: rife with errors, and with omissions even in describing the treatments it covers.

If I described all of my specific  concerns with the NACTO Guide, I’d be writing a book, so for now let’s just look at a two-page spread of the NACTO Guide, the pages about two-stage turn queuing boxes (2STQBs, for short).

Maybe by now you are inclined to think of me  as a naysayer, so, let me get down to some specifics to dispel that impression. I have had information about two-stage turn queuing boxes online for years, I think that they are a useful treatment, and I use two-stage turns: when I realize that I have reached the street where I need to turn left, but hadn’t merged to turn; when traffic is heavy and fast and I haven’t found an opportunity to merge; when ordinary left turns are prohibited. My favorite example is the left turn from Commonwealth Avenue onto the Boston University Bridge in Boston, Massachusetts, where a no-left-turn sign is posted: motorists have to go around a large loop.

Ok, now let’s consider the spread from the NACTO guide, below.

NACTO pages about two-stage turn box

NACTO pages about two-stage turn queuing box

I have placed that spread online as a PDF file, zoomable to any size you might like. You may click on the link or the image above to get a larger view while reading this text. The PDF will open in a separate browser window or tab. I’ve also posted parts of the NACTO pages in connection with the text below.

Issues of organization and use of technical language

The NACTO treatment of the two-stage turn queuing box presents issues of organization and of use of technical language.

Problems start with the title of the section. A proper title is not “Design Guidance”, otherwise, every section would be named “Design Guidance”. A proper title is the name of the device, here “Two-Stage Turn Queuing Box”. [And not “Queue” but” Queuing.”]

In a proper design manual, the terms “shall”, “should”, “guidance” and “option” go from strong to weak. “Shall” is imperative: for example, a stop sign shall be octagonal. Should, guidance and option statements are increasingly weaker, leaving more room for engineering judgment.

The terms “Required Features” and “Recommended Features” correspond roughly to “shall and “should” but do not have the explicit, legally-defined meanings of “shall” and “should”.

None of the drawings on the two pages are dimensioned, and no dimensions are given in the text. That is to say, these are not engineering drawings, they are only conceptual drawings. How big are the turn boxes supposed to be? Who knows? The width of travel lanes differs from one drawing to the next, but no explanation is given for that. When politicians start beating on the door for NACTO treatments, standards-setting bodies and traffic engineers have to try to fill in the missing information. For specific projects, that task often is passed along to hired consultants who make their living by promoting and designing special bicycle facilities. Yes, there is a conflict of interest.

Specific comments

Now, either click on the image of each section of the page below to open it in a separate browser tab, or zoom the PDF to at least 50% size so you can read the text in connection with my specific comments .(You may open it now if you didn’t already.)

Comments on the left-hand page

The left-hand page includes text which may look like design specifications, and drawings which may look like design drawings — to a layperson.

Left half of left-hand page


Point 1: “An area shall be designated to hold queuing bicyclists and formalize two-stage turn maneuvers.” This is under the heading “Required Features.”  A 2STQB is only one way to turn left among others, an option, subject to engineering judgment or specific design warrants. There is neither the room nor the need for a 2STQB at most intersections. Lacking here is any statement as to where a 2STQB is appropriate, but the “shall” statement here is inappropriate: appropriate shall statements would describe what features are required if a 2STQB is installed. As of May 2014, the 2STQB is still in experimental status with the Federal Highway Administration — as are all details of its design, and so no “shall” statement at all is appropriate.

A proper design manual would include guidance about speed and volume of traffic; the additional delay usually required for a two-stage turn; whether bicyclists might take an alternate route entirely; whether use of the box is  mandatory, placing bicyclists who make other types of turns in violation of the law.

Point 4: “In cities that permit right turns on red, a no-turn-on-red sign shall be installed.”

According to the wording here, if the installation is not in a city, the sign is not required.

But also, the shall statement is overly broad, and incomplete. The sign is needed only if right-turning traffic would be in conflict with the bicyclists waiting in the 2STQB: unnecessary in the cross street if traffic turns right before reaching the box or cannot turn right, and unnecessary on the entry street if the cross street is one-way right-to-left. Does the sign belong on the entry street or the cross street, or both? That is not stated. Details, details…

Point 6: The comma makes nonsense of this sentence. Where is the box to be positioned?

The other, subsidiary “should” and “may” statements on this page also are contingent on official approval of the underlying design, and are lacking in detail.

Right half of left-hand page


Something really leaps out at me here: take a look and see whether it leaps out at you too.

OK, ready? Three of the six illustrations show a line of travel (in blue) for bicyclists straight across an intersection and then illegally and hazardously turning right, directly into the face of approaching traffic in a cross street.

In showing this bizarre routing, the NACTO Guide also fails to address issues with the actual route which bicyclists might take.

Five of the six illustrations show that bicyclists would somehow turn 180 degrees in place. That requires dismounting and is slow and awkward. How would a bicyclist turn when the traffic light is about to change? When other bicyclists are already in the box? What about tandems? Bicycles pulling trailers? Bicycles carrying heavy baggage?

The drawings show a subtly implied but selectively addressed-threat: lanes where motorists travel are shown in a threatening shade of pink — whoops: except in the cross street where bicyclists ride head-on at motorists.

Four of the six illustrations show motor vehicles in right-hook conflict with bicyclists headed for the queuing box. The motor vehicles are turning out of the threatening pink area into what is portrayed as the safe zone– the right-hook zone. In two of the pictures,  vehicles have already impinged on the blue line which represents the path of bicyclists crossing the intersection. Green paint, which has become a catch-all warning of traffic conflicts in bicycle facilities, is shown in the queuing box, it is not shown in the conflict zone. (By way of comparison, Dutch practice in such conflict situations is that the motorist must always yield, and to use “shark teeth” markings to indicate a yield line.)

Two of the drawings show bike lanes in the door zone of parked cars.

The middle left illustration shows a receiving bike lane at the top, out of line with dashed markings in the intersection, so bicyclists bear right just before they cross a crosswalk, potentially colliding with pedestrians who would expect them to continue straight.

All of the illustrations show two-stage turns across two-lane one-way streets, though the two-stage turn queuing box is most useful where a conventional left turn is illegal, unusually difficult or hazardous — for example, when turning from a major, wide arterial street with heavy traffic, or one with trolley tracks in the median.

As already indicated, none of the drawings are dimensioned and no dimensions are given in the text.

Comments on the right-hand page

The right-hand page gives annotated pictures of conceptual installations, with angled views from overhead.

Left half of right-hand page


The street going from bottom to top in the picture is one-way, as can be inferred by the direction in which vehicles are traveling. That the cross street is two-way may be inferred from the locations of traffic signals and the existence of the queuing box. A real design manual would be explicit about how a treatment would apply, depending on the directions of traffic in the streets.

The end of the traffic island next to the queuing box protrudes so far and is so sharply as to make right turns awkward. No explanation or guidance is given on this issue.

Traffic signals are shown for motor traffic on both streets, but no traffic signal is shown facing the separate bikeway in the street!

Point 3: “Shall” — mandatory — wording differs from that in the same point as made on the opposite page. A real design manual would have a single, consistent statement. “Queue box shall be placed in a protected area.” The queuing box shown here is not protected from right-turning traffic in the cross street. How would that right-turning traffic be managed, or is it permitted at all? Such issues are addressed in a real design manual.

Point 6: “Optional queue box location in line with cross traffic.” The preferred queuing box, then, is not in line with cross traffic. On getting a green light, bicyclists in the queuing box would have to merge left inside the intersection unless there is a receiving bike lane after the intersection, but none is shown. Merging inside an intersection results in hazardous conflicts and is generally illegal. What warrants the choice of one or the other option? It isn’t stated.

Point 8: The illustration shows motorists and a bicyclist inside the intersection, and so they must have a concurrent green light — or, they would if any signal were shown facing the bikeway. Markings guide bicyclists across the intersection, but also into the path of right-turning traffic. The bicyclist and the motorist in the right-hand lane at the bottom of the picture are on a collision course if the motorist turns right.

What is the meaning of the curved markings adjacent to the bicycle parking in the middle of the street? Does the lane with bicycle parking start as a lane with car parking, additionally hiding bicyclists from turning motorists? Or is this an additional lane for motor traffic, discontinued at the intersection, precisely where more lanes are needed to store waiting traffic? Not shown.

Right half of right-hand page


There is a right-hook threat at both bike lane entries to the intersection.

Bicyclists headed from bottom to top in the bike lane are riding in the door zone of parked cars, and closer to the cars after crossing the intersection.

Point 9: As in the left half of the page, placing the queuing box to the right of the travel lane when there is no receiving lane ahead assures that motorists will overtake bicyclists in the intersection and that bicyclists will have to wait for motor traffic to clear before they can proceed. Motorists waiting to turn right will be stuck behind the bicyclists. Placement out of line with motor traffic is described as the option here, rather than as the preferred treatment as on the left side of the page, and the problem is acknowledged in the caption to this drawing, though no explanation for the different choices is given.

Point 10: A jughandle may be useful if traffic is so heavy or fast that bicyclists have difficulty merging to the normal left-turn position near the center of the street, but then traffic is also so heavy and fast that a signal is usually necessary, not merely to be considered — unless there is already one upstream.

Point 11: Yes, signage may be used, but what signage? A real design manual would show the signs and where they are to be placed.

Point 12: A bicycle signal might be installed, but where? for the entry? For the exit? Its timing?

Point 13: Guide lines, pavement symbols and/or colored pavement. Which? Where? Why?

Had enough?

Right-turn lane as dual-destination lane?

I’ve had criticism from an unusual side about the video below. The complaint, from another cyclist, was essentially that I was not following the rules of the road, not operating as the driver of a vehicle, by riding straight through in a right-turn lane. Most criticism about my cycling, and my cycling advice, comes from people who would rather that cyclists not have to ride on roads at all!

Allston to Cambridge by Bicycle via River Street Bridge from John Allen on Vimeo.

To answer this criticism, let me first provide some background.

Anyone who uses the roads in the Boston area , whether as a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian, soon discovers that the street markings often contradict the requirements of normal traffic movement. Of course this is what knowledgeable cyclists complain about as it applies to bike lanes — emphatically so in the Boston urban core, where there is rarely room for bike lanes outside the door zone. Door-zone bike lanes have been installed anyway ever since the Cambridge bicycle coordinator introduced them in the mid-1990s. (Now she has moved on to X-merges, bicycle sidewalks, jughandle left turns and bowling-alley bus stops, and the City of Boston is working to play catch-up.)

We don’t only have bike lanes in the door zone here, we have bike lanes in the taillight zone — like this one on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

When I had the opportunity to ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico a couple of years ago, I had a real eye opener: I saw and rode on bike lanes which are mostly functional rather than dysfunctional. They are on streets without parking; motorists merge across them to turn right. I realized that bike lanes in the Boston area give others a bad name.

The Boston area has a terrible reputation for bad driving compared with other cities. In my opinion. strongly backed up by statistics, this reflects cultural differences rather than reality. There is somewhat of a chip-on-the-shoulder, butt-into-line attitude among many Boston drivers. It probably goes back as far as the Blueblood vs. Irish struggles for political power of a century and more ago. Some drivers feel a sense of entitlement and an emotional need for self-assertion. But the rudeness also at times reflects the practical need to get going. A Boston driver more often has blindly to inch out into the path of a vehicle which has the legal right of way, simply to get into the stream of traffic, than in most other American cities. A cyclist who doesn’t understand this will feel continually abused and endangered; a cyclist who understands the need to assert lane position and right of way finds Boston a very easy and safe place to ride. I describe how to be that cyclist, here.

There aren’t good statistics on bicycling, but Boston has the lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities of any of 52 major US cities. Boston drivers may be rude, but also they are clearly more attentive than elsewhere. They have to be. They know that they have to keep their eyes open, and that the street design and street markings have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The conflict between markings and traffic movements here in the Boston area didn’t begin with, and isn’t restricted to, bike lanes. It results in the first instance from an attempt to impose standard road markings and channelization on streets which are too narrow to accommodate them, or on multi-way intersections which are too complicated.

In order to accommodate parking, there are quite a few travel lanes too narrow even to fit a conventional dual-track motor vehicle. Here’s an example.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

There are also multi-way signalized intersections where traffic engineers threw up their hands and let traffic enter from more than one leg at a time and merge inside the intersection.

And now, zeroing in on the topic of this post, there are numerous situations where an empty right-turn lane parallels a congested through lane, and neither lane is wide enough for side-by-side lane sharing. Often there is also a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection — as in the example shown in the video.

I completely agree that it is foolish and hazardous for cyclists to ride near the right side of a right-turn lane when headed straight across the intersection. That is the “coffin corner” situation that we lament when it kills a naive cyclist. But, on the other hand, I consider treating an empty right turn lane with a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection as a dual-destination lane, and riding in its center or toward its left side, only to be a variation on the decades-old advice to choose lane position according to the rules of motion, and ignore the bike-lane stripe. I’m not alone in this, not at all. Installations formalizing this treatment have been made in a number of places in the USA. It is accepted under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices if shared-lane markings are used, though state laws generally still do not allow it. It is still in the experimental phase if a through bike lane is to be installed inside a right turn lane. That is documented on this page on the FHWA site.

Most importantly though, treating a right-turn lane as a dual-destination lane when it is empty, or lightly-used, or carrying slow traffic while the through lane is blocked, and riding at its center or left side does not violate the rule of destination positioning and does not lead the cyclist into a conflict. I yield when entering the lane (if there is any vehicle to yield to) and I never place myself to the right of right-turning traffic. I have never gotten into a hazardous situation by doing this. I must anticipate that a driver waiting in line in the through lane to the left may decide instead to turn right and enter the right-turn lane late. This is the same concern as when overtaking any line of stopped traffic, and the countermeasure is the same; stay far enough away from the stopped traffic to be able to avoid a merging vehicle.

In my opinion, the assertion that a cyclist should never ride centered or left in a right-turn lane when preceding straight across an intersection is rigid, legalistic, and impractical. But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense everywhere, either as an informal practice or a standard treatment. That is why, in my opinion, a standard is needed to establish where it may be formalized, and education is needed, as always, so cyclists will be able to judge when it is advisable or inadvisable.

Further information: I’ve had the same issue raised about my advice on riding the 9th Avenue sidepath in Manhattan, and you may read about it in the documents, photo captions and video linked under the 9th Avenue heading here.