Tag Archives: vehicle

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

Truck side skirts: reliable way to prevent cyclist fatalities?

No, not reliable. And they are also supposed to confer an aerodynamic advantage. Some do, some don’t.

Some have a smooth surface which can deflect a cyclist. That is still no guarantee that the cyclist will escape serious injury or death. Other side guards are only open frameworks which can catch and drag a bicycle. A lot of what I have seen is little more than window dressing.

The side guard in the image below from a post on the Treehugger blog has no aerodynamic advantage and could easily guide a cyclist into the rear wheel of the truck.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

A cyclist can easily go under the side guard shown in the image below, from a Portland, Oregon blog post. A cyclist who is leaning against the side guard is guided into the sharp edge of the fender bracket and fender, and the front of the turning wheel, which can pull the cyclist down. There is another wheel behind the one in the photo.

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

The side guard on a Boston garbage truck in the photo below — my own screen shot from the 2013 Boston Bikes annual update presentation — is only an open framework which could easily catch and drag a bicycle.

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

A truck which is turning right off-tracks to the right. A cyclist can be pushed onto his/her right side, and goes under, feet to the left, head to the right. On the other hand, if an overtaking truck contacts the left handlebar end, or if the right handlebar end contacts a slower or stopped vehicle or other obstruction, the handlebar turns to the right and the cyclist slumps to the left, headfirst.

To be as effective as possible for either aerodynamics or injury prevention, side guards must cover the wheels. Though that is practical, none of the ones shown do.

But no practical side guard can go low enough to prevent a cyclist from going underneath. The side guard would drag  at raised railroad crossings, driveway aprons, speed tables etc. Even if the side guard did go low enough, it would sweep the fallen cyclist across the road surface, possibly to be crushed against a parked car or a curb.

Fatalities have occurred when cyclists went under buses, which have low side panels — but the wheels are uncovered. The Dana Laird fatality in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one example. Ms. Laird’s right handlebar end is reported to have struck the opening door of a parked vehicle, steering her front wheel to the right and toppling her to the left.

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massacchusetts, 2002

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002

The bicycling advocacy community, as shown in the blog posts I’ve cited, mostly offers praise and promotion of sub-optimal versions of side guards, a measure which, even if executed as well as possible, offers only a weak, last-resort solution to the problem of bus and truck underruns.

Most of the comments I see on the blogs I linked to consider it perfectly normal for motor traffic to turn right from the left side of cyclists, and to design infrastructure — bike lanes in particular — to formalize this conflict. The commenters also would like to give cyclists carte blanche to overtake close to the right side of large trucks, and place all the responsibility on truck drivers to avoid off-tracking over the cyclists.

Cyclists are vulnerable road users, but vulnerability is not the same as defenselessness. It is rarely heard from today’s crop of bicycling advocates, but a cyclist can prevent collisions with trucks and buses by not riding close to the side of them. There’s a wild contradiction in playing on the vulnerability, naiveté and defenselessness of novice cyclists to promote bicycle use with measures — particularly, bike lanes striped up to intersections — which lure cyclists into a deathtrap. Regardless of whoever may be held legally at fault in underrun collisions, cyclists have the ability to prevent them, and preventing them is the first order of business.

Want to learn how to defend yourself against going under a truck? Detailed advice on avoiding bicycle/truck conflicts may be found on the Commute Orlando Web site.

Additional comments about the political situation which promotes underrun collisions may also be found on that site.

Some observations about bike-share bikes

I recently spent several hours riding in Montreal with a companion who was using the Bixi bike-share bicycles. These are similar if not identical to others being deployed in North American cities. I have some experience riding a Hubway bicycle in Boston, too.

These bicycles are designed to meet different requirements, compared with a rider-owned bicycle. A few observations:

  • The user is relieved of the burden of servicing the bicycles. That is advantageous– there are no worries about flat tires or other mechanical problems. If a bicycle becomes unrideable, you walk it to the nearest rental stand and trade it for another. A related advantage, especially for city dwellers, is that there is no need to store or secure one’s own bicycle.
  • The bicycles are rugged, and so they are heavy.
  • The three-speed hubs are not overgeared, like those on classic three-speed bicycles. The top gear is about right for level-ground cruising. These bicycles climb better than the classic three-speed in the lower gears, but still, the limited gear range and weight of the bicycle make it unsuitable for steep climbs except when using the “two-foot gear” (that is: get off and walk). My companion found one Bixi bicycle with a Shimano 7-speed hub, which he used for part of our ride, but never found another despite looking for one among several dozens waiting at rental stands.
  • The bicycles have fenders, integral lights powered by a generator in the front hub, and a (front) baggage rack, all features necessary for practical transportation use. Additional baggage capacity would be nice but would require a rear rack.
  • The very low step-through frames and skirt guards either side of the rear wheel allow a person to straddle one of these bicycles even if hardly able to left a foot off the ground, and to ride in an ankle-length skirt.
  • The skirt guards carry advertising logos — a reminder that the bike-share (actually, bike-rental) program doesn’t pay for itself.
  • Many features of the bicycles are designed specifically to prevent vandalism and theft. Wheels are not removable using conventional tools, tire valves are not accessible, the seatpost cannot be pulled all the way out etc. Some of the anti-theft features come at the expense of performance…
  • My companion found that the seatposts on most of these bicycles could not be extended far enough for full leg extension, though he is a full 5’7″ (170
    cm) tall.
  • All the bicycles have flat pedals. If you prefer clip-in pedals or toe clips and straps, you’ll have to ride your own bicycle.
  • The street-tread MTB tires are inflated rock-hard. Evidently, protecting the rims rates higher than rider comfort.
  • Hub brakes — Shimano Rollerbrakes front and rear — allow rims to be out of alignment without affecting braking, but these brakes are weak. The front brake appears to have a power limiter, or else it is mismatched to the brake lever. Braking appears to reach a limit which does not increase, no matter how hard the lever is pulled. (I hope to do a braking distance test soon).
  • The black, padded saddles get uncomfortably hot sitting in the sun on a summer day.
  • The system recommends helmet use but doesn’t supply helmets. Boston is, as I understand, working on an automated helmet dispenser.
  • In both Boston and Montreal, rental stands are consistently placed in the street with the rear of the bicycle facing out into the street. Some are on busy streets. You must walk in the street and back the bicycle out into the street to disengage it from its dock. In many cases, the rental stand is on a one-way street or a street with a median, so the user must walk in the street or ride opposite the legal direction of traffic to get to the through street or bikeway which it services. Usually, one-way streets lead away from the serviced street, and so the travel opposite traffic is almost always at the start of the trip.
  • A user has to to walk to and from rental stands, same as bus stops. The bicycles don’t come with locks except to lock them to the rental stands. If you stop in mid-trip to have lunch or so shopping, you must bring your own lock, and the rental clock keeps running.
  • The Montreal system offers a 24-hour pass, but extra charges accrue for any bicycle that is kept in use for more than 1/2 hour. At cycle-track speeds while obeying traffic signals, that was good for 4 miles (6 km) or less. My companion would note where a rental stand was at the right distance to switch bicycles just short of the half-hour limit. The system made him wait two minutes before he could release another bicycle at the same rental stand. Even one minute over the 1/2 hour adds a charge of $1.75 for the next half-hour. The payment plan, then, provides a strong economic disincentive against longer trips.
  • Walk time seriously increases trip time beyond what it would be with the user’s own bicycle. On average, depending on distance of the start and end of the trip from the rental stand, the time overhead for a ride on one’s own bicycle is less even if it involves donning/removing special bicycling shoes, bicycle gloves and a helmet. There also is some uncertainty whether a bicycle will be available to start a trip, and whether there will be an empty space for docking at the end of a trip. Nonetheless, the program is popular.

I note that the on-street separated bikeways in Montreal have a speed limit of 20 km/h (12 mph). That is more or less what these bicycles are designed for. People riding their own bicycles commonly go faster. The design of the bike-share bicycles goes very much in the opposite direction from the racing spec hype that dominates the recreational cycling market.

All in all: when you ride one of these bicycles, you have been recruited into the bike mode share increase army. It’s like eating army food, which will fill your stomach but which is missing some of the nicer qualities of fancy cuisine or good home cooking. Or like sleeping in an army cot, which doesn’t quite compare with a bed in a fancy hotel, or your own bed at home. But then, an army provides for its soldiers, with a couple of tradeoffs, to be sure — the cost borne by the public at large, and the risk factor for soldiers.

Bike-share programs are structured as a public utility, as a form of public transit. The bicycles are requisitioned outside the usual stream of commerce of the bicycle retail industry. Whether the general sentiment in that industry is “a riding tide lifts all bikes” or that the competition is unfair, I don’t know. I did address that issue in an article I wrote for the sheldonbrown.com Web site on April 1, 2012 — please take note of that date when evaluating my article.

A Cyclist Signs Up for Advanced Driver Training

What was an avid cyclist doing in a place like this?

I like to ride my bicycle but sometimes I have to drive.

Over 40 years ago on dirt roads and snow in Vermont, I learned to steer into a turn; to manage the situation when a car loses traction, rather than to blank out or panic.

I shot the video above recently, in a class with hands-on driver training which goes well beyond that. All of the instructors are racers. They test the limits of traction at every turn on the racecourse. But here, they are teaching skills for crash avoidance on the road.

My son took the class with me. He had taken a conventional driver training course and already had his driver’s license, but he had no experience handling a car at the limits of traction.

The InControl course begins with a classroom lecture. Our instructor, Jeremy, explained that driver training is broken in the USA: that over 40% of new drivers have a crash within the first two years; 93% of crashes result from driver error and so, are preventable. He also explained that he would be teaching about steering, braking, hazard perception and avoidance.

Jeremy handed a quiz sheet with 16 questions to check off, true or false. We were told to hold onto our quiz sheets because we would review them later.

The most compelling part of the course is the hands-on practice. It is conducted under safe conditions on a closed course, in a huge, empty parking lot, in cars with a low center of gravity; an instructor is always in the car. As shown in the video, we did the slalom — at first with an instructor driving; then each student took a turn driving. We learned how great the effect of small increases in speed can be on the ability to maneuver. We practiced emergency stops, then swerving while braking; we had the backing demonstration and the tailgating test, as shown in the video.

To learn how to anticipate potential hazards takes time, and experience. The InControl class can discuss this but not teach this. A driving simulator like the ones used to train airline pilots would help to build that experience under risk-free conditions. Video gaming technology is approaching the level that it could do this at a relatively low price. Computers are up to the task, but they would need multiple visual displays and a special “driver’s seat” controller. Lacking that technology, I have traveled many miles with my son, both as a driver and as a passenger, coaching him. His many more miles of experience stoking our tandem bicycle were a fine lead-in.

What did I learn in this class, with my nearly 50 years of experience as a licensed driver? Several things of importance — among them:

  • Despite my decades of experience, I answered several questions on the quiz incorrectly. I’m not going to provide a crib sheet– go take the course.
  • There is a very significant advantage to having different tires for summer and winter use, due not only to snow but also to temperature difference. Winter tires have “sipes” — small grooves –to develop a “snowball effect” — actually picking up snow so it will adhere to other snow, and improving traction. Tires should be replaced when tread is still twice the height of the wear bars.
  • Side-view mirrors should be adjusted wider than I had been accustomed to — so their field of view starts where the windshield mirror’s field of view ends.
  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s standards for a 5-star safety rating are lower for SUVs than for passenger cars, as a result of industry lobbying (Any surprise?)
  • Importantly, that antilock brakes do more than allow shorter stops. They allow steering during emergency braking, and we practiced this as shown in the video.
  • Most importantly, to me as a cycling instructor, that learning to manage risks is essentially the same for bicycling as for driving a car. The attitude is the same, and hazard recognition and avoidance are similar. One important difference is that a well-trained cyclist’s brain is the antilock braking controller on a bicycle.

As I write this today, my son has driven himself to his classes at the local community college 12 miles away. Like any parent, I cross my fingers every time he goes out the driveway, but I am pleased to report that he has is cautious and calm as a driver and that his driving inspires confidence, with exceptions at a very few times.

I wish he didn’t have to drive. I don’t like the environmental burden it imposes, and I don’t like the risk. If public transportation were at all reasonable, he would be using it. If the college were half as far away, he’d be riding his bicycle at least on days with good weather. For now, his getting a college education wins out over those concerns…

Scaling up and scaling down

New York bicycling advocate Steve Faust has stated that some ways of accommodating bicycling do not “scale up” — that is, they work with small numbers of cyclists, but less well with larger numbers.

His central complaint is that use of roadways with no special bicycle facilities, according to the conventional rules of the road, does not scale up well.

I might put that a bit differently. After all, more cyclists need more room. Mass rides such as New York’s own 5-Borough Tour avoid special bicycle facilities and occupy the entire width of Manhattan’s multi-lane avenues. Motor vehicles are excluded while these rides pass through. Interaction within the group of many thousands of cyclists is for the most part according to the conventional rules of the road, and falls short only in that many of the participants are inexperienced.

On roadways carrying both cyclists and motorists, cyclists inconvenience motorists when the motor traffic could go faster — that is, when there are many cyclists and few enough motorists that they could travel unimpeded, if not for the cyclists. Motorists inconvenience cyclists when motor traffic is congested, and stopped or traveling slower than cyclists might want to go. Level of service always declines as a road becomes more congested, and it declines faster when vehicles have differing speed capabilities.

On the other hand, there also are situations in which operation as intended does not scale down to smaller numbers.

Motorists are more likely, for example, to yield to a crowd of pedestrians than to a single pedestrian.

Another example is the leading pedestrian interval: the walk signal goes on a couple of seconds before motorists get the green light. The leading pedestrian interval is intended to get pedestrians moving out into the intersection before motor traffic can begin to turn across a crosswalk, encouraging motorists to yield to the pedestrians. The same approach is used sometimes on bicycle facilities, for example on the Boulevard de Maisonneuve bicycle sidepath in Montréal, Québec, Canada. But a leading interval only works if there is someone waiting to cross when the signal changes. With smaller numbers, so the first pedestrian or bicyclist reaches the crossing after the motorists get their green light, the leading interval’s only achievement is slightly to reduce the capacity of the intersection.

The same issue can occur with any “conflict zone” with poor visibility as users approach, including the “bike box” or bicycle waiting area ahead of the stop line for motorists at an intersection. Once one cyclist is in a “bike box”, a motorist is unlikely to move forward, because that would require running over the cyclist. Therefore, the bike box is then safe for the entry of other cyclists, at least into the same lane in which the first cyclist is waiting.

The”bike box” works as intended when there are large numbers of cyclists so the first one arrives well before the traffic signal turns green.

If there are few cyclists, so the first one is likely to arrive just as the traffic signal turns green, then there is the potential for a right-hook collision, or a motorist’s colliding with a cyclist swerving into the bike box.

Safety requires that there be enough cyclists that early-arriving ones block the way of motorists, or at least alert the motorists that others may arrive. This safety factor does not scale down to small numbers.

Research in Portland, Oregon shows that only 5% of bicyclists swerve into the bike box when they are first to arrive; about 35% if they arrive later. The reluctance of the first-arriving cyclist reflects risk avoidance to some extent, due to not knowing when the traffic signal will change, but also that the swerve lengthens the cyclist’s trip — none of the Portland bike boxes are designated for left turns. The later-arriving cyclists are to some degree protected by the arrival of the first one, but also they either have to wait behind or move over to the left of that cyclist, into the bike box.

“Safety in numbers” claims become rather interesting when such issues are considered.

The design challenge is to achieve efficiency and safety of all travelers, regardless of whether numbers are large or small.

Confusion at crosswalks on multi-use paths

The crosswalk on a multi-use path has a mixed identity, unless the crossing is signalized. Motorists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, but on the other hand, a stop sign facing the path normally means that cyclists yield to traffic on the road. It is certainly crucial for cyclists to slow, sometimes even stop, to check for cross traffic, and for motorists to yield to cyclists already in the crosswalk, but, again, the stop sign would normally indicate that the cyclists must yield. Confusion arises when a cyclist stops and intends to yield, then a motorist also stops — “you go first.” “No, you go first.” This causes unnecessary delay for both when the cyclist intended to cross behind the motorist, but now must wait until the motorist stops. Danger arises in addition when a motorist in a more distant lane does not stop. That motorist’s vehicle may be concealed from the cyclist by the one stopped in the closer lane — leading to the classic and ineptly-named “multiple-threat” collision. (Two crossing vehicles are involved, but the one in the nearer lane is stopped and does not pose a threat.) There would potentially be legal confusion as well in case of a collision, as both the motorist and the cyclist might claim that the other should have yielded!

Traffic theory: improving traffic signals to reduce pointless delay

A real-world time-space diagram, from Wikimedia commons.

A real-world time-space diagram

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but it practice, there is.

attributed to:
Yogi Berra
Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut
Albert Einstein

An optimal traffic-signal system would never present anyone with a red light or a don’t walk signal unless there actually is interfering traffic. In theory.

In practice, though, it may be desirable to introduce some delay in order to smooth the flow of traffic — to get vehicles on board a “green wave.” Traffic engineers think in sophisticated ways about this issue, but do not have the real-world tools to resolve it. While synchronized traffic-signal systems and sensor-actuated signals already improve the situation over uncoordinated timed signals, better sensing and more sophisticated software could, at least in theory, achieve much more.

Probably the most difficult part of the problem is in sensing approaching vehicles and pedestrians far enough ahead of an intersection so signals will change as they reach the intersection. Sensors are expensive, and many more would be needed. On the other hand, in a city dotted with security cameras, the sensor data may be easier to obtain, especially if traffic control is a goal when installing the equipment.

I am emphatically not describing so-called intelligent highway systems, intended to automate driving by taking control of vehicles. The driver then supposedly becomes a passenger, free to dial the cell phone, read the newspaper, watch TV or apply makeup without concern. For automated control to work, the system must exert at least as reliable control over vehicles as attentive drivers do. More yet: car makers have huge legal problems resulting from defects that injure only a small number of customers.

Automated control presently is applied only under very restricted conditions, on airport shuttle trains and the like. Even with a great increase in sophistication, it’s hard to conceive of how automated control (other than in collision-avoidance systems) would work on any roads except limited-access highways restricted to vehicles equipped for it.

Even under these conditions, there are difficult technical problems. Collision-avoidance systems to prevent collision with large objects ahead are just beginning to be common. Avoiding debris in the road, potholes and other smaller obstacles requires sophisticated sensing which a driver routinely performs — but well beyond the abilities of automated systems.

So, I am describing not a system to take over control of vehicles, but one to improve control of traffic signals. Humans would retain the ability to prevent collisions, and malfunctioning of the system would lead only to delay, not to crashes. The system would make little difference to anyone — motorist, bicyclist or pedestrian — except to reduce pointless delay.

Will this happen? If so, when and where? One promising thought is that it can happen bit by bit, at one intersection and another, rather than all at once along an entire highway.

Street Traffic Regulations: classic book online

My friend Bob Shanteau writes:

Another reason scofflaws give [to justify their behavior] is that traffic laws are intended only for motorists, reflecting a total ignorance of the origins of those laws.

Google has made the 1909 book “Street Traffic Regulation” by William Phelps Eno available online.

This book makes it clear that the first rules of the road preceded the dominance of the streets by motor vehicles. The behavior of … scofflaw cyclists now closely mirrors the behavior by all road users that Eno observed in the early 1900′s, leading to the need for street traffic regulation in the first place. He focused his efforts on education about his proposed rules of the road. That education is what the bicycle scofflaws of today sorely lack.

Davis Planners and Advocates Opine on Sidepaths

This post supplements my previous post linking to documents about Davis bicycle facilities. Please bear in mind that Davis was the first community to introduce bike lanes in the USA, and that its bicycle program strongly favors conventional bike lanes, which are separated from the adjacent lane only by a painted stripe. However, I have found that the Davis documents uniformly and strongly recommend against bike lanes behind barriers or parked cars. Not only that, the recent warnings are more definite than the early ones. Some quotes, starting with the most recent and working backwards in time:

Theodore Buehler, Fifty years of bicycle policy in Davis, CA (Master’s thesis, 2007). See pages 50 ff., “Lane location relative to motorized traffic”.

The early experiments included three different types of bike facilities (see examples at the top of this section):

  1. bike lanes between car lanes and the parking lane (Third St.),
  2. bike lanes between the parking lane and the curb (Sycamore Lane), and
  3. bike paths adjacent to the street, between the curb and the sidewalk (Villanova Ave.).

The first bike lanes included all of these types, to test them in real life to see how effective they were. The on-road lanes worked best, the behind-parking lanes were the worst, and the adjacent paths were found to work in certain circumstances. This is an example of the wide level of experimentation that occurred during this period. Had the city tried to do extensive research without construction, it might have settled on an inferior design. And not having tried all three designs, it might not have recognized it as inferior, and the entire experiment could have been declared a failure.

Dale Lott (one of the early advocates for special bicycle facilities in Davis, who also conducted research as to their safety and effectiveness), “How Our Bike Lanes Were Born“, op-ed piece which appeared in the Davis Enterprise in 2003:

We insisted on some experiments that turned out well and some that were flops.

One flop was on the first block of Sycamore north of Fifth where we put bike lanes next to the curb with parking next to the auto travel lane. It looked great on paper, but was a mess on pavement. When cars turned into the University Mall driveway, they crossed the bike lane. Both driver and rider, whose view of each other had been obscured by the parked cars, had an emergency situation.

David Takemoto-Weerts (University of California, Davis Bicycle Coordinator, A Bicycle-Friendly Community, the Davis Model (conference presentation, 1998)

Because Davis pioneered the bike lane and other bicycle facilities in this country, it is not surprising that some “experiments” were less successful than others. One such example was the construction of “protected” bike lanes where motor vehicle and bicycle traffic was separated by a raised “buffer” or curbing. In some cases, the bike lane was established between the parking shoulder and the curb line (i.e. cars were parked on the left of the bike traffic lane). Needless to say, any “benefits” of such facilities were soon found to be outweighed by the many hazards created for their users.

Most such well-intentioned, but ill-fated designs were phased out long ago. However, some facility design decisions made decades ago were not so easy to remedy. The most pervasive example in Davis is the two-way bike path immediately adjacent to a roadway. Particularly problematic are single two-way paths located on only one side of the adjacent road. The problems associated with these designs have been described in any number of publications, and they are well illustrated at several locations in Davis. In spite of this documentation, some residents, city officials, and developers remain quite vocal in advocating such facilities when new construction is being planned and designed. The city and campus have attempted a variety of mitigation strategies to reduce the hazards or inefficiencies associated with these side paths, but many observers believe that continuing to build such facilities is wasteful at best.

Deleuw, Cather and Company.: Davis Bicycle Circulation and Safety Study. 1972 (excerpt — for complete document in three parts, see table of contents page.

Protected lanes

…Protected lanes located between the parking shoulder and curb line have most positive separation. However, the parked cars create sight distance problems at driveways and intersections. Inability to cross streets in midblock in this type of treatment results in two-way usege which, in turn, leads to intersection problems described subsequently…

Sidewalk and Independent paths

Sidewalk pathways eliminate midblock bike-motor vehicle friction. However, frictional interference of pedestrians may discourage usage of these facilities as does frequent interruption by cross streets and driveways or meandering of the path. An additional problem is establishment of a visual relationship between motor vehicles on the sidewalk path on approaches to intersections…

I approve of this?

UPDATE: This post gives background information on the intersection. I have now ridden through it, and my opinion of it has changed. I have another post about it, and a video. Please check them out.


The image below shows a special installation of traffic signals and markings at the intersection of 16th street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC. To enlarge the image so you can read the text descriptions, click on it. You also may have a look at a Google map satellite view. Then please return to this page for my comments.

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott — and let’s also not forget African-American surveyor Benjamin Banneker — laid out Washington’s streets from scratch –  in the pre-automotive 1790s. Washington’s diagonal avenues give it an openness and unique sense of place — but the resulting uneven-length blocks and multi-way intersections make for some serious headaches now. Some traffic movements are odd, traffic signals can not be synchronized efficiently…

Before the new installation, no signals in this intersection faced new Hampshire Avenue. Bicyclists would sometimes use New Hampshire Avenue for through travel, though its conflicting one-way segments made that illegal and there was no conflict-free crossing interval.

The illustration above is from a page posted by the government of the District of Columbia describing a new installation of contraflow bicycle lanes, bicycle waiting boxes and special traffic signals. At first glance, these may raise the hair on the back of the necks of people who are suspicious of special bicycle facilities treatments.

Look again. The bike boxes look odd only because they connect with diagonal New Hampshire Avenue. They are cross-street bike boxes — which bicyclists enter from the left. Bicyclists from New Hampshire Avenue enter on a separate signal phase from the motor traffic on 16th Street, rather than to creep up on the right side of motor vehicles, as with more-usual bike-box installations. Motorists do not have to crane their necks or stare into a right-side mirror looking for these bicyclists.

The cross-street bike boxes are even more conflict-free than usual. Because only bicycle traffic runs contraflow, bicyclists do not have to negotiate with any right-turning traffic when entering the intersection.

To summarize: this installation, importantly, does not violate the fundamental traffic-engineering principle of destination positioning at intersections, as so many special bicycle facilities installations do.

Or, looking at the same conclusion from a different point of view, the installation does not require or encourage bicyclists to do anything dangerous or stupid, and it offers reasonable travel efficiency considering the situation it addresses.

I am not going to say that this installation is perfect. I can see the following issues.

  • Bicyclists’ having to wait through two traffic-signal phases is inconvenient and might lead to scofflaw behavior. A “scramble phase” could allow crossing in one step and might even apply to bicyclists arriving from other directions. It would reduce the time allocated to for all the other phases, but it might be practical, and preferable, at times of low traffic. Signals and markings which only apply at some times could, however, be confusing.
  • The installation addresses only bicycle traffic entering the intersection from New Hampshire Avenue. Traffic control remains as it was for 16th street and U street. Considering the many ways in which bicycle travel could be made slower and/or more hazardous in the name of making it better, this may be a case of “best leave well enough alone,”  but on the other hand, real improvements might be possible.
  • The bike boxes on 16th street could be interpreted as encouraging bicyclists on that street to overtake motorists on the right, then swerve in front of them, as is the more conventional with bike boxes.
  • Just outside the lower left of the picture on New Hampshire Avenue, there is wrong-way parallel parking next to the bike lane. Motorists exiting wrong-way parking spaces are in head-on conflict with bicyclists, but cannot see them if another vehicle is parked ahead. (See illustrated description of wrong-way parallel parking elsewhere, if the explanation here is unclear.) At the top right, on the other hand, note that the bike lane is farther from the curb: this segment of New Hampshire Avenue has back-in right-angle parking, avoiding the sight-line problem.
  • And, while we’re at it, I have another issue with the street grid, though it’s common to many other cities and not readily subject to correction. Streets that go east and west guarantee that twice per year,  for several days, the Sun will rise and set directly along the streets, glaring into drivers’ eyes.  If the street grid ran northeast to southwest and northwest to southeast, this would never happen. All you Pierre L’Enfants of today designing new cities, please take notice, here’s your chance to acquire a reputation as Pierre L’Enfant Terrible!

This installation is the subject of experimentation sanctioned by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, with observation, data recording and analysis to see how it works in practice. The experimentation may turn up more issues, or reveal that some are of little importance.

Now, dear readers, you also may also have points to add to the discussion. Let the comments fly.

See also: GreaterGreaterWashington blog entry about this installation; Washington, DC Department of Transportation page about it; Google maps satellite view.