Feds make it easier to install traffic signals for bikes

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 12.10.20 PMThe Federal Highway Administration has removed a layer of red tape that should make it much easier and cheaper for states, counties and cities to install bicycle-specific traffic signals.

The memo posted below goes into rather dense detail about the decision, but Seattle’s Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang simplified it to us this way:

“It makes it much easier for us to install new bicycle signals.”

Bike signals are a vital part of many protected bike lanes because they avoid turning conflicts that plague many of the old-style bike lanes we are used to in Seattle. For example, a common problem with bike lanes occurs when a person driving makes a turn directly in front of someone in the bike lane (“I didn’t you there”).

You are certainly familiar with one inadequate way the city has dealt with this problem: Simply make the bike lane disappear shortly before a major intersection. This, of course, results in a much less comfortable biking experience that is unappealing to most people.

Hey, where's my bike lane go?

Hey, where did my bike lane go? Image via Google Street View

The bike signal is one great way to solve this problem. When the bike lane has a green light, turning cars have a red. When turning cars have a green, bikes have a red.

This bike signal at Broadway and Pike is red when left-turns have a green arrow. When the bike lane gets a green, turns have a red.

This bike signal at Broadway and Pike is red when left-turns have a green arrow. When the bike lane gets a green, turns have a red.

The city already has a couple bike signals in action (34th and Fremont Ave, Linden Ave, and Broadway), but they were installed under “experimental” conditions and were not included in traffic design standards. Now, the city is much more free to install them as standard elements of bike projects.

Here’s the memo:

IA-16 – Bicycle Signal Face

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19 Responses to Feds make it easier to install traffic signals for bikes

  1. Josh says:

    Note, however, that bicycle-shaped signal faces remain unrecognized in Washington State, where the RCW limits traffic signals to specified signal shapes. Neither the RCW nor the Seattle Municipal Code recognize or authorize bicycle-shaped signal faces.

    FHWA no longer objects to the design, but they have no legal meaning in Washington. This requires a legislative correction, not administrative.

    For examples of legally-recognized vehicle-specific signals in Washington, see the bus-lane signals being installed elsewhere in Seattle, which use a standard round signal face with a “BUS SIGNAL” legend.

    http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.61.055

  2. Josh says:

    The Seattle Municipal Code equivalent to RCW 46.61.055 is in SMC Chapter 11.50 OBEDIENCE TO TRAFFIC-CONTROL DEVICES. Again, as with the RCW, there are definitions of circular signal faces and arrow signal faces, pedestrian signal faces, etc., but bicycle-shaped signals carry no legal weight under the SMC.

    They simply don’t exist in the law. They need to be defined in Ch. 11.50 or they aren’t really traffic control signals.

    This requires specific City Council action to assign a legal meaning to bicycle-shaped signal faces.

    • Matthew Snyder says:

      Josh, my reading of the code is that there is more wiggle room for state traffic engineers than you’re allowing for here.

      For example, wouldn’t WAC 468-95-017 (below) basically allow the state to use “engineering judgment” to select and install these signals?

      “Add the following Guidance to the end of paragraph 04 in MUTCD Section 1A.09:
      The decision to use a particular device at a particular location should be made on the basis of either an engineering study or the application of engineering judgment. Thus, while this manual provides Standards, Guidance, and Options for the design and application of traffic control devices, this manual should not be considered a substitute for engineering judgment.
      Engineering judgment should be exercised in the selection and application of traffic control devices, as well as in the location and design of the roads and streets that the devices complement.”

      • Josh says:

        That WAC doesn’t address the rules of the road — signals are given legal force by the RCW where it specifies the required behavior of people facing those signals.

        Even if engineering judgement allows for the *installation* of a bicycle-shaped signal, the rules of the road do not require a cyclist to *obey* that signal, or waive the requirement that the cyclist obey whatever legally-recognized signal controls the intersection.

      • Josh says:

        This really is a simple fix, but by it’s nature it’s a legislative fix, not an administrative/executive fix. The Legislature has defined the meaning of traffic signals, it’s up to the Legislature to amend those definitions.

  3. Josh says:

    This also begs the question of whether a segregated cycletrack is a vehicular travel lane under the RCW and SMC.

    If the cycletrack is a vehicle lane, then vehicular signal rules would apply.

    If the cycletrack is not a vehicle lane, not part of the street, then pedestrian rules would apply. That’s the case for people riding bicycles in crosswalks, for example.

    Reading the State Supreme Court’s reasoning in Pudmaroff, there’s a good chance that cycletracks are paths, not lanes. (That’s how SDOT is signing them on Broadway.)

    If a cycletrack is a path, and its crossing is a crosswalk, then bicycles may not enter the intersection on yellow, even if it’s a fresh yellow with plenty of time to clear the intersection. That’s quite different from vehicular signal rules, where it’s legal to enter the intersection until the signal is actually red.

    Neither the RCW nor the SMC define cycletracks or address the question of whether they’re lanes of the street or sidepaths for the purposes of the rules of the road. Until that’s addressed by the Legislature or the City Council, it’s a question that will have to be addressed piecemeal, one case at a time, by each cyclist trying to collect from a motorist after an accident.

    • Josh says:

      The FHWA Interim Approval assumes that the bicycle facility is a vehicular facility and that bicycle signals have the usual vehicular meanings… again, this is something that needs legislative clarification as the law currently stands in Washington.

      “The maximum duration of the yellow change interval should be 6 seconds. The exclusive function of the yellow change interval shall be to warn bicyclists approaching a signalized location that their permission to proceed is being terminated after which they will be directed to stop. Providing enough clearance time for a bicyclist to travel through the intersection or conflict area is the purpose of the red clearance interval, not of the yellow change interval.”

  4. Josh says:

    Finally, note that Seattle’s existing installations don’t comply with the conditions of the FHWA Interim Approval. I hope SDOT is already working to install the mandatory Bicycle Signal signage illustrated in the memo above.

    “7. Regulatory Signing:

    A Bicycle SIGNAL (R10-10b) sign (see Attachment IA-16-3) shall be installed immediately adjacent to every bicycle signal face that is intended to control only bicyclists, including signal faces that are comprised of all bicycle symbol signal indications, all arrow signal indications, and every combination thereof. The purpose of the sign is to inform any motor vehicle drivers who can also see the signal face that these signal indications are intended only for bicyclists.

    Traffic signal designs are to minimize other signing and rely on the fact that bicycles are legally considered vehicles and their responsibility to comply with traffic control devices and yield to other vehicles and pedestrians is part of the bicycling task.”

  5. Charlie says:

    Any word on where bike signals are planned?

    • daihard says:

      We already have a few on the Interurban cycletrack on Linden. Not sure where else they are planning to install it, though.

  6. Adam says:

    Will cyclists actually obey these special bicycle signals anyway? Most cyclists I see don’t obey the regular traffic lights even though they’re legally required to. Will these new signals be anything more than glorified Christmas lights?

    • Josh says:

      Behavior is a bigger component of safety than infrastructure, so I would hope most people on bikes will recognize the importance of respecting these signals, even when they aren’t legally enforceable.

      Most bicyclists I see do obey red lights, but there’s certainly a large minority who treat some red lights as stop signs, and a smaller minority who treat them as yields. That does contribute to accidents, but it’s not a huge hazard when cyclists look before running a red. That makes it a relatively low enforcement priority for police.

      Cycletrack signals are different — because the infrastructure design puts through cyclists to the right of right-turning motorists, cycletracks have much higher right-hook risks if bicycles and motorists are moving at the same time. (You can see the same at bike boxes with green entry lanes, which encourage people on bikes to overtake to the right of right-turning drivers.)

      That’s the same issue being addressed where bike lanes approach intersections that allow motorists to make right turns. Continuing the bike lane all the way to the intersection is dangerous, it puts through cyclists to the right of turning cars and trucks. And it encourages motorists to make right turns from the general purpose lane instead of first merging into the bike lane as the law requires. The intent of the dropped bike lane is that motorists and cyclists will share the intersection legally, head-to-tail, not side-by-side.

      Where cycletracks are continued to and through an intersection, separate signal phases are needed for safety. People who don’t recognize and respect that danger will be much more likely to get hit on cycletracks than they are on ordinary streets.

      I would hope that Seattle PD has ongoing enforcement emphasis, for both cyclists and motorists, as these new signals are implemented. The alternative won’t be pretty.

    • Jayne says:

      Obvious troll is obvious.

      • Adam says:

        Jayne, I’m a troll for raising a question based on my own observation? Josh, thanks for the insight.

    • daihard says:

      There are lights that don’t get triggered by bicycles, in which case I have no choice but to run them. I wait on the red light otherwise.

  7. I wonder why cities weren’t build with this in mind?
    Blame The Biker

  8. Pingback: Seattle Bike Activists Launch Major Infrastructure Campaign | The Northwest Urbanist

  9. Pingback: Seattle Bike Activists Launch Major Infrastructure Campaign | The Urbanist

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