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2nd Ave bike lane continues to wow, city plans a few tweaks

The 2nd Ave protected bike lanes helps move people AND goods through downtown
The 2nd Ave protected bike lanes helps move people AND goods through downtown
Volunteer ambassadors and SDOT staff observe and inform users
Volunteer ambassadors and SDOT staff observe and inform users

In its third day of operation, the 2nd Ave protected bike lane continues to wow people and transform the way people (and goods) get around downtown.

The new bike lane — separated from car traffic by either a row of parked cars or a painted buffer lined with reflective plastic posts — feels far safer to use than the previous skinny bike lane or any other central downtown street. It also allows two-way travel for people biking, which has opened up all new bike route options.

Nearly every SDOT staffer I spoke with was amazed at how quickly so many people started biking north on the bikeway, revealing a huge pent-up demand for moving north through this part of downtown. Previously, people either needed to climb way up to 4th (a huge hill at many points downtown) or take scary routes on busy 1st Ave or bus-filled 3rd Ave. Or, of course, many people simply biked up the packed sidewalk on 2nd. The uphill grade on 2nd is smooth and easy, and even though you are likely to hit a red light every two blocks or so, that’s a fine trade for a less stressful route.

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SDOT collected lots of bike use data before implementing the new bike lane, and they have been counting bikes on the bikeway since it opened. That data should be available soon (stay tuned).

But the safety of the bike lane depends on people driving and biking understanding and following the traffic signals designed to prevent conflicts at intersections. Many people either misunderstand or disregard the red arrows and red bike signals and proceed anyway, a problem the city is aware of.

Volunteer ambassadors and SDOT staff have been out along the new bike lane helping to teach people driving and biking how the new lane and signals work, and those efforts appear to have been somewhat effective. Fewer people seemed to run the red left turn arrows and red bike signals on day two according to our non-scientific observations, a sign that people who use the street regularly learned their lesson on the first day and now use it properly.

IMG_3257Here’s an example: Some people on bikes would fail to stop at the red bike signal heading downhill at University, one of the first major left turn intersections on the project. Ambassadors and SDOT staff would yell at them to look for the bike signals, since it is likely they just saw the green ball for car traffic and assumed that was for them. Further down the route at left turn intersections like Marion or Cherry, nearly every person biking would stop at the red bike signal. So they got the message after screwing it up the first time, which is good. But it’s not good enough. People need to get the message the first time before a conflict occurs.

People biking uphill have only one signal facing them: The bike signal. I’m not sure I ever saw someone run that red light, suggesting that the downhill light runners were not able to fully digest what all the signals meant by the time they got to the intersection.

A similar problem is likely facing people making left turns. Most people want to follow the rules, but somehow seeing a red left arrow is not enough to stop left turns. Crosscut reports that the city has observed the problem and it planning some tweaks to the intersection design to help make things more clear.

At Yesler and Broadway.
At Yesler and Broadway.

One plan is to replace the signs reading “Left Turn On [Green Arrow] Only” to the more direct and familiar signs saying they cannot turn on a red arrow. They will also change the green ball (which tells other car traffic on 2nd they can go straight) to an up arrow, further differentiating it from the red left arrow.

If that does not work, perhaps the city can use an electronic no turn signal like the one in place at Broadway and Yesler. That sign illuminates only when turns are not allowed.

Seattle police officers were also out along 2nd Ave Tuesday making traffic stops along the route to help with enforcement. Enforcement is needed for people who knowingly disregard the law (this did happen), but clear design is more important to prevent confusion for the vast majority of people who want to follow the rules.

Broadway and Boren.
Broadway and Boren.

One idea that could help make the bike signal more clear would be to have the signal in two locations: One where it is on the far side of the intersection and one on the near side (where it would be the only signal and, therefore, harder to miss).

The city used near and far bike signals on some confusing locations on the Broadway Bikeway like Boren. This concept is also commonly used on protected bike lanes in Europe (sometimes Dutch intersections have even more than two bike signals to guide people through).

The city is also finishing up work at the intersection with Pike, which had been rather uncomfortable in the first couple days. But the work does not address the most common complaint I have heard about the bike lane: Why isn’t it longer?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on which connections are most needed now that the most central piece has been completed.

UPDATE (9/11): The city has already made several changes, including swapping the signs out to read “no turn on red” and changing the green balls to up arrows:

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 2.41.24 PM

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38 responses to “2nd Ave bike lane continues to wow, city plans a few tweaks”

  1. Kirk

    I got to ride 2nd Avenue yesterday for the first time (ok I did it three times) and it was awesome! I saw all of the confusion noted above. For the record, the sign shown doesn’t show “Left Turn On [Green Arrow] Only”. It shows “Left Turn On (White Arrow in a Green Circle) Only”. It really looks more like a green circle than a green arrow, especially since it isn’t a green arrow. I hope they put up a “No Turn On (red arrow graphic)”.
    I’m certain that if the signals were moved out to the traffic lanes, they would be much easier to decipher, and would make the bike signals more obvious to bikers. Is this being considered?
    The ending northbound at Pike is a mess. If heading west, cyclists are directed to the sidewalk, which only has a very small wheelchair ramp. If this is the long term solution, there would need to be a much wider ramp.
    I rode in the early evening, when the valets seemed busy. These seemed like the diciest parts of the whole route.

    1. Josh

      The legal standard in Washington is “NO TURN ON RED”, all text.

      There is no legally approved “NO TURN ON [red arrow graphic]” sign, nationally or in Washington.

      WAC requiring R10-11a or R10-11b sign:

      Examples of R10-11a and R10-11b signs:

      1. Kirk

        I’ve seen “No Turn On (red dot/cricle graphic)” all over the city. If they can make that sign, it seems a red arrow graphic isn’t very much different….

      2. Josh

        Intuitively, you’re right, it seems like a reasonable sign. But that’s not how the system works.

        There’s a national standard manual of approved signs and signals, so that drivers from Florida know how to drive in Vermont.

        The national standard, MUTCD, is controlled by FHWA. Before FHWA will approve a new traffic control device, it has to be tested in multiple locations to make sure it actually works — do drivers understand it, is it ambiguous, does it have any unintended consequences?

        But, even after a new sign or signal is approved by FHWA, it may also need to be approved for use in individual states.

        For example, the bicycle signal lights on 2nd Ave were tested in various cities around the country, and FHWA gave interim approval for them late last year, so there are accepted engineering requirements for them now. But they don’t yet have any legal meaning in Washington or Seattle — the Legislature and the City Council haven’t yet written them into the law.

        When it comes to “NO TURN ON RED” signs, MUTCD includes both all-text, “NO TURN ON RED,” and “NO TURN ON RED [red ball graphic]” versions of the sign, as well as an all-text “LEFT ON GREEN ARROW ONLY.” But there’s no approved design for “NO TURN ON RED [red arrow graphic]” or “LEFT ON GREEN [green arrow graphic] ONLY”.

        That doesn’t mean the signs wouldn’t work, just that they aren’t legally available to use yet.

    2. S

      They should separate out the left-turn signal from the straight-ahead signal. The straight-ahead signal should be mounted overhead, well to the right of the bike lane. Then the left-turn signal can have “LEFT TURN SIGNAL” and “NO TURN ON RED” signs.

  2. jay

    “revealing a huge pent-up demand”, either that or the novelty of the thing. I normally ride Western, but have been taking 2nd this week for the novelty of it. Since I then have to continue on some other street (usually 1st) to get to Elliot, I don’t know that I will continue to use 2nd, though if the bike lane continued to Denny I would likely use it all the time.

    “Some people on bikes would fail to stop at the red bike signal heading downhill at University,”
    Wait, what? University? maybe they were just distracted by the ghost bikes? I think that is about the last intersection I’d run a red light (not that I run red lights anywhere, stop signs, on the other hand, well, um, no comment)

    1. Gary

      Well I was just down at the intersection of University and 2nd and there was a bicycle cop handing out tickets & warnings to a) bicyclists running the red. b) cars turning right on the red.

      So lots of confusion for both riders and drivers still.

      1. Kirk

        You may be confused. I think you meant the cop was handing out tickets for cars turning left on red…

      2. Gary

        Nope, It was a bicycle cop giving a ticket to a bicyclist.

      3. Kirk

        “…at the intersection of University and 2nd… b) cars turning right on the red.” Any cars in the vicinity of the bike lane would be turning left.

      4. Gary

        “left on red”… I sit corrected.

        I also went down there again today and there was a SPD officer at the corner giving out warnings to cars which started to make the turn on the red light. There seemed to be fewer problems than yesterday so I assume that the regular drivers are figuring it out.

  3. Josh

    It might also help to enlarge the “bicycle signal” signs. FHWA requires a minimum size of 12×18 inches, but since it’s a novel installation, it might make sense to use the larger standard, 18×24 inches.

    FHWA also suggests, “In cases where motor vehicle drivers might be confused by viewing the bicycle signal indications, such as when the start or end of a green bicycle signal indication occurs at a different time than the start or end of a green signal indication for a concurrent adjacent motor vehicle movement, consideration should be given to using visibility-limited bicycle signal faces. If visibility-limited bicycle signal faces are used, the signal faces shall be adjusted so that bicyclists for whom the indications are intended can see the signal indications.”

    In other words, cars won’t be confused by the green bike if they can’t see the green bike.

    FHWA Interim Approval requirements and guidance:

  4. Josh

    The near-side signal can also be mounted much lower, to improve conspicuity to cyclists, by putting it on the signal post at the sidewalk — a bit like the red/green lights controlling metered access ramps onto the freeway. That gets it down low, so riders aren’t craning their necks to see it like they have to in that Boren example.

    FHWA allows a near-side supplemental bicycle signal to be mounted as low as 4 feet if it’s over the sidewalk instead of over the lane — low enough that even a heads-down roadie should see the red light ahead.

  5. EAL

    I rode 2nd Ave (north) on the way home yesterday, from Pioneer Square. It offered a nice, gentle slope as far as Pine. But I was dismayed by the number of drivers who end up blocking the bike lanes by being the last car to cross the intersection when the lane ahead is already full and stopped (up, east, by a red light). This creates confusion and frustration for all involved: will the driver stay in place? moving forward? do they see cyclists (and pedestrians)? This problem is evident on Mercer and Dexter as well. Why aren’t these gamblers given citations of some kind?

    1. Josh

      Just a question of enforcement priorities, the law is clear enough:

      RCW 46.61.202
      Stopping when traffic obstructed.

      No driver shall enter an intersection or a marked crosswalk or drive onto any railroad grade crossing unless there is sufficient space on the other side of the intersection, crosswalk, or railroad grade crossing to accommodate the vehicle he or she is operating without obstructing the passage of other vehicles, pedestrians, or railroad trains notwithstanding any traffic control signal indications to proceed.

    2. Kara Sweidel

      YES YES YES. This needs to be enforced. I’ve never encountered so many intersection blockers as I have in Seattle. I can’t believe there are never cops just parked giving out tickets. City ticket revenue would increase by… I don’t even know, but it would be a lot. I’ve taken to slapping the cars as I bike past them. I will continue to do that, for what it’s worth, which is probably nothing. Dexter and Denny has always been one of the worst intersections for that, but I also saw it at 2 intersections on Tuesday, when I happened to be in the area of using the new northbound bike lane on 2nd. Traffic enforcement seems pretty abysmal in the city.

    3. Bryan

      @EAL, there is the same problem on Roanoke between 10th and Harvard on North Capitol Hill, drivers blocking both bike lanes and crosswalks, and confusion about what a red arrow means. I see many people stop at the red arrow, while drivers behind them honk incessantly. I know that you are legally allowed to go on the red arrow in certain situations, but better signage would help – including ‘DO NOT BLOCK CROSSWALK’.

  6. Andrew Squirrel

    Regarding the stoplights that are on street corners instead of hanging above the lane at the intersection:
    I’ve noticed stoplights for the Northbound cyclists actually blocks the view of the stoplight for approaching southbound cyclists. (see this photo I took: http://i.imgur.com/sSYVlrs.jpg)
    I freaked out this morning thinking a bunch of cars were running the red arrow and taking a left across the cycletrack.
    I looked for confirmation in the light but couldn’t see the cluster at all!
    It wasn’t until I was a few meters from the Spring st intersection that It became obvious the cars were being operated correctly.
    I could see this being bad for cyclists approaching the intersection rapidly unable to see the state of the streetlight cluster thinking they have the right of way and slamming on the brakes at the last second. The consequences could be much worse during the winter with wet pavement and slippery paint.

    1. Ben P

      I experienced the same at University. Near side signals should help; I hope they put them in.

  7. RossB

    ” They will also change the green ball (which tells other car traffic on 2nd they can go straight) to an up arrow, further differentiating it from the red left arrow.”

    That should help a lot. Generally speaking, in most areas, you can turn left (or right) on a green ball (as long as there is no cross traffic). Yes, there is a sign, but there are tons of other signs, pedestrians, one way streets, etc., and I’m sure the drivers just get confused and think the green ball means go. I’m not making excuses, but just saying the green up arrow will help a lot.

    Personally, if I were the city and the confusion continues, I would consider simply closing off the left turn option (for cars) along second. The drivers can always make three rights to go left (that is often the way I do it when driving a two way street). It is downtown — you can’t expect driving to be fast or convenient.

  8. Chief

    It would also be nice to see signs indicating that it’s still legal for bikes to take the full lane in the street on 2nd, day 3 and it’s starting to get old hearing drivers bitch at people on bikes taking the lane to get in the cycle track. Educational outreach please.

  9. Johnny Gutierrez

    Cars are ignoring the red allow and keep making illegal turns. This is unacceptable. This gives cyclists a false sense of confidence and could potentially be worse than what we had before.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qrzy7oj2xA&w=560&h=315%5D

  10. Gary

    Part of the problem that cars keep making an illegal left turn is that the current configuration doesn’t make it obvious that the left lane should stop and wait for the signal.

    In NYC with their bike lane it’s more obvious.

    1. DrewJ

      NYC is also unique in the US that Right/Left Turn on Red is not legal anywhere in the city. That solves a lot of the issues we’re seeing here. Plus, it makes jaywalking safer, which is why you see so much of it there.

  11. I’ve used it in both directions now, and I’m bitterly disappointed with the handling of the ends – I think the north end is bad enough that it might outweigh the good on 2nd Ave itself, even with the refinements mentioned in this post.

    First of all, why does it end where it does? Extending it from Yesler to Jackson (or doing something good on Occidental Ave or the non-arterial 2nd Ave S) would very much improve connectivity with the rest of the bike network – without that there’s a gaping hole. And ending at Pike St dumps us into particularly busy, confused traffic with some hill left to climb – why doesn’t it continue to the other bike network connections at Bell & Blanchard? Or at least interface properly with the bike arterial WB on Pine St? This feels like what we get for cheering SDOT on while they rushed through a project ignoring the Bike Master Plan.

    Then, northbound. I want to join the Yesler spur at Occidental Ave, which is a useful connection for many Pioneer Square offices… but there are concrete barriers there, so I have to go diagonally across a street where cars are waiting for me and drivers confused by my path. I wanted to turn left at the Pike St end to get to the market – there’s road paint of an arrow with left and right, with no light, but following that on the bike would be suicidal so I end up dismounting and crossing two crosswalks to get to the two-way track on Pike. I’m not sure that’s quicker than just walking to 1st Ave, it’s certainly not easier, and I’m afraid of people who don’t know the area or aren’t used to road cycling just following the arrow and being hit by cars careening down 2nd.

    Southbound, I had a scary near miss with a truck this morning, where the old lane between Pine & Pike suddenly jogs across the turn lane, and they just ignored all the paint and kept going straight. That merge across the turn lane is always going to be a problem – the only way I can see to fix it is to start the trail at a WB street so there is no left turn to accommodate. Then at Yesler the only safe place for me to wait to turn right is blocking the bike lane for anyone behind me who wants to keep going on 2nd, and the same happens when I want to turn left from Yesler to Occidental.

    In between, the lane’s a huge improvement, but having a load/unload zone across it creates a hazard for the people doing the loading and unloading, one of whom stepped into my path this morning – eek! I wonder if those could be moved to the cross streets?

  12. Ballardite

    I can’t imagine the chaos that would be ensuing if the city had stuck with its “original plan to direct people on bikes to follow the existing walk signal” (from http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2014/08/21/new-sdot-director-wisely-adds-bike-signals-to-2nd-ave-bike-lane-design-could-open-by-labor-day/)

    Hopefully the success of this project will prove to SDOT that Scott Kubly’s ‘do it right the first time’ attitude is the correct one. This city is so full of half-baked bicycle infrastructure because of SDOT’s apparent attempts at avoiding any initial pushback. Or maybe it’s been cheapness, laziness, or simply not knowing better. Whatever the reason, the terribly designed missing link band-aid in Ballard and the near complete lack of meaningful motor vehicle traffic diversion devices on the neighborhood greenways are prime examples. Along with those damned sharrows all over the place.

    It’s really great to see SDOT get a project (mostly) right the first time, and to get it done so quickly. I hope this is a harbinger of things to come.

    1. Kirk

      Agreed! I hope Scott Kubly can keep it up and do it right the first time. His next big opportunity is at Westlake. Because it really looks like it is being done all wrong. Westlake needs to be safe and logical for anybody using a bicycle for transportation. This is the second attempt by the city in making a bike passage through Westlake. The previous sidewalk attempt is obviously a dismal failure. It really looks to me that the current sidewalk design is doomed to be a failure as well. This is arguably the most important bicycle corridor in the city. It must be done right!

    2. clark in Vancouver

      The experience in Vancouver the past few years is that there will be complaints about anything, whether it’s well designed or poorly designed. Implementing something badly, or pre-compromising a project in the hope that that will prevent opposition is futile. I say, attempt the best and be ready to respond to the opposition and you’ll have something after that dies down, that will be good.
      The other problem with compromising is that people tend to not use it as much which makes the next project harder to justify.

  13. Bob Hall

    I will hold off an accepting any of the extreme praise or extreme criticism of this new lane until things settle. It’s simply too soon to tell how this will work out. My intuition says that most users will eventually learn how the signals work and conflicts will decrease. The real proof will be to see whether the number of collisions per year goes down.

  14. I tried out the 2nd ave lane today heading south and accidentally ran a red “bike” signal because I saw the green “car” arrow signal. The layout of the different signal systems is confusing, and I know there were some constraints because they need to be able to get big trucks through the area. I think there needs to be two signals, directly and cleanly next to each other. On the left, BIKE SIGNAL with the corresponding bike signals below and on the right, CAR SIGNAL, with the corresponding car signal. If they’re going to use a picture of a bike for the bike signal, why not a picture of a car for the car signal? “arrow” just means go to most everyone.

  15. […] as to whether the green signal allows for a left turn or not. Seattle Bike Blog also suggests installing electronic no-turn signals if the former solution does not […]

  16. Clark in Vancouver

    Both Hornby street and Dunsmuir street in Vancouver have similar two-way protected bike lanes with advance turn signals for the general lanes. It took a bit for everyone to get used to them. Eventually most did.
    They’re still intersections and like any intersection, you have to pay attention. That will never change.
    But they’re great. You’re going to love having this.

  17. Michael

    I think that one problem that no one is mentioning is that the intersections are just too visually cluttered for anyone to be able to quickly read the signage, signals, and also look for pedestrians/cyclists. I’m a graphic designer and my first reaction is that the crosswalks create too much visual noise. Then they added striped green paint for some reason (why isn’t it solid like broadway’s cycle track intersections). In addition to that drivers are having to quickly adjust to multiple signals, bollards, etc.

    It needs to be simplified visually. Reduce the amount of visual noise and some of these elements will become easier to see by all users.

  18. […] data also shows that changes in signage and the excellent educational outreach efforts by Cascade Bicycle Club volunteers and SDOT staff […]

  19. […] early efforts to improve the bike lane focused on the signalized intersections, which makes sense because that is how Sher Kung died just […]

  20. […] zone bike lane on 2nd Ave in 2014, it was an incredible increase in biking comfort downtown. But almost immediately after opening one thing became clear: The array of signals hanging on just one street post was confusing […]

  21. […] the city opened the 2nd Ave protected bike lane in 2014, it was intended to be a demonstration project so SDOT staff could work out design kinks […]

  22. […] the city opened the 2nd Ave protected bike lane in 2014, it was intended to be a demonstration project so SDOT staff could work out design kinks […]

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