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New 2nd Ave traffic signals clear up confusion

beforeafter2ndwdWhen the city finally upgraded the old skinny paint-only door 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 people.

Most of downtown Seattle has traffic signals on the sides, not hanging over the center of the street. When the only information you need to convey is start or stop, this isn’t such a big deal. But when the new bike lane and left turn signals joined the walk and through-traffic signals, the post simply got overloaded with info. There could be a walk signal, a green bike, a red left arrow, a “No Turn on Red” sign and a green circle (later changed to an up arrow) all grouped next to each other.

The result was some people in cars turning left across the bike lane when bikes had the green and some people on bikes going through a red because they were looking at the green up arrow. Most people followed the signals correctly, but “most” just isn’t good enough when such serious safety issues are concerned.

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So as part of the city’s regular signal maintenance program, SDOT has started replacing the old signals with a more modern style spanning 2nd Ave. This way each lane gets its own signal, making it abundantly clear who should go and who should wait.

“We are focusing on 2nd Avenue because it’s the one over time that’s been having problems,” said Seattle Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang. “We would like to do all of them all the way [from University] down to Cherry.”

Chang said the signals did not go in with the bike lane because that project was an expedited safety project. The city put in an unprecedented effort and built the 2nd Ave pilot project in a matter of months, which is basically light speed in traffic engineering terms.

Sadly, their fears about the danger of the old bike lane were far too correct. Just ten days before the new bike lane opened, Sher Kung was killed at 2nd and University when a man driving a truck turned into her.

Going forward, bike lanes on an expedited schedule may still precede signal upgrades, but any bike lane that is part of a major capital project would get signal upgrades at launch.

“If it’s a capital project, we’d want to get it right the first time,” said Chang.

Example design in Austen, via Alta Planning + Design's "Evolution of the Protected Intersection."
Example design in Austin, via Alta’s “Evolution of the Protected Intersection.”

In other words, it’s the age-old question of quantity vs quality. Realistically, Seattle needs both strategies. We can’t always wait for big, slow-moving capital projects before making bike network upgrades.

We should expedite a fully connected center city bike network, for example, even if all the signals aren’t upgraded by the time they open. But we also shouldn’t cut corners on safety and should make interim improvements before the full upgrades are complete. In other words, SDOT needs to become pioneers in building protected intersections, both low-cost and all-out versions.

The city had previously studied compliance rates under the old signal configuration at 2nd and University, and they will be studying to see how the new signal changes behavior.

In a completely unscientific study, I sat at the intersection for 25 minutes Monday afternoon and not a single person ran any of the lights (other that the usual fudging of the yellow). It’s pretty hard to mess up at this point.

I suspect many of the people disobeying the lights previously were knowingly breaking the law, but the new signals make it so obvious that they pretty much remove all doubt.

Have you been through 2nd and University since Monday? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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24 responses to “New 2nd Ave traffic signals clear up confusion”

  1. Andres Salomon

    Great post, but here’s a minor correction:

    “We should expedite a fully connected center city bike network,”

    should be:

    “We should expedite a fully connected center city bike network before September’s NACTO conference,”


    1. Andy

      Should be
      “We should expedite a fully connected center city bike network built to NACTO standards before September’s NACTO conference”, since the current preliminary configurations SDOT is considering all fall substantially short of NACTO standards.

      1. Andres Salomon

        I’d actually like to see SDOT go further than NACTO – MassDOT or FWHA standards.

      2. Andy

        I won’t argue against that! Laying out the kind of cash the center city network will take for <150/hour capacity is disappointingly shortsighted.

  2. Marge Evans

    Tom, what did this cost? removing the old lights and installing new ones? (as you can tell I am not a fan of pbls)

  3. Andrew Squirrel

    Finally! I’ve been one of the whiners since day one. Glad they upgraded the lights.
    I’m really surprised I missed this change during my commute this morning but it looks like the left the bike lights in place on the side post. I wonder if this was a cost saving choice or an intentional way to deter the turn lane from misinterpreting the silhouette bike symbol as a green left arrow?
    I’m really surprised the bike symbol stop light is even legal.

    1. Josh

      In the interim approval for bicycle signal faces, FHWA said they should be separated from the lights that control general-purpose lanes to minimize confusion for drivers. They also suggest using those direction-limiting signal faces so that drivers can’t even see the bicycle signal lights.

      The original installation didn’t meet FHWA’s requirements, and the confusion the clustered signals created suggests that FHWA knew what they were talking about when they set the requirements.

  4. Josh

    “I suspect many of the people disobeying the lights previously were knowingly breaking the law”

    I’m not sure how many violators this would really apply to, but I’ve spoken with at least one cyclist who runs the red when clear because it’s not breaking the law — red bicycle signals aren’t yet recognized by the RCW or Seattle Municipal Code.

    A red circle has a legal meaning, a red arrow has a legal meaning, but a red bicycle does not exist in the statutory Traffic Control Signal Legend (RCW 46.61.055).

    Not sure if that’s why SPD seems uninterested in citing people who run the red on bikes, or if it’s just prioritization of risks…


    1. Curi

      I suspect it’s a prioritization of risks, etc., but regardless, I have seen a police officer pull over a driver who turned left against the red bike lane signal. That said, I am astonished to learn that the bike signal does not have any legal meaning. Seems as though any visual facet of a traffic signal device should carry legal meaning, as it is governing traffic flow. Amazing.

      1. Josh

        For drivers, all of their signals (circle, arrow, red X for closed lanes, etc.) do have legal meanings, it’s only the bicycle signal shape that hasn’t yet been incorporated into the law.

        So any driver violating the signals on 2nd can easily be cited. It’s only people on bikes who ride through when the bike signal is red who aren’t covered — the law simply doesn’t define any duty to stop for a red bicycle-shaped signal. (It also doesn’t define a green bicycle as allowing you to proceed, but as long as conflicting traffic has defined red lights, having a green bicycle undefined seems harmless…)

    2. jay

      I suspect Tom at least partly meant drivers. As you say, the red arrow does have meaning, as does a red circle. But a LOT of people turning right don’t stop for the red circle. While turning left, even from/to a one way feels different than a right, I suspect the “don’t have to stop if turning” mindset still applies to some extent.
      For the people who are going to point out that people on bicycles do the same, try counting the absolute numbers, not percentages. While I suspect the percentage is higher for people on bikes, they operate a small minority of the vehicles on the road and drivers beat them by a large margin on absolute numbers (plus cars are far more deadly) That also applies to stop signs, though in that case I’m sure the percentage is higher for bikes, but total numbers are still way higher for cars. The only reason I “suspect” rather being certain about the percentage for not stopping before turning on red is that SO many divers do it. Then of course there is going 20 over the limit, which is totally the domain of drivers, A few cyclists might manage 10 over in a school zone, but even there drivers have them beat.

      Just to be fair, one place cyclists beat drivers in absolute numbers is operating without lights, though the drivers seem to be trying to catch up this year. I work swing shift so I’m always riding at night on my way home, typically I’ll see about one car a week with their lights off, but so far this year its been about 3 or 4 a week.

  5. Curi

    This is great. I ride the 2nd Ave cycletrack every day, and the amount of confusion caused by the original signal design was immense. Drivers and cyclists (not hating, but mostly drivers) making mistakes was a routine occurrence. With so much vying for one’s attention in downtown traffic (e.g., other cars, pedestrians, road signs, signals, etc.), people often only glance at a traffic signal for long enough to register the color of the light, but little else. Fully separating the signals for each lane should have a huge positive impact on reducing this confusion. Cyclists using the 2nd Ave cycletrack will still have to remain fully on-point, particularly when traveling southbound, but at least now it will be a little less of a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best situation when passing through that intersection.

  6. Sean

    They should also move the street signs up onto the new post. I’m sure regulars don’t need them, but people who aren’t in downtown often (those least expecting they might cross a protected bike lane) now are going to be looking in two different places and having to change context.

  7. Central Districtite

    Hooray! Hope it works. Looking forward to seeing before/after compliance rates.

  8. This is fantastic. These lights look MUCH clearer. As much as I do feel like regulars at those intersections may have decided to knowingly disobey the signal, I have been in the car with multiple people going down 2nd and watching them try to turn left not realizing it wasn’t allowed. In the heat of driving through the mess of downtown traffic not-overwhelmingly-obvious signals get lost on people. This is a great improvement.

  9. Erik

    I love it! As you know, Tom, I love it so much that I emailed you about it this morning. Glad it was already on your radar.

    Ironically, the car in the left-turn lane started to turn against the red arrow my very first time through one of these newly signaled intersections last night… I’m sure it was just a fluke.

    1. jay

      “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”
      from Google:
      adverb: ironically
      in an ironic manner.
      •used to denote a paradoxical, unexpected, or coincidental situation.

      However, my first ride past the new signal was today, and, a driver turned on the red arrow. While that is hardly unexpected, and minimally paradoxical despite the intentions of the traffic engineers, that it happened at that specific intersection, on my first ride past the new signal and that I read SBB and saw your comment, is a bit of a coincidence!

      Now, one thing that is paradoxical, and perhaps ironic, is the headline of this piece, if only one signal has been changed I’d think it would increase confusion. I was going north bound and as I passed all the unchanged signals I was thinking, if people get used to having the red arrow directly in font of them at some (or as it turns out, one) intersection(s) then they are going to be even less likely to notice the old signals. Though that may also work the other way, so it may or may not have been ironic that _only_ at the new signals did I see someone turn on red (today anyway)

  10. Bb

    They should put the bus restriction lane sign by the light for that lane. Remove any signs on the street now.

    Also a bicycle safety sign pick your sign. Goes right above the bike lane on the bar sticking out.

    I ride uphill, so I would never have seen that. Thanks.

    The pole is setback and nice. Need to invent a way not to need a traffic box, but it’s placed in a semi good spot.

  11. Becky

    I’d really like to see a signal for the northern terminus for northbound riders. I always have to guess about what’s happening there. I haven’t been to 2nd Ave in a little while though – has a signal been installed at Pike for northbound cyclists?

    1. jay

      I think you are supposed the use the pedestrian signal (unless you are turning right and channeling you inner car driver, in which case you don’t need no stinkin signal)
      I can understand your point, the other bike signals give one more time to cross, still green while the cross walk signal is counting down. But at Pike where are you going to go? if you are making a two point left in the cross walk it only makes sense to use the pedestrian signal because if you are in the cross walk you shouldn’t be going that much faster than pedestrians, if turning right, see above.

      Now, if one did want to strictly obey the law, one could make the point that a don’t walk signal means don’t go at all, while (at most intersections) a red traffic signal means make a full stop (LOL) then, if safe, a right turn is ok. But that doesn’t work so well on a bike because it is harder to intimidate the pedestrians crossing east-west on a bike than in a car. Though, curiously, the pedestrians will complain a lot more if you do it on your bike than if you do it with a car.

      1. Becky

        I do turn right on Pike at the north end, and yeah I guess I just use the ped signal to avoid the people turning left from southbound 2nd. But: the whole length of the lane has bike-specific signals and if we want to improve legibility and compliance with signals I think it makes sense to be consistent and install a bike signal at the north end for northbound riders.

  12. Maybe we can get some consistent enforcement of these signals? Please?

    Last time I visited Chicago I heard all about the red-light cameras all over the city and suburbs. I heard about them from drivers that hate them. But hate ’em or not, they knew what was up and changed their behavior. People I know that used to speed like fiends and creep out across the crosswalk now drive the speed limit (at least near intersections) so they’ll have time to stop behind the line. When I went running I was truly impressed — I don’t think I saw any cars hanging over crosswalks the whole trip, even on big suburban highways!

    Supposedly towns in Illinois are trying to profit from cameras, and we can dispense with that. Send out warnings for first-time offenders with explanations of how the signal works, and use small fines after that, since big ones don’t really have more deterrent value. But leave no question — if you go through a red or block the crosswalk along key bike and pedestrian routes you’ll get something in the mail.

  13. […] avenue: New signals on Second Avenue make the street less confusing for all, says Seattle Bike […]

  14. […] We’ve already reported about signal improvements underway to clear up confusion about which signals apply to which lanes. Not all of those will be done by May, but work is ongoing SDOT staff said during Wednesday’s meeting of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board. […]

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