A Case Study, Riding through the Charlotte Intersection: Some Answers
Last month in this column, I showed a video of two different ways to ride through the same intersection. I asked a number of questions. You may go back to the article to review them.
My friend Pamela Murray and I rode in a bike lane behind a concrete barrier, and then again in the normal flow of traffic shared with motor vehicles.
Bicycling is most practical for transportation in urban and suburban areas, where most people live, and travel distances are relatively short. Pamela and I were riding on a main street in a suburban business district. Most riding on such streets will be utility riding – commuting, errands, trips to visit friends. Utility riding is a great way to get daily exercise and save money. Often it is more convenient than driving or taking public transportation.
Advocates and governments are attempting to promote bicycling to reduce fossil-fuel use. How successful are these attempts, and how successful will they be as situations change: particularly with the increasing popularity of e-bikes?
I present the video and these articles as a case study. I highlighted specifics in last month’s article but my goal was to move you to ask larger questions: does the intersection actually work well? Is it cost-effective? Does it promote safe, orderly and legal conduct by all road users? Will it be able to handle an anticipated increase in bicycle travel? Can users easily understand what they need to do? Knowing my goal, you may watch the video again and consider the different points I highlighted.
Some issues about how to use any intersection treatment can be grasped only through study – the subject of my March and June articles. The more complicated and confusing the treatment, the harder it is to know how to use. You have an advantage here over Pamela and me when we rode through the intersection, because you can review the video. In the video, you can see that we hadn’t figured everything out yet. Actually, we still aren’t sure about how some things work. But let’s give it a try.
Interactions between bicyclists and motorists are complicated with a barrier-separated bike lane, so motorists cross the path of bicyclists to turn right. This intersection attempts to address the issue with separate signal phases for right-turning motorists and through-traveling bicyclists. Are the special signals at this intersection successful? I think largely so for motorists: the illuminated NO TURN ON RED assign is very explicit. But as you can see at 2:00 and following in the video, it is only illuminated part- time: during the special left-turn and bicycle signal phases. It is dark and not visible at all, at other times, unlike a conventional NO TURN ON RED sign. (I only noticed this just now, reviewing the video!)
The bicycle signals are confusing. They are small. One is on the far side of the intersection out of line with the bike lane. Pamela did not notice it, though she rides 6,000 miles per year and is a Cycling Savvy instructor, The other signal is a near-side signal nest to the bike lane, high on a pole and hidden behind tree branches. Neither Pamela nor I saw it when riding. I noticed it only when reviewing the video! Near-side signals are common in Europe, often alone, cleverly making it unworkable to creep forward into the intersection. But the Euro signals are low, where they will be visible. A design rule in the US says that signals have to be placed high. This way, they are more visible at the far side of the intersection, and vehicles can pass under them.
Bicyclists are supposed to push a button to actuate the bicycle signal, but the sign giving this instruction is at a right angle to bicyclists’ line of travel. It is also unclear whether pushing the button is necessary or whether it works at all: on our second pass through the intersection, the bicycle signal was green, though nobody was using the bike lane. Motorists were prohibited from turning right, though there was no conflict. In any case, the separate signal phases increase delay and reduce carrying capacity for both bicyclists and motorists.
There is a footrest/handrail (they cost $2000 each). A bicyclist using the footrest/handrail can’t reach the pushbutton.
Does a footrest/handrail make sense at all? They can be installed only at a small percentage of the places where bicyclists stop and restart. There is room on the footrest/handrail for two bicyclists. With the hoped-for increase in bicycle use, most will be lined up behind it. Is every bicyclist going to wipe down the handrail, or will hand-sanitizing dispensers perhaps be provided?
Might it just make more sense to teach bicyclists the power pedal technique to stop and restart? This is not an issue with CRW members – we learn from each other – but I see many bicyclists who sit on the saddle at a stop with their feet barely reaching the ground. Really. They rode a tricycle or BMX bicycle as a child and never relearned. They restart clumsily, slowing others waiting behind them.
Some signs aren’t in the line of sight of motorists; some clearly are leftovers from before the bike lane was installed, and their messages are no longer accurate. One says drivers must yield to pedestrians, none says that they must yield to bicyclists, though the bike lane is closer than the crosswalk. Right turns across the bike lane are covered at least in theory by the NO TURN ON RED sign but on the other hand, it has issues, as already described.
This is a high-volume intersection, where lots of motorists turn right. If bicyclists are to go straight through to the right of right-turning motor traffic, the special signalization is warranted to avoid right-turn conflicts .But -- there are dozens of other places along the street here where motorists can turn right. The video shows three – a residential driveway and two commercial ones. Some conflict areas have green paint to warn motorists. Some have large flowerpots every couple hundred feet, forming a buffer. Some have flex posts to force motorists to turn right from the left side of bicyclists. One line of flex posts in the video prevents bicyclists from merging out of the bike lane where it becomes a parking lane. Big-picture question: is it less important to signalize 100 driveways where 3 cars per day turn right, than to signalize one intersection where 300 turn right?
Here’s the basic safety message I can offer: a separate bikeway may make people feel safer, but this one – unlike, for example, the Minuteman Rail Trail – is not truly separate. Most motor-vehicle-bicycle crashes in urban areas result from crossing and turning conflicts, and linear separation of bicycle and motor traffic does not remove them.
My description of the issues with the installation in the video is detailed, because they are complicated. My goal with this article is for you aware of such issues in your daily riding. To truly be looking out for yourself, you have to check for traffic that might turn right across your path at every driveway and cross street, and even with the complicated signalized intersection treatment shown in the video. With many conflict points, you can become fatigued about checking in real time. Skillful use of a rear-view mirror can make the task easier. As the video shows, riding in the normal flow of traffic is much less complicated!
A cyclist may be comfortable or with riding in the company of motor traffic, or not. The fear factor for the uncomfortable bicyclist is lowered, but the skill level and attentiveness required to ride safely in a not-truly-separate bikeway are actually higher.
This is an unfortunate quandary and the only good answer for it, no matter where a bicyclist may choose to ride, is education. This will become an increasingly pressing issue as e-bikes allow people to go fast without building both skill and fitness together.