Feb 15, 2012

Bicycle-Scale Traffic Signals

Every time I make my way up the Panhandle and reach Masonic Avenue, a feel a bit of joy when I see the intersection's bicycle traffic signals. I sometimes also (and will more frequently with the forthcoming JFK cycle track) take the "Shrader Valve" just to use another bike signal. Traffic control devices designed specifically for bicycle traffic bestow some dignity on people when they are riding their bicycles – that they are a legitimate part of traffic and road design is taking their safety and comfort into account.

While I love these new signals, my only complaint is that they are often placed too high, oriented in a fashion more appropriate for those who are driving. In other countries, not only are bicycle traffic signals nothing new, but they are usually oriented in a much more visible position and will often also include a mini-signal on the near-side of the intersection. New signals in the Netherlands even include a countdown until the next green – a feature Dutch traffic engineers claim reduces red light running. To further explain what I mean by "bicycle-scale traffic signals", I'd like to share my favorite examples from cities I've visited in Europe.

This signal in Haarlem, The Netherlands controls a small intersection which crosses a busy cycle track. The mini-signal is oriented directly within the field-of-view of people bicycling. The girl in the photo just hopped off her bike to cross the street by foot – ah, the joys of the step-through frame.

Here's another from Haarlem with a countdown feature. The signal just turned red and the white dots will slowly disappear around the circle before it turns green.

This is an older model. Some intersections with less bicycle traffic have a "beg button" and/or a detector in the pavement to activate the signal. Fortunately, the light usually turns green quickly.

While not visible in the other shots, at least in the Netherlands, there is also a larger bicycle signal placed higher (but not too high) for people approaching the intersection from farther away. This one near Centraal Station in Amsterdam uses a numerical countdown.

This cycle track has separate signals for turning left and continuing straight. The design is similar to what is planned for the Market / Valencia intersection, though for the Valencia project those turning left will instead be guided into a right-side queue box. I think I prefer the design in this photo over what the SFMTA envisions.

And finally an old one from Munich. This is one of those older cycle tracks which people in Munich are complaining about because they are too narrow to comfortably pass or ride two abreast. They are ironically advocating for more on-street bike lanes over these narrow tracks.

I'm really looking forward to seeing more bicycle traffic signals pop up in San Francisco and am glad that cities as diverse as New York, Portland, Long Beach, and San Luis Obispo are using them. (Of course, such signals have been around for decades in other countries.) Unfortunately, current Caltrans standards state that bicycle signals should only be used as a last resort and under very limited conditions [CA MUTCD 4C.102(CA), 4D.104(CA)]. We need to advocate strongly for these devices, as making passage through intersections easier is an essential part of opening up bicycling for more people. I hope that when new signals are installed, engineers take care to choose and orient the devices in an appropriate fashion for the people who will be using them.

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