The new protected bike lanes on Washington Avenue have the potential to be great, but poor bicycle signals are making it confusing and less safe for everyone.
A raised protected bike lane is a bicycle facility that is vertically separated from motor vehicle traffic. Raised protected bike lanes offer cyclists a high level of security, making them attractive to a wide spectrum of people. Though, these bicycle facilities are only as safe as their least safest spots. Furthermore, it can be argued that when paired with unsafe intersections, raised protected bike lanes can be deceivingly unsafe to the novice users they are trying to attract and serve.
In the fall of 2017 a new raised protected bike lane opened in downtown Minneapolis along Washington Ave. This welcomed addition was a part of the Hennepin County’s reconstruction of Washington Ave. from Hennepin Ave. to 5th Ave. Additionally, as part of the project, Hennepin County introduced unique bicycle-specific signals at intersections throughout the corridor. According to Hennepin County the signals are “intended to provide safe and efficient bicycle operations, as well as minimize confusion among people walking, biking and driving.”
Unfortunately, in the the first year of operation the signalization along Washington Ave. has proven to be unsafe, inefficient, and confusing. I can personally attest to this characterization because I bike along this corridor to and from work everyday from my office in the Warehouse District to my home in NE Minneapolis. Within the past few months I have been right-hooked by a right turning vehicle twice. The first time the car hit my bike tire, the second time I had to use my arm to prevent my full body from being hit.
Fortunately, improved signalization along the corridor can help eliminate many of the inefficient, unsafe, and confusing conditions. Currently there isn’t any consistent or predictable signal timing from intersection to intersection. Some intersections occasionally give a leading bicycle interval, but the majority give a leading vehicle interval. I have highlighted the current signal phasing most cyclists are experiencing in the illustration below.
As you can see, in the current phasing, vehicles in the general purpose lanes are given a green light while bicyclists see a red bicycle signal head lit. After a few seconds of a red light for bicyclists, bicyclists get a yellow flashing light, which I can only assume means “bicyclists proceed with caution, yield to right turning vehicles”. This finishes off with bicyclists and motorists both seeing a full yellow then red again. Bicyclists rarely ever see a green light on the bicycle signal head.
This signal phasing is not ideal for many reasons. First, letting vehicles go first makes pedestrians and bicyclists less visible to motorists. Bicyclists are less likely to be seen when they are behind the vehicle. It is not common for motorists to check their rearview and right-side mirrors before turning right. Second, the flashing yellow bicycle head signal gives the impression that motorists have the right-of-way and that bicyclists should be prepared to stop at any second for right turning cars. Stress, delay, and unsafe bicycle maneuvers increase when the frequency of bicyclists having to stop along a corridor increases. Anyone who cycles regularly knows to always be alert for reckless/careless driving, it's a matter of life or death. A flashing yellow bicycle is always in the heads of those biking everyday, a signal head playing that role is not really warranted.
Altering the current signal heads and signal phasing can go a long way to improve the safety and efficiency of bicycle operations, as well as minimize confusion among people walking, biking and driving. Swapping the current signal phasing between bicycles and vehicles can improve the predictability and safety of all roadway users.
The new signal phasing could operate roughly like this.
As illustrated, there are two main differences in the improved phasing. First, bicyclists actually get a leading green light on the bicycle signal head. Second, after vehicles are given the go ahead they see a yellow flashing right turn arrow. In this scenario rather than bicyclists feeling the need to yield to right-turning vehicles, right-turning vehicles should yield to through-passing bicyclists and pedestrians. In this scenario, the more vulnerable road users, bicyclists and pedestrians, will be more visible to motorists.
In talking about signalization, I recognize that part of the problem here may be the way bicycles are detected at each intersection. There is no clear area where bicycles should be to be detected. One possibility is that the induction loops are placed after the stop bars for bicyclists so bicyclists never reach the detection area to actuate the signals. Regardless of what type and where the detection area is, giving bicyclists an automatic leading interval on every signal phase may be warranted on Washington Ave. due to the volume of bicycle users.
This assessment of the raised protected bike lanes on Washington Ave. is by no means completely thorough. Adjusting the signal phasing is only one step in making Washington Ave. a safer place to bike, but is a good start. Protected intersections, two-stage turn queue boxes, and bend-out separation rather than bend-in separation are other intersection treatments that may improve roadway safety on Washington Ave. as well. These improvements can be reserved for another discussion.
Why does talking about the signalization on Washington Ave. matter? For starters, current conditions on Washington Ave. must be corrected. On May 16th 2018 I became a new father, I intend to raise my daughter to the best ability I can. I can’t do that if I let my guard down and I receive a more fatal right hook than I have experienced in the past. Talking about the signalization should also inform future projects such as the raised protected bike lanes on Hennepin Ave. Ultimately it comes down to saving lives and ensuring that we have bicycle transportation infrastructure that caters to all ages and abilities. Raised protected bike lanes are some of the best bicycle facilities to have for all levels of bicyclists, but their implementation needs to be carefully and fully executed.