Chicago’s bike lane signals are bad and someone is going to get hurt

Here’s some extended kvetching about Chicago’s bike lanes.

A while ago, I posted a controversial review of the new separated bike lane in Evanston–controversial because everyone loves new bike lanes and I used up a lot of space complaining about its new traffic signal arrangement.

In retrospect, it was silly for me to complain about Evanston’s traffic signal arrangement, because the lights in the Loop are worse. Much worse!

Let’s get into some nitty-gritty detail.

Washington and Clark, the Loop. Thanks, Google Street View.

What I’m referring to is a) the right-turn red arrow and b) the bike traffic signal.

Let’s take the image above as our reference. The light on the far left: “Go (cars only).” The two middle lights: “Stop if you’re a car turning right.” On the right: “Go. Cyclists only.” You can tell it’s for cyclists only because the light is shaped like a bicycle.

Same intersection, zoomed out.

The problem is that people don’t see or understand the signals. don’t really see the signals. It can be difficult to discern what they’re telling you – both because they’re hard to see and because they seem to tell you contradictory information.

This isn’t a novel observation. Three years ago, Michael Andersen of People for Bikes made a similar point in an otherwise boosterish blog post about Seattle’s new dedicated bike lanes. Andersen writes:



“The downside of dedicated signal phases is that many people in cars aren’t expecting them. Above was one of the four cars I saw approach this intersection while cars had a red arrow but bikes have a green bike signal. Of those, three illegally turned right across the bike lane despite a ‘No turn on (red dot)’ sign.


“I wondered if people were simply looking at the rightmost signal and assuming it applied to right-turning cars without noticing the bicycle shape inside the signal head.”

You think he’s wrong? Fine, let’s take it from the cyclist’s point of view. Pretend you’re on a bicycle, swiftly approaching the intersection below. Take a quick glance at this arrangement and tell me what you see:

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 11.35.23 PM.png

Green lights all around! Right?

No, not right!

I was riding through the Loop Sunday night with a knowledgable cyclist friend (“Matt”) while complaining about these very traffic signals. But “Matt” liked the signals, and we argued.

Not a minute after, we came to this very signal arrangement – what looked to me like a green light. I proceeded through the intersection. But as I approached the crosswalk, I noticed the small red bicycle signal. STOP! I slammed the brakes. Matt slammed into me. Sorries ensued (we’re polite). My pedal gouged into his front wheel. His spoke bent.

After we calmed down, I tried to use this event to my advantage. Now I have evidence to win this argument! But Matt demurred, noting that this was a single anecdote. And then, as we stood there arguing, we noticed that no one adhered to the signal. In two minutes we saw four cars turn right against the red arrow, completely oblivious to it, and one cyclist continue straight in defiance of the red bike signal. Zero drivers followed the right-turn red arrow. Not one.

This caused Matt to relent and agree that the signals were dangerous.

What’s my point? It’s not good when a traffic signal has a steep learning curve. Traffic signals to prevent people from crashing into us, so it’s important that people – all people – understand them right away.

Me, I can only explain my near crash by noting the confusing mess of nocturnal light sources.The bike signal is smaller than a regular stoplight. It’s surrounded by brighter and more prominent green lights. You can’t even see that it’s shaped like a bike until you get close! It simply melted into the streetscape.

How might this be fixed? I dunno, my job is merely to whine. But Andersen has some suggestions:

“One way to fight this misconception would be to put the bike signal lower or on the near side of the intersection, away from those that apply to cars. Another might be for the ‘no turn’ sign to picture a red arrow rather than a red dot.

“Maybe this is just one more mark in the case against turn lanes, or the case against right turns on red in general.”

Someone, do something!




11 thoughts on “Chicago’s bike lane signals are bad and someone is going to get hurt

  1. The data shows that on the Dearborn lanes bicycle signal compliance jumped from 30% to 90% after the same configuration was installed. If you want actual data, that is where you should look.


      1. No, it doesn’t measure motorist compliance to the red arrow.

        I don’t think that data is relevant to even understanding bicyclist behavior in this situation because that compares a before situation without bike-specific signals (before the Dearborn cycle track was installed) to the after situation with bike-specific signals (after the Dearborn cycle track was installed). It actually is measuring bicyclists’ compliance to red light signals, not bike signals.

        The author’s complaint is about the design of bike signals. Bike signals are used around the world and have more frequently positive outcomes than the author’s experiences in downtown Chicago. I think that Chicago’s unique bicycle signal design contributes to the author’s poor experience and observation.

        There are (at least) two design points used, in some combination, around the world:
        1. The bicycle signal is placed on the near side of the intersection, making it very difficult for a motorist to see.
        2. The bicycle signal is not placed high above or nearly above a general purpose traffic lane, in the same row as lights that apply to turning motorists, the position of which can confuse a motorist (it’s hard to quickly discern the little bike symbol above the signal lens).

        People have been trained to respond to colors of lights, and lights with arrows. Smaller lights with tiny bicycle symbols on them are new and should not be shown to motorists because the color of light is more quickly discernible, and the most important. The default appearance of a traffic signal to a motorist is red (think of when a traffic signal somehow loses its programming: it starts blinking red). When you show a green light adjacent to the red light, well, that gets confusing fast, as made evident by the many motorists the author reported (and I’ve seen from my own experience) turning against the red arrow.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, exactly. By no means is it impossible to create intuitive traffic signals along a bike lane. Other places have done it and Chicago hasn’t.

          Another bizarre thing I’ve seen re: red arrow is that some drivers treat it as a stop sign. They notice it, stop, and then in a fit of confusion (I assume) take the right anyway. Maybe it’s because rights on red are legal in Chicago. A fumbling driver might think no different about a right on a red arrow.


  2. As a car driver, bicyclist, and pedestrian, I’ve never had a problem seeing or understanding the red arrows signaling no turn. And in my experience, compliance to the red arrows is going up. Not having the red arrows leads to more dangerous situations where cars aren’t as aware of the bikes since we’re tucked into our protected bike lanes, and then suddenly we arrive together at an intersection. The cars are aware of the peds, but not of the bikes, and come an hang out in the bikes’ right of way, leading to all sorts of danger. The difference before and after at Randolph and Dearborn is stark.

    I will admit that I had a little difficulty finding my bike stoplights at some of the intersections on SB Clinton, but now that I’ve ridden it more than once, it’s pretty easy to find and follow.


    1. You’re fortunate, then, to not have motorists turning across the bike lane when the bike lane has a green signal and the motorist has a red signal.

      It happens at least once on Clinton or Washington every time I ride from Humboldt Park to the Loop (about 3x a week).

      I think the solution is “easy”: Put the lower bike signal on the near side of the intersection, and remove the one that’s really high up. I think the number of motorists turning against a red arrow would drop by 80%.


      1. On Dearborn I don’t see many rush hour drivers violating the red arrow. On Washington and Randolph it’s much more common.


          1. Left turn arrows on Dearborn and right turn arrows on Randolph and Washington. Cars are used to waiting for left turn arrows, but are not used to waiting for right turn arrows and treat it more like a right on red.


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