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.
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.
The problem is that people don’t see or understand the signals. I 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:
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!