In my previous annual bicycle safety blog I discussed the fact our road infrastructure is by and large not designed to accommodate people riding bicycles. People driving cars often get frustrated with cyclists for not following the rules so I thought I come back to this subject with an illustration.
Here’s a typical intersection by the West End in St. Louis Park. I live nearby and I’ve ridden my bike through this intersection, and I’ve driven my car through it many times; I’m telling you, those are two completely different experiences. Bear in mind this is NOT an old intersection, it was built when the West End was built.
The street on the right, leading to the shopping district didn’t exist 6-8 years ago, there was a racket club of some kind there if I remember correctly. Even when we have a chance to design new streets and intersections with bicycles in mind we don’t do it. This intersection has all the modern bells and whistles, striped pedestrian crosswalks with audible signals for the vision impaired, nice wide sidewalks, plenty of lanes for cars and trucks, fancy lights, etc. NOTHING for cyclists. As cyclist you just have to figure out how to get through this intersection on your own, safely and legally.
If you’re in a car, or walking across this intersection it’s very simple, you just go when the signal tells you to go. On a bike, this is a much more complex problem than many people may realize.
Let’s say for instance that you’re trying to get to the super market (marked by the green “X”) to buy a gallon of Milk. According to the law, a cyclist (represented by the yellow line) is supposed to obey the traffic signal and ride as far to the right as is practicable.
Note that there is no bike lane here, nor are the car lanes very wide. This means a cyclist would practically ride in the gutter while cars squeeze by to the left. Then, having arrived at the next intersection, the cyclist has make a left turn and cross four lanes of traffic, (two from the opposite direction), in order to get over to the supermarket. By the way, that second intersection, is NOT a controlled intersection; there are no stop signs there to stop the traffic although there is a crosswalk for pedestrians.
Now a vehicular bike rider who believes in driving his or her bike as-if it’s a car might do it differently. Such a rider would park themselves right in the midst of the cars and ride in the car lane until they got to the crosswalk and then turn.
Of course this is the kind of cyclist that car drivers love to hate as they poke along at 15-20 mph waiting to see where the bike rider is going. This option is actually illegal because it blocks and otherwise interferes with traffic. It’s also not the safest option in my opinion because it assumes that car drivers will behave reasonably and everyone sees the cyclists. Nevertheless I’ve seen people do it.
A third option, not illustrated here, is that a cyclist cross one way, and then the other along with the pedestrian signal. While that may be safe, it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike.
A fourth option, and the one that I usually choose, is to use the sidewalk, crosswalk and the pedestrian signal on the north side of the intersection.
It’s permissible in this location to ride on these sidewalks, and as long as you ride with requisite caution and mindful of pedestrians you’re not going to put yourself or anyone else in danger. Some people may not realize that at this location, that option is perfectly legal. I know what you’re thinking, I had to cross traffic to get to my sidewalk, and that’s true, and it’s a good point. It just so happens that it’s easy and safe to cross traffic on this particular street on the approach to this intersection. on a different street in a different location I might not have that option. This just illustrates the fact that each intersection can present its own challenges for a cyclist.
Now let’s look at a slightly different scenario where a cyclist at this intersection is simply trying to make a left turn.
Again, in a car, you just get in the left turn lane and wait for the light to change. As a pedestrian you just wait for the signal and cross the street one way, and then the other. A cyclist on the other hand is faced with all kinds of problems.
Minnesota law grants bicycle riders status as: “Drivers”, with all the rights and privileges of motorized vehicles on the roads (see the statute here). However, while cyclists may have the rights, they don’t have necessarily have lanes, so this means in some circumstances we’re supposed to use lanes designed for cars and trucks, or… not.
One way to make a left turn (not pictured) would be to simply use the pedestrian crosswalks (MN law also grant cyclist on sidewalk or crosswalks all the rights and privileges of pedestrians, and you don’t have to dismount). You cross to one side, and then the other according to the pedestrian signal. However cyclist aren’t required to do that, and again it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike instead of walking.
Another way would be to use the left hand turn lanes and make the turn just like a car. However in this scenario a cyclist is again faced with several problems. If there are two left hand turn lanes, which one do you use? And where do you stop while waiting for the light to change? I’ve used pink lines here to reveal the path of the auto traffic so you can get a feeling for traffic a cyclist might be coping with.
No matter how you do this you’re in the traffic mix riding among cars and trucks while your make the turn. As you can see, if you use the left-left hand turn lane you’ll have to cross traffic to get over to the right once you make the turn. That’s tangling you up in traffic and not so safe.
If you use the right lane, you still have to decide where to be while waiting for the light to change. Some riders will park in the middle of the lane, right in front of or in between cars and trucks. The theory there is that your physical presence will actually make the driver back off and give you the space you need to get through the intersection. Most of the time that strategy works.
The problem is that cars and trucks get into thousands of fender-benders in intersections across American every day. Feet slip off of brake pedals, accelerator pedals get mistaken for brake pedals, people hit the gas too hard, a driver might be in a rental with a touchy gas pedal, things go wrong in and around intersections. I personally don’t like to be in front of cars and trucks because a 5 mph fender bender for a car or truck can be a serious or even fatal encounter on a bicycle, it’s just physics.
One way you can minimize the danger of sitting in fender-bender prone traffic is by sitting off to the side of the lane. The problem in this case is that such a position makes you thread the needle between oncoming traffic and traffic going your direction when you proceed through the intersection.
Now I’m not endorsing this, and I’m not saying I’ve ever done it, but I gotta tell you if I’m sitting in that left hand turn lane waiting for a green light, and I can see that there’s no cross traffic approaching, I just might be thinking it’s safer to ride on through an empty intersection than it would to wait until all those cars and trucks are set in motion by a green light. I’m just sayin.
What I would most likely do at this intersection is use the crosswalk and the crosswalk signal on the north side of the intersection. This strategy gets me where I’m going without putting me in the middle of the road with traffic. Think of it this way: would you want to see a ten year old on a bicycle out there in that left hand turn lane?
Now let’s consider the fact that cyclists encounter these intersections, there are thousands of them, all over the city, every day. I don’t know which of the options I’ve discussed appeals to you, maybe you’d do something else entirely, but the point is there is simply is no single and clearly defined way that is the best and the safest way to get through all intersections under all circumstances. Drivers and pedestrians should appreciate that. Even with the same intersection, the safest way to turn left at 11:00 in the morning may be a bad idea three hours later. My sidewalk strategy for instance doesn’t work downtown or even uptown.
Of course if you can avoid tricky intersections with an alternate route that’s always a good idea. However cyclists point out that we shouldn’t really have to find alternate routes that may take longer just to be safe. We ought to be able to use our streets like everyone else does.
Keep in mind this isn’t necessarily as spooky at it looks. Thousands of cyclists get through intersections safely every day, most of the time car drivers back off for a few seconds and give cyclist the space they need to be safe. Nevertheless the majority of serious bicycle accidents and fatalities occur in intersections. When you look at this one example I think you can see why. I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, my point is to draw your attention to the complications a cyclist can face simply trying to get a gallon of milk.
My idea of a safe light controlled intersection would be to have bicycle lanes clearly drawn and give cyclists their own signal. There is a moment in every light controlled intersection when all traffic is stopped by red lights, that’s the best time for cyclist to make a left turn. If we simply lengthened that time frame for few moments and worked out some kind of “go” signal (maybe a flashing green arrow?) for cyclists, these intersections could be perfectly safe with little additional traffic delays.
Where do you put the bike lane? Personally I would make the bike lanes start on the right hand side of the road, and then cross the intersection. The problem with putting bike lanes out on the left turn lanes is that cyclist have to get out there somehow, and that usually means crossing traffic. If everyone could just stay as far to the right as is practicable I think you minimize confusion and problems.
Hopefully if you’re a driver reading this you now have little more appreciation for the dilemma’s cyclists can face in otherwise unremarkable intersections. A street can look a lot different when you sitting on top of a bike instead of behind a steering wheel. Sometimes when you see cyclists bending the rules try to keep in mind that they’re not necessarily being careless or rebellious, they may just be trying to get a gallon of milk without getting smushed.