Elephant in the Infra: Signaling

A critically overlooked component of infrastructure as it relates to biking signaling. While great strides are being made everywhere in getting more infrastructure out, the timing and phasing of signals doesn’t seem to be keeping up. Yet, just as transit priority pays big dividends for buses, bettering signaling is possibly one of the easier ways to improve riding conditions.

No doubt, interested municipalities have been held back by requirements that have only recently been lifted. Prior to December, bike-specific signals required a $20k engineering study. Each. With their provisional approval, it is now possible to install signals that give a bikes a head start in the sequence and use signaling to address the issues of noncompliance with traffic signals. For example, Chicago saw a marked improvement in cyclist signal compliance once bike-specific signals were installed as part of the cycletrack on Dearborn.

But while the use of bike signals is certainly a step forward, there are other things that can be done first. Most of the traffic signals are decidedly installed with the goal of facilitating the flow of car traffic. However, these do little to address the needs of riders which are traveling much slower. Having to stop for each and every light is annoying as a driver, but jackrabbiting between lights requires little energy in a car. As a biker, doing so saps energy and greatly reduces the distance one is willing to ride. Areas serious about not just accommodating, but actually promoting biking, would do well to coordinate their signals, at least on certain corridors, to the average bike speed, not a target car speed. These so-called ‘green waves’ allow a rider to continue uninterrupted for the length of a corridor.

If a green wave isn’t possible to apply to, then more needs to be done to ensure that the signals can still serve bicycle riders. While signals here in CA are supposed to be able to detect bicycles, legacy signals often do not detect any type of bicycles at all. (For example, this man had to wait nearly six minutes to be able to proceed.) But even when bikes are detected, the signals often have minimum green standards that are inadequate for bicycle riders, resulting in a situation where the signal length is not long enough to allow them to safely clear the intersection before the light turns red again.

To this end, several cities in the Inland Empire make use of bike-specific buttons on the road side of the signal poles (though if allowed under the CA MUTCD, these are better) while others make use of video detection. Both methods allow for detection of all bicycles (loops frequently have trouble detecting non-metal bikes) and are supposed to give the rider special timing that provides an adequate minimum green so that riders can safely clear the intersection before the conflicting lights turn green again. This is a good step forward, though it creates special problems on corridors where the lights are coordinated. Nevertheless, traffic engineers should look toward making sure that bikes have time to safely clear an intersection.

While it would be better to develop a circulation system in the region where bicycle riders can make as few stops as possible, bike-specific signaling goes a long way toward making the bike experience more pleasant. Since signals are already required to detect bicycles, many will be upgraded over the coming years as development and improvements result in new signals. With the growth in riders on the streets, keeping them safe should be a top priority and signaling helps that occur.


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