Tag Archives: signal improvements

The Festival of Outrageous

Riverside’s Festival of Lights is an annual event that draws tens of thousands of people downtown to see it. In addition to the lights, there are other attractions including shops, Santa, and an ice skating rink. It’s so popular that it was voted the best public light display this year by readers of USA Today.

While the lights were pretty, the way the influx of people was handled was not. This year, Mission Inn Ave. that borders the Mission Inn was closed and Main St. has been pedestrianized for years. Thus, there was no problem at the intersection of Main and Mission Inn, which is normally a signalized crosswalk. However, University Ave. remained open as the vehicular access through the area. It also has a signalized crosswalk and it was strained to the max.

This video showed up of the City’s comical, yet sad response to the situation. Instead of adjusting the timing to give pedestrians adequate time to cross (or even just closing it completely), police are out enforcing “crosswalk safety” by way of publicly shaming those seeking to cross the street. I guess we should be glad that they didn’t stoop all the way to the level of the LAPD and start ticketing people entering the crossing once the hand and countdown started. Still, it is a telling sign of the culture of the City, which is one of the anchors of the region with the worst pedestrian safety record in the state. Stuff like this shows why that is.

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What if? – Baseline and California

How can things be improved? That’s part of the philosophy behind this blog and the Inland Empire offers plenty of opportunity in that department. There is no shortage of places that can be transformed to provide a better experience for all. This is about thinking outside the box and finding solutions to make the area a more inviting place to not just sleep, but also work and play in.

Baseline Road
Basic approximation of the current conditions of Baseline St. looking west. Image by author via Streetmix.

One such opportunity exists in the City of San Bernardino where Baseline Rd., California St., and University Ave. meet. Bordered on the south side by the ball fields/parking lot of Arroyo Valley High School and the north side by more empty lots, there’s really not much going on. This presents the perfect opportunity to upgrade the intersection and improve access to the school for students walking/biking.

But the real benefit will be the improvement of the intersection for traffic flow. Currently, University Ave. is the entrance to AVHS and is located approximately 360′ west of California St. and both intersections are signalized. A significant portion of the students of the school come from the Muscoy area to the north and many arrive by car. As a result, several hundred cars attempt to essentially go straight across between 07:00 and 07:30 every morning. This leads to significant blockage of the road, especially the westbound direction because the left turn phase to turn onto University Ave. from westbound Baseline St. simply can’t be long enough. Additionally, there are also still people attempting to turn left onto California St. from eastbound Baseline, which is a problem since the center turn lane is already full of westbound cars/buses attempting to turn onto University Ave. This charade is repeated in the afternoon, though to a lesser degree.

There might be a tiny bit of relief coming in the next year or two. Many people turning north onto California St. are undoubtedly simply using the neighborhood as a shortcut to access CA-210 at University Ave. Many of these people would likely be able to use Pepper Ave. to get on CA-210 if it were connected. To that end, Rialto and SanBAG are continuing work on extending Pepper Ave. to CA-210 and finish the access ramps. However, there will still be the problem of a significant volume of cars attempting to cross Baseline to access AVHS and there are also a lot of pedestrians.

Roundabout up top.
The upper part of the “roundabout” can feature better bus stops with bike parking and cycletracks. Image by author via Streetmix.

To alleviate the issue of the cross flow of traffic, a grade separation is the best option. That would allow the traffic on Baseline to flow uninterrupted by the crossing of school traffic and vice versa. The idea is conceptually similar to this intersection, where a roundabout situation on top provides access to the crossing road while the main traffic continues straight. This intersection provides the same opportunity and would provide a good option for a bus stop and bike parking as well as a cycletrack. But most importantly, it removes the conflict between the crossing streams of traffic.

Baseline Rd. through lanes
Two through lanes should be enough to handle the relatively low traffic of Baseline Rd. Image by author via Streetmix.

Currently, the center turn lane and two inside lanes are all 14′ wide, which Streetmix doesn’t like at all (see picture above). The proposal would narrow them a foot each and use the extra space for a bollard treatment of some sort instead to remind people to not cross the lines. A single lane would continue straight through the intersection area in each direction below the roundabout. Traffic counts for this exact intersection are proving elusive. However, the intersection with Pepper Ave. in Rialto a little over a mile to the west was seeing a V/C ratio of less than 0.5 in 2010 while the intersection with Mt. Vernon Ave. around a mile east is seeing volumes of ~600 vehicles/hour/direction for peak hour flows which also corresponds to a V/C ratio of less than 0.5 . Consequently, a single lane should be adequate to carry the current traffic on Baseline Rd. and for many years to come, but the space is potentially available to include a second through lane if it’s felt that it would be absolutely necessary.

What makes this project relatively simple might also prove to be the biggest headache. The intersection is on the top of a flood control berm. The grade separation would be accomplished by tunneling through it more than digging down. However, that raises the issue of keeping Lytle  Creek at bay. It certainly isn’t impossible and solutions exist, but the real question is if they’re worth the cost. Although this design means that access to the school wouldn’t be cut off in the event of a flood, but water high enough to threaten the underpass/force its closure means that water in the wash is at a phenomenal level and that it’s impassible.

Still, it would be great to see this project come about. The intersection is not getting any better and signal timing can only go so far. The same goes for widening, though continuing California St. and closing the University Ave. spur could achieve similar goals. Alternatively, the empty lot(s) on the north side of Baseline can be made into a drop off point for Arroyo Valley and the kids can just walk the rest of the way into campus. Something needs to be done soon.

All users vs. all access

Recently, I chanced upon this post by John Allen. In it, he laments the current movement to develop bike facilities that are suitable for anyone aged ‘8 to 80’ (or an even more inclusive ‘8 to 88’) as being the cause of bottlenecks and generally unpleasant bike experiences. These concerns are also shared by others such as the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. One of the consequences of all this fervor has been that AB 1193 being watered-down amended to effectively make all cycletracks/side paths optional for bicyclists.

At face value, that may seem like a reasonable standard. As it stands, CVC §21208(a) requires bicycle riders to ride a Class II bike lane (note that one of the amendments to AB 1193 also finally abolishes the Class I/II/III nomenclature) except under the provisions set forth therein, but not in an adjacent Class I bike path. While the specific designs vary, most cycletracks that get people out are basically on-street Class I facilities. Design features used to separate the bikeway from the regular traffic (parked cars, planters, bioswales,  etc.) would inherently make it difficult or impossible for someone riding in the cycletrack to leave it at will to in response to any of the exceptions provided by §21208. Additionally, they would be “locked in” both physically and legally without the amendment.

Critical to that line of thought is the worry that cycletracks will be stuffed with schoolchildren and grandmas, ‘preventing’ fast riders from getting through. However, that is a remarkably flimsy excuse. While children certainly might be allowed freer reign on good infrastructure and the number of grandmas pedaling is up too, the claim that they’ll prevent meaningful movement on the paths seems rather outrageous. Certainly, there may very well be an elevated number schoolchildren and elderly using bikeways that have been designed to appeal to them as compared to the status quo. But it seems unlikely that they’ll completely ‘overwhelm’ cycletracks outside of a few specific times and places.

Schools and nursing homes don’t magically appear overnight. Shopping centers don’t mushroom out of nowhere. The general hours of operation and when one should expect to find the average user of those and similar facilities is common knowledge. It should be simple: if someone is concerned that kids might “hold them back”, then they need to stay away from where they’re likely to be found in any significant number when they’re likely to be there. As it is, the same exact thing already happens to cars too, sometimes with dire consequences for those who do not comply. No one can reasonably expect to legally hit top speeds (or even the regular speed limit) in a school zone during school hours. There are also sometimes warnings and reduced speed limits in the area around nursing homes, schools for the blind, and other areas where people are more vulnerable than average might inadvertently end up in close proximity to the street.

All of this brings up a deeper issue: why do bicyclists feel they deserve to be able to go at top speed anywhere they feel at any given time at all costs? As it is, society doesn’t allow it for car drivers. Someone wanting to test the top speed of even their Prius can’t even do it legally on public roads, and wouldn’t dare think of choosing I-405 as the optimal place to attempt such a feat because it’s perpetually crowded. People also don’t take too kindly to idiots who do it in the neighborhood–or even empty industrial districts. Yet riders expect to be given free reign of the streets without restriction, and often get mad (road rage?)  when anyone challenges that expectation.

At the same time, there’s another fact that needs to be acknowledged: in the grand scheme of things, bikes are slow. Despite the argument that bikes “belong” in traffic and the resulting lament that bikes are “losing ground” because some places restricted their place in traffic, the basic fact still remains that even someone pushing themselves to the limits of puking is most likelystill at least 10 MPH (but easily 20-30) slower than the speed limit of the road where a cycletrack would likely be most appreciated and necessary. As it is, all vehicles, but especially those going slower than normal traffic, are required to keep right. Does society need to accommodate what amounts to intentional impediment of traffic even when a facility specifically for traveling at the comparatively low speeds of a bicycle is already provided?

This issue will become even more pertinent as more self-driving cars join the roadways. They will likely be able to travel at higher speeds that are in excess of current speed limits far safer than humans, probably leading to an eventual raising of speed limits once a critical mass of them has been achieved. While they should certainly greatly reduce the accident rate (after all, physics does have its limits), forcing them to slow down to keep pace with bikes on all but neighborhood streets and dedicated bike routes seems unnecessary and cuts into some of their advantages. Also, they will likely free up a lot of traffic congestion due to communicating with other vehicles on the roads (and the roads themselves). That means that many roads that are built for peak traffic flows of today (or worse, in 30 years from now) are extremely overbuilt for the future. The extra right-of-way can be used for quality bike infrastructure instead.

Of course, that brings up the issue of what exactly constitutes a quality bike facility. If what ultimately ends up on the ground is truly inadequate to handle the needs of the kids, grandmas, and ‘fast’ riders within reason, there is a problem. Restrictions limiting bicycles to such facilities cannot precede the facilities themselves. As such, municipalities need to provide infrastructure that is of pristine quality, especially on new construction. Advocates need to hold them to that and ensure that only the best stuff ends up on the ground. There’s no reason to build roads to their ultimate width then not stripe the outside lanes because the capacity isn’t there yet. Meanwhile, these same thoroughfares often only include a 5′ BIK LAN at the edge of a nearly 30′ expanse. Situations like that could just as easily include a cycletrack instead of the unstriped outside lanes from the very beginning, which will likely reduce the need for them to begin with*. Widening projects that don’t include cycletracks also should be pressed to include them.

In summary, care should definitely be taken to ensure that bicycles are not marginalized nor maligned on substandard infrastructure. At the same time, the bicycle is but one tool in the transportation and recreation toolbox. If time and due diligence have been put into designing and building a bicycle facility of exceptional quality, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect all bicycle riders to use it. It may not necessarily provide for every single potential rider at any given time, but it should allow the vast majority of riders to be served almost all times. There are undoubtedly times when those minority riders will be served as well and there should also be alternates available to lessen the detriment to them. However, just like cars, it seems reasonable for society to have certain expectations of riders’ conduct including not impeding traffic and for them to not ride recklessly. Bicycles can provide lots of benefits, but they won’t provide the ultimate solution for everyone. Bicycle riders need to understand that and cooperate with reasonable requests put on by society.

*This concept has made its way into a project proposed right here in the Inland Empire. Harmony in Highland include what would amount to cycletracks in practice, but are called Class I paths adjacent to the road but within the right-of-way due to the complications of Caltrans.

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.