A Plea for DOT to Design Bike Lanes With Safer Intersections

Last week's fatal crash on First Avenue renews calls to rethink the "mixing zone" template.

This intersection design might have saved Kelly Hurley's life. Image: Reed Rubey
This intersection design might have saved Kelly Hurley's life. Image: Reed Rubey

Last week a turning box truck driver struck Kelly Hurley, 31, as she rode in the First Avenue bike lane at the intersection with 9th Street. Yesterday, Hurley died from the injuries.

The fatal crash has led to renewed calls for DOT to adopt safer intersection designs for protected bike lanes. The intersection of First Avenue and 9th Street has a “mixing zone” treatment, where cyclists and turning drivers are expected to negotiate the same space at the same time. Intersections with mixing zones have higher rates of cyclist injuries than intersections with “split-phase” signals, which give cyclists and turning drivers separate phases.

On Tuesday, the transportation committee of Manhattan Community Board 7 unanimously passed a resolution calling on DOT to eliminate “mixing zone” intersections on Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue. The resolution calls for designs that maintain more physical separation between cyclists and motor traffic, force drivers to take turns slower, and extend the bike lane’s green paint through the intersection.

The concept is similar to the intervention staged by activists using orange cones at First and 9th last week:

Bollards would be placed at intersections to increase physical separation between cyclists and motorists and slow turning drivers. Image: Reed Rubey
Bollards would be placed at intersections to increase physical separation between cyclists and motorists and slow turning drivers. Image: Reed Rubey

By installing bollards all the way through the far side of the crosswalk, motorists would take safer turns, said Reed Rubey, the architect who put together the concept.

“When you do a sharp 90-degree turn, you have a better opportunity to see pedestrians,” Rubey told Streetsblog. “Putting cones like that at every mixing zone, actually at every intersection in the city, would probably be the least-expensive and most effective way to save lives.”

Rubey and fellow TransAlt volunteer Willow Stelzer hope to bring their concept to the transportation committee of Manhattan CB 3, the district where Hurley was killed, at its meeting next month.

  • I am entirely in favour of all of that, especially the bit about giving cyclists a flashing yellow while drivers have the red. The problem is getting there.

    As I have mentioned many times, in order to make progresss in that direction, we need Council members on our side. There are the principled ones who already get it (Reynoso, Rodriguez, Williams, Van Bramer); but most are just craven careerists who will back anything that is popular. The way to win these legislators is to make it so that they don’t constantly hear complaints about those crazy bicyclists.

    Council Members’ offices know who the cranks are, and who is to be taken seriously. We’ll never stop the cranks from complaining; but by blowing red lights we are causing complaints to be made by the type of citizen whom politicians take seriously.

    If we could wave a magic wand and thereby stop all bicyclists from running red lights, then the only complaints about bicyclists that these legislators would get would be from the cranks, the same ones who complain about the Illuminati and other imaginary things. Once the legitimate complaints dried up, the mass of legislators would then feel safe in espousing bike-related improvements; and we’d have things like your flashing yellow lights and the Idaho stop sooner rather than later.

  • You make a good point about protected bike lanes being best suited for stretches that are longer than the blocks of Manhattan avenues.

    But the idea of elevated bikeways is perverse, at least in Manhattan I absolutely do not want bicyclists to be away from the street. Biking in a city is wonderful precisely because one can get the feel of the streets. I have found this to be true not only here in New York, but also in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. I can feel those cities in my bones; my memories of them involve my entire body. You get that from riding in the streets. Perhaps in the nowheresvilles that exist between those centres of civilisation the idea of elevated bikeways would make sense. But in a city, an elevated bikeway would divorce us from all that makes a city tick.

    Also, don’t forget that we often make the argument that a bikeable street is good for businesses. If the bicyclists aren’t passing by the stores, that advantage is removed.

    But most important is the fact that such a structure would be a blight on the landscape. I mean, look at that thing in the picture to which you linked! I am sure that you are one of the people who lament the BQE and other such awful elevated highways, and that you are amongst those who are relieved that Robert Moses never got to realise his plans for monstrous cross-town elevated highways in Manhattan. An elevated bikeway such as the one in the picture would similarly mar Manhattan, or the heart of any city.

    Such a structure is a complete non-starter politically; and I am glad, because it would be an abomination in so many ways. The way forward is to reclaim space for bikes on the streets, where we belong.

  • nocklebeast

    What is the New York vehicle code that requires turning motorists to yield to cyclists in a protected bike lane? (not all states have such a law).

  • Joe R.

    Remember the need for elevated bikeways vanishes if we can get rid of enough motor traffic so biking is pleasant and we no longer need most traffic signals. That’s a preferably solution on many levels but it’s also politically probably more difficult than building elevated bikeways. So long as we continue to have streets dominated by motor vehicles, plus their associated traffic controls, we’ll need to look at solutions like elevated bikeways just to make cycling safe and pleasant.

    One thing worth noting here is if elevated bikeways really took off you would probably also have a huge demand for parallel elevated walkways. Eventually that will mean retail at the level of these walkways, and bikes would once again be passing in front of stores, as opposed to above them. At that point the elevated structures are hardly a blight because nobody except motorists would see them from below. Pedestrians and cyclists would now have the prime real estate where the structures were under them to themselves.

    Also, while talking about visual blight, most NYC arterials are hardly things of beauty. A nice viaduct running down the median of Union Turnpike or Queens Boulevard might actually improve the appearance of the street if it were tastefully done. You could do lots of nice stuff with lighting, roof it over, etc. It wouldn’t shade sidewalks or otherwise have much detrimental effect.

  • Joe R.

    I think it’s a far easier bar to jump if we can just encourage cyclists to reliably yield to pedestrians when they’re supposed to. Most of the people I’ve talked to don’t care about cyclists running red lights but they do care when they’re stopped dead mid-stride by a cyclist who blows by like they don’t even exist. Ending that and reckless sidewalk riding would really improve things politically for cyclists.

    An education campaign won’t hurt, either. A fair number of pedestrian complaints about cyclists have nothing to do with illegal cyclist behavior. I heard one person once screaming at a cyclist for almost hitting them while they were standing in the bike lane while the cyclist had a green light. I was going to tell them they were in the wrong here for not waiting at the curb but I don’t think it would have changed their mind.

    The good news (for us) is the demographic of bicycle haters are mostly my mom’s age or older. They’re already waning in political influence, dying off, or moving to Florida. The fact we have a good number of supporters like those you mention, despite lawbreaking by cyclists, bodes well. I’m all for improving cyclist behavior to make it easier for legislators on the fence to support our cause, but at the same time we need to be realistic. Even cyclists from countries known for their law-abiding cyclists, like the Netherlands, don’t take long before they’re doing the exact same things native NY cyclists do. Let’s focus on getting cyclists to reliably yield to anyone with the legal right-of-way rather than trying to get them to sit one minute waiting for a light to change at 3 AM. That one thing might show legislators the world won’t end if we pass an Idaho stop law. If they see we can trust most cyclists to use proper judgement at red lights, then we’ll have support. On the flip side, when they see cyclists blow through crowded crosswalks, they’re understandably reluctant to legalize passing red lights.

  • bobfuss

    That still involves traffic crossing the bike lane. There is no way around that. We’re just quibbling over how that happens.

  • I am not sure if New York State has such a law, either. I found nothing in a quick look at the Vehicle and Traffic Law. A lawyer would have the sufficient knowledge to answer this authoritatively.

    The Rules of the City of New York, Title 34, Section 4-12(p)(ii) says:

    No person shall drive a vehicle on or across a designated bicycle lane, except when it is reasonable and necessary:

    (i) to enter or leave a driveway; or
    (ii) to enter or leave a legal curbside parking space; or
    (iii) to cross an intersection; or
    (iv) to make a turn within an intersection; or
    (v) to comply with the direction of any law enforcement officer or other person authorized to enforce this rule; or
    (vi) to avoid an obstacle which leaves fewer than ten feet available for the free movement of vehicular traffic.

    Notwithstanding any other rule, no person shall drive a vehicle on or across a designated bicycle lane in such manner as to interfere with the safety and passage of persons operating bicycles thereon.

    [Emphasis supplied.]

    This imposes conditions on a driver’s entry into a bike lane, among which is a turn; and it does this without explicitly stating that the right of way belongs to the cyclist.

  • bobfuss

    Somewhere there you crossed the line from discussing localized road design to planning a grand socialist revolution.

    I suspect that a more manageable scope and goal might create more useful debate. If you cannot get protected bike lanes installed in your locale then a vast change of government is probably beyond you as well.

  • nocklebeast

    Motorist change lanes to get to their turning destinations all the time. It’s no different for cyclists.

  • Non sequitur.

    Here’s what happened: you asked a question; I answered it.

  • nocklebeast

    In NY, a driver turning left must yield to a driver coming from the opposing direction (this is true in many states).

    In the situation of a “protected bike lane” where there is a conflict, who yields to who? Does the turning motorist yield to the cyclist? Or does the cyclist yield to the turning motorist? If there is not code saying which it is, there is no code to enforce. So “law enforcement” as an answer to this problem will be lacking.

    In a normal traffic configuration, drivers making a lane change must yield to traffic that occupies the lane they want to merge into.

    For an example, in a different state, California Vehicle Code 21717 requires motorists making right turns on roads with bike lanes to merge into the bike lane, approach and make the right turn from the bike lane.

    In the case of a “protected bike lane,” there are physical barriers preventing drivers to merge into the “protected bike lane” and approach the turn from the side of the road.

  • First of all, I don’t think we can assume that there is no law on this because my less-than-exhaustive search didn’t find it. Steve Vaccaro could give you the real answer.

    But, if there is indeed a legislative gap, this is not an intractable problem, as new laws are passed every year.

    In any case, enforcement is a primary plank in the appropriate solution. This refers also to enforcement of laws about whose existence we are certain, such as the law requiring cars to stop behind the stop line and the law prohibiting encroachment into the crosswalk.

  • nocklebeast

    Perhaps someone else can give us an answer to the law. Maybe Steve will join the debate.

    But the fact remains that the “protected bike lane” produces a conflict between turning and straight through traffic at intersections that does not exist in other configurations.

  • bobfuss

    Let me rephrase. Can you understand why your answer didn’t help?

    Assume for a moment that a great socialist revolution isn’t going to happen. How then do you police a bike lane that is segregated off to the side of where the cops are?

  • bobfuss

    I don’t disagree, but there is no road design that doesn’t involve cars and bike crossing paths

  • nocklebeast

    Have you seen this website? it’s a good resource on how cyclists can navigate on roads with motorists. http://cyclingsavvy.org/

  • What needs policing is drivers’ behaviour, including (but not limited to) the failure yield to bikes when turning left.

    So (as already mentioned), you put a cop at each intersection, and have that cop monitor drivers’ actions. The cop personally tickets those who stop over the stop line. For those who make bad lefts, the cop radios the plate to another police car, which goes and stops the law-breaker.

    There is nothing here that is conceptually difficult or logistically problematic. It’s all a matter of policy decisions that could be made tomorrow, well in advance of the socialist revolution.

  • bobfuss

    You are describing a fantasy. I am more interested in how you intend to persuade a majority of the voters to support such a significant change in policing priorities.

    Let’s assume, just for now, that there will be no socialist revolution. Crazy, I know.

  • jsallen

    I have ridden the 9th Avenue bike lane, with the split phases. In theory, they eliminate the conflict between through bicyclists and left-turning motorists. In practice, some motorists turned left when they did not have the green left arrow and some bicyclists also ignored the signals. What I found most practical as a bicyclist was to merge to my right into the left-turn lane. That way I had a green light just as long as through-traveling motorists, rather than only about half as long. But oh, leaving the bike lane is illegal in new York, and putting up a barrier between the left turn lane and the bike lane, the response propose in the article, makes it impossible. More about 9th avenue here: http://john-s-allen.com/galleries/NYC/index.html Bottom line for me: the 9th Avenue bikeway is one of the most reasonably designed separated bikeways I’ve seen, but the assumption that bicyclists would never have any need or desire to merge results in a restriction — additional delay — and a hazard. The attempt to correct the hazard results in a further restriction and prevents me from taking a proactive move to avoid the hazard. And so it goes.

  • jsallen

    The law of unintended consequences has reared its ugly head repeatedly in this thread, and banning left turns is an example. If you ban left turns, then drivers must take a longer route and make three right turns instead. Does the total risk exposure go up or down? Similar situation: When parking was removed from major streets in Copenhagen to make room for bikeways, motorists turned an parked on the cross streets instead. Crossing and turning collisions increased.

  • jsallen

    Elevated bike roads are sometimes appropriate, but rarely. There are, effectively, elevated bike roads in New York City, on some of the bridges over rivers. That is because bridges are, by their nature, elevated. Also, I fondly remember riding the old elevated West Side Highway back in 1975, when it had been closed to motor traffic due to structural deterioration, but bicyclists could get in past the barriers. The view of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline was stunning. The end points of my commute were conveniently near entrances to the highway. But elevated bicycle highways are very expensive, they provide a travel-time advantage only in small areas near their entrances, and they are hard to police against muggings.

  • Joe R.

    The key is more to offer cyclists non-stop travel than to build elevated bike highways for the sake of building them. In places like the Netherlands they fortunately had enough room to unravel cycle routes from routes so as to bypass many intersections. They also selectively put overpasses or underpasses at busier intersections, used signals to give bikes priority at less busy intersections, and so forth. Hard to see where we would find the room in Manhattan for non-stop bike routes without elevating them other than next to the rivers. Yes, such structures are expensive, but in this case the expected volume of cyclists easily justifies it.

    In the outer boroughs you could do stuff similar to what they did in the Netherlands to get non-stop trunk routes. You may still need to elevate portions, perhaps have overpasses/underpasses, but there’s room to do more at grade level.

    NYC is huge, so by definition you need a fair number of non-stop trunk routes to supplement whatever we put on the streets. I’d say if we had a roughly one mile grid of such routes it would be sufficient. That puts every cyclist within half a mile of one. There would be significant time savings even for short trips of 2 or 3 miles over riding on congested streets with traffic lights on every single block.

  • jsallen

    Bicyclists merge into line with the turning traffic. Worked for me.

  • Joe R.

    The idea I put forth here is simply an alternate way to get (nearly) nonstop bike routes without resorting to the elevated bicycle highways I mentioned elsewhere. Correct there would be unintended consequences but there always are with any compromise solution like this. My preference is obviously for full-on viaducts which neatly avoid all the issues you mentioned. They don’t use bike viaducts to any large extent in the Netherlands but then again no place there really has the same conditions as NYC. For that you need to look more at large Asian cities where they already have started using elevated bike highways.

  • jsallen

    Surface-level routes with underpasses and overpasses are reasonable, sure. Bikeways elevated over their entire length, not so much.

    I’ve suggested turning some of the crosstown streets in Manhattan into bicycle boulevards, where motorists can only turn onto an avenue at the end of a block, but bicyclists can go straight across. Also, a couple of the avenues might be reconfigured as slow streets, though that would be more politically difficult. As I’ve written in other comments in this thread, the 9th Avenue bikeway, or at least part of it, is qutie well designed — but it could be better if bicyclists continuing straight ahead were encouraged to merge into the line of motor vehicles preparing to turn left.

  • Joe R.

    For crosstown travel bicycle boulevards would probably work but most travel in Manhattan is north-south. The issue here is the sheer number of obstacles and red lights which cyclists encounter on surface streets often reduce average travel speeds to walking speeds and/or encourage cyclists to ignore red lights. Nothing short of reducing motor traffic volumes enough so those lights could be removed is going to address that problem. Unfortunately, that’s just about politically impossible. If we want to increase cycling mode share, then safety and speed are key. How do we offer a cyclist both in a place like Manhattan?

    It might be very interesting to see what a Dutch bikeway engineer would do in an environment like Manhattan. My guess is they might well opt for elevated bikeways simply because no other solution is going to offer the things they typically expect of a bike route.

    As I’ve written in other comments in this tread, the 9th Avenue bikeway, or at least part of it, is qutie well designed — but it could be better if bicyclists continuing straight ahead were encouraged to merge into the line of motor vehicles preparing to turn left.

    But doesn’t that delay them if the left-turning vehicles are yielding to pedestrians? And they’re also more exposed to car exhaust being right behind vehicles instead of next to them.

  • jsallen

    If motorists are yielding to pedestrians, bicyclists also should be. That is, both have a red light. As to car exhaust, maybe yes, maybe not. Closer to cars for maybe half a minute but spending much less time waiting next to them, and less time overall to complete a trip. Car exhaust isn’t healthy but it is is far less noxious than it once was, thanks to pollution control.