Sunday, June 28

Commuting and Traffic Lights

Traffic lights are a mixed bag for any commuter - both helping and slowing. My cycle commute route is optimized to take advantage of friendly traffic signals. But sometimes it's tough to trigger them. There are a number of good Internet sources on how cyclists can trigger traffic lights; here, here, and here (just don't believe all that magnet nonsense). I'm pretty good at it. This post is about when none of that works.

Step 1 - If I'm not sure I've triggered a light signal, I'll often roll the bike back & forth, to give the induction sensor another chance. If it's a camera, I'll wave my arms & might waddle the bike over to the RH side of the left lane if it looks like the camera alignment is skewed. Sometimes a car will come along behind and do the honors, obviating the need for further action.

Step 2 - I've been known to lay the bike down, run over to hit the pedestrian crossing signal & then run back to the bike. This is not a recommended approach because you're an easy target for a right hook when doing this, not to mention falling if you've fallen victim to the "road bike clipless" propaganda machine - and think of how you'd feel if the light changed right as you were running up to the button. It is dramatic, however. You'd also be really miffed if someone came along and ran over your bike while you were engaging in such folly. Also not recommended - turning the bike 90 degrees to help the camera "see" it, though that might be better than the "Lemans" button sprint.

Step 3 - The free right turn. If I can still get where I want to go, I'll make a free right turn and then thread my way back to where I'm going. This works on my commute since I'm generally going from SE to NW. Step 4 complaints apply for step 3. Step 3 is also handy for a few lights with very long cycles.

Step 4 - I'll wait through two light cycles and then I go when it's safe. That will be followed up by a complaint to the city in question about their improperly operating signal. While I often call the police non emergency number, the correct place to call is probably the Department of Public Works. Remember, we need to help our motorcycle brethren out on this. Remember, if you get hit while crossing, the headline will probably read "cyclist killed crossing XXX" rather than "inoperative traffic signal leads to cyclist fatality."

If I were KING OF THE UNIVERSE and could specify only two bicycle/motorcycle facility items (other than bike racks everywhere), I'd wish for "sweet spot" markings on the pavement (who says paint is bad?) and for some sort of visual indicator (maybe a small green LED or something below the camera) so a cyclist or biker could know the signal sequence had been triggered. Now that would be "bicycle friendly."


ChipSeal said...

Couldn't find a picture of Texas signal lights and had to settle for a photo of some Yankee model?

Have you tried waving your bike at the photo sensors? A full panniered bike is the best for that sort of thing!

You could also try turning on your head-light and pointing it at the sensor. Wait, here's an idea! Carry a small mirror and reflect the sun onto the sensor! At night you could employ a laser pointer. If those won't get its attention, it will be time to make another phone call.

ChipSeal said...

It is always a good day when I can comment ahead of dear Rantwick. ;)

PM Summer said...

Believe it or not, that's a paint project I was working on. Of course, you don't get those (signal detectors) in bike lanes.

Also, if a signal fails to detect a LEGAL vehicle, the operator may proceed through the intersection when clear.

Steve A said...

ChipSeal is very observant. Memo to myself for future reference. Actually, it isn't a Yankee model, it's a WESTERN model. Washington State and all that. I know y'all consider anything Yankee north of the Red River, or west of El Paso (Florida is suspicious), but I'll have you know that the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway passes through Washington State.

Go to Wikipedia and search on Jefferson Davis Highway to confirm it.

Steve A said...

Per PM's comment - that's why I wait through TWO light cycles. One can never be sure if you only wait through one, and I want to be able to mention the multiple cycles when I complain to the local authorities. I'm also sure to mention when I complain that if the light doesn't detect my bicycle, it probably won't detect motorcyles either. I figure piling on a little does no harm.

Waco said...

What a timely post. Just this morning I was thinking about this issue and wondering how long is "long enough" on the question of did the signal detect me or not. How do you know if a signal fails to detect you? Is there a proscribed time limit that would define this threshold?

This weekend I've sat at a couple intersections, done the induction loop dance and wondered if I am just impatient or if it didn't recognize my presence. In all cases, after a few minutes I have been joined by a car at the intersection and the light changed. I still don't know if it was the "natural" cycle of the light or the car triggering it. They were 4-way intersections and the perpendicular traffic had a continuous green, so I am assuming that they are either demand actuated signals or very long signal cycles.

I've also noticed that some of the shopping center parking lot "driveways" don't have photo sensors or induction loops (at least I don't think they do). How long does one reasonable wait before it is legal to know that the signal has failed to detect your vehicle?

Waco said...

PM, your paint project comment just sunk in for me...

Such markings would better than sharrows! A road marking that explicitly communicates to all road users the expected presence of bicycles/cyclists while not dictating lane position--at least not beyond the intersection would be great. It would have the dual educational effect of reminding motorists that there are non-motorized vehicles with an equal right to the road, and making less opaque the functionality of the signal triggers for all road users.

Plus, presumably it would put the cyclist in the correct lane position at the intersection. Sooooooo much better than dedicated bike lanes.

Steve A said...

This is a neglected issue that kills cyclists and motorcyclists, and probably a lot more than the stats show.

Sometimes you just have to guess, but most times there're clues. Look at the left turn signal cycles at the intersection on the superior road if you're on the inferior road. If you see the traffic to the left going, and then the traffic to the right going, and then the lefties again, that's a pretty good sign you're hosed.

For the shopping center lights, if they have no photo sensor or induction loop, how would they sense an automobile? Figure that out and you'll be ahead of the game. Lots of times, cameras are creatively mounted and not apparent at first glance. If you really can't figure it out, make that free right and then do a U turn when it's safe. Most times, I find I can work around uncooperative signals without doing anything illegal or, more importantly, dangerous to myself or others.

The paint is even better than PM indicated. Many intersections have two "sweet spots." The preferred one for turning versus going straight would also communicate a useful, if subtle message that oftentimes lane position is dependent on where one is going.

Keri said...

That's one paint project Mighk got done here years ago. Many of the intersections in Orlando have the bike stencils on the sweet spots. And the one time I had an issue with not being detected, the city sent someone out immediately. I've been meaning to do a post on this topic.

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