Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Santa Monica Successes & Failures In Bicycle Policy & Infrastructure Pt. 2, Light Detection

Light detection is a consistent problem for cyclists, and is one of the glaring examples of bias toward cars. Most intersections use a magnetic loop buried in the asphalt to detect vehicles, but they are generally tuned to a dull sensitivity that only picks up automobiles, sometimes even missing the presence of motorcycles. With the proliferation of lighter metals like aluminum and completely non-metal materials like carbon fiber in newer bicycles frames and wheels, the likelihood of bicycle detection is even lower.

Some intersections operate on a combination of timers and detection, and if nothing is detected it will change at the end of the timer. However many intersections have no such timer and if your bike is not detectable, than it will never change for you without the presence of a car. At some hours on certain low traffic roads (low traffic roads are appealing to cyclists) cars are seldom. At this point your left with the option of running the red light if it is clear, or getting off the bike and walking over to the cross walk button (which is even less realistic for the motorcyclist with trouble triggering a light). This can be frustrating particularly when you are trying to make a left turn and then have to cross the street from the middle of the road.

So I give a careful look both directions and run the light generally when this happens. This is not ideal, but on rides home at night, to stop and get off at the cross walk at every intersection would add considerable time and frustration to my trip. As far as I am concerned these lights are inoperative for bikes and so I treat them like stop signs. The legality of this is a little fuzzy as the definition of what is an inoperative light is somewhat unclear.

Some might question why make a fuss over signal detection, but I feel it is important for the convenience and legitimacy of legal road users who are not in giant metal boxes. Signal detection problems send a message to cyclists, motorcyclists and the users of scooters and mo-peds, that they are not legitimate forms of transportation. In fact section (b) of C.V.C 21450 specifies:
"Upon the first placement of a traffic-actuated signal or replacement of the loop detector of a traffic-actuated signal, the traffic-actuated signal shall, to the extent feasible and in conformance with professional traffic engineering practice, be installed and maintained so as to detect lawful bicycle or motorcycle traffic on the roadway."
Addressing this problem is a pretty monumental task since it is just about everywhere in our road network. So I want to focus on where it is most glaring; streets with bike lanes or that are considered "bike routes". One might think that a road designed specifically to accommodate bikes would use sensors that can detect bikes, or at the very least always have a timer so non detected traffic can receive a green, but that is not always the case.

Signal Detection

One such place in Santa Monica that fails to detect bicycles and has no timer, is 17th and Colorado. 17th St., which runs North/South has a bike lane and low motor vehicle traffic, making it a common place to spot bicycle commuters. This intersection is on my commute to and from home, so I know it well. Sometimes on my heavy commuter bike I can trigger the light if I ride straight for the ground loop and brake right on top of it, but usually it does not work. If I'm on my carbon racing bike, it's hopeless. The lack of proper bicycle detection and it's proximity to my home makes this the most common intersection where I have run red lights (stopping and looking both ways of course). Usually this problem is later in the evening with no cars in sight that can trigger the light for me, but even in the day there are times with few cars on 17th.

Santa Monica Successes & Failures Map (work in progress)

View Larger Map

If you know of any other intersections in Santa Monica on roads with bike lanes, or roads considered class III bike routes that lack detection or timers, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. I'm also looking for Santa Monica locals who would be interested in contributing data to the map I am building of these various cycling successes and failures in Santa Monica. Right now it is pretty incomplete, and I have limited time to fill it in. Ideally I would like a database I can later present to the Santa Monica City Council. So that I can very specifically point to where things are going right, and where they are going wrong and how they can fix it. Let me know if you are interested and willing to help out.


bikinginla said...

The problem is that none of the roads around here were designed for bicycles, whether or not they're designated as bike routes, regardless of class. Without exception, local roadways were built strictly for automobile traffic, and sometime later, someone decided to paint a few lines in the street or put up some signs, and call it a bikeway. When they retrofit the street to actually accommodate bicycles -- including the red lights -- only then will the label be legitimate.

Gary said...

One of the issues I have this is that besides the label bike route class II or what ever it is at a given road, some of these roads, 17th among them, have been repaved recently. When a road is repaved they have to redo the loop detection, which means someone decided on a bike route to put a new loop in and give it the same problem. The CA VC says that new roads, and roads where the loop is replaced, should be installed to detect lawful bicycle and motorcycle traffic. Obviously this is not being practiced, so I want to bring this up with the city in the next council meeting I attend.

jericho1ne said...

Yea, I would love to help with this, I'm interested in digital cartography and I have high hopes for Santa Monica.

I kind of started mapping out resources of interest to me on the westside [google map]. It's a shared google map, so anyone can add stuff. Have you considered making your SM Cycling Failures/Successes map public?

bikinginla said...

Sounds like you have a good argument. If they've repaved and still not complied with the law, there's definitely something wrong. Sounds to me like they're putting the city at risk for a class action.

Andrew Lee said...