Ray Thomas on the unintended consequences of “ambiguous intersections”

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on August 29th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Source: Bike Portland

What you see driving north on MLK Jr. Blvd at NE Going Street.

Noted local lawyer, bike law expert, and veteran advocate Ray Thomas has penned a new article about what he feels is a safety issue at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (MLK) and N Going Street. Thomas is known for his writing and has published a number of articles on legal topics. He usually doesn’t write about intersection design, but he has made an exception this time.

“[The intersection’s] ambiguity creates a troublesome situation for those it most seeks to help as bicyclists are encouraged to assert a right of way they do not possess by law.”
— Ray Thomas

Thomas has shared the article with us; but before reading it below, let me offer some quick context. The MLK/Going intersection is a key connection in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Going Street neighborhood greenway, which they have said is the best one in the entire system. Going is also currently the subject of a PBOT marketing campaign to encourage more people to use it. The crossing treatment at MLK (which is a major arterial thoroughfare) a non-signalized median barrier with a cut-through for bike traffic. There are also painted crosswalks, advanced stop bars and signage to warn that people on bikes and foot might be present.

Below is Thomas’ article, which he titled, “Ambiguous Intersections”:

It was early one warm spring evening when our old blue van filled with dog and family was headed northbound on Martin Luther King Boulevard (MLK). As we approached the intersection with Northeast Going Street, I saw two bicyclists stopped at the stop sign on Going, waiting to head eastbound across the throughway of MLK. To my surprise, the car in front of me slowed down and stopped before the marked pedestrian crosswalk at Going to let the bicyclists ride across MLK.

Irritated, I applied the brakes, thinking I should not move from the A in to the B lane and drive around the stopping car because the bicyclists were starting to cross MLK in front of us. Suddenly, we heard the screeching of skidding tires behind us. I looked up and saw a pick-up truck skidding in my lane, then sliding into the B lane and up onto the curb. The skidding lasted for a second or more and I estimated that the driver had skidded about 30 feet after coming suddenly upon our two vehicles stopped for the bicyclists. Fortunately, no one was hit or hurt. I decided that the pick-up truck driver had not been paying very close attention and was surprised that we were stopping for cross traffic when MLK was a through street with no stop sign.

Ray Thomas. – (Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It was such a close call that I could smell the burned rubber.

After determining that everyone inside was okay, I rolled down the driver’s window, leaned my head out and said to the driver in front of me, “you know you really didn’t have to stop there as the bicyclists had a stop sign!” My 18-year old daughter then yelled at me, “Dad, they were just trying to be nice!” I began to try to explain to her how I felt that the near collision had been caused most obviously by the pick-up truck driver who failed to see that we were stopping, but that I also felt the motorist who stopped in front of us had needlessly endangered us.

Later I returned to the intersection to think about what had happened. The intersection of Northeast Going and MLK Blvd has a new type of design that includes marked crosswalks and an intermittent divider that prevents cars on Going from crossing MLK, but has cut outs to allow bicyclists through.

The signs for traffic approaching Going on MLK contain a symbol for a bicyclist and a pedestrian, but traffic on Going has a stop sign. As I watched traffic flow at the intersection, I saw that it had been configured to combine a marked pedestrian crossing with a bicycle corridor. Clearly, the designers of the intersection attempted to facilitate crossing of MLK by bicyclists. To the extent there was ambiguity about whether bicyclists shared the crosswalk right of way with pedestrians, it was an effort to aid bicyclists.

However, outside the crosswalk, bicyclists are still required by the Oregon Vehicle Code to stop at the stop sign on Going before crossing MLK and then to “yield the right of way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.” (ORS 811.260 (11)).

“Intersection design ambiguity that encourages cyclists to exercise a right of way they do not legally possess, and motorists to surrender their rights of way, can create dangerous situations for all traffic.”

When I observed the intersection, I discovered that a number of motorists stop for bicyclists that are waiting at the stop signs. When a motorist stops without legal basis to do so on a through street like MLK, it creates a hazard for overtaking traffic and is arguably illegal. ORS 811.550, “Places Where Stopping, Standing, and Parking Prohibited”, provides that a person commits a Class D traffic infraction if “a person parks, stops, or leaves standing a vehicle in any of the following places:”, which include “(12) On a throughway”. ORS 801.524 defines “throughway” as “every highway, street or roadway in respect to which owners or occupants of abutting lands and other persons have no legal right of access to or from the same except at such points only and in such manner as may be determined by the road authority having jurisdiction over the highway, street or roadway”.

It seems that when a person stops unnecessarily, even if they have proper working brake lights, they may be violating ORS 811.550 if the street on which they stop is a “throughway”. I believe MLK qualifies as such. While my daughter was correct that the primary fault of any collision would have been created by the driver of the pickup truck driving too fast and not keeping a proper lookout, the motorist in front created the potentially dangerous situation by stopping unnecessarily.

“Employing technical or design inducements to encourage more bicyclists to ride is a laudable goal, but design alone cannot change the requirements of the Oregon Vehicle Code.”

Of course the main problem with this intersection design is that it is confusing. It’s ambiguity creates a troublesome situation for those it most seeks to help as bicyclists are encouraged to assert a right of way they do not possess by law. During my observations, approaching drivers tended to yield for bicyclists and wave them through, as if they did not know whether motorists are required to yield the right of way to bicyclists crossing the intersection even though the bicyclists have the stop sign. Sometimes, when the bicyclist saw a car slowing to stop, the bicyclist began riding across MLK. If a bicyclist was to move across the road in front of a slowing motorist who then changed their mind (or never intended to stop in the first place) and started moving again, causing a collision, we would have both an unnecessary collision and a legal question: would the bicyclist be charged with failing to obey the stop sign by not yielding the right of way to an approaching motorist?

Employing technical or design inducements to encourage more bicyclists to ride is a laudable goal, but design alone cannot change the requirements of the Oregon Vehicle Code. A better solution would be to route bicycle traffic to an intersection with a traffic light or install a traffic light that can be triggered by bicyclists pushing a button to trigger a red light for approaching cross traffic, such as the traffic signal located at East 41st and Burnside in Portland. The traffic on Burnside gets a red light to stop when bicyclists want to cross.

Modern traffic planners are attempting to create new designs which have evolved beyond the old models for intersections. Sometimes ambiguity about who has the right of way is good. It’s what keeps pedestrians in crowds from crashing into each other. However, intersection design ambiguity that encourages cyclists to exercise a right of way they do not legally possess, and motorists to surrender their rights of way, can create dangerous situations for all traffic. While it is more expensive to create a traffic-signal enhanced intersection (PBOT regularly estimates the cost between $250-500,000 for one signal), for bicyclists on NE Going and MLK, the additional investment is probably worth it to remove the confusing ambiguity that presently exists in the intersection.


— Ray Thomas is a partner in the downtown Portland law firm of Swanson Thomas Coon & Newton. You can read more of this work on their website. (Disclosure: Swanson Thomas Coon & Newton is a BikePortland advertiser.)

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