The Bike Lane’s Achilles Heel: Another right-hook on N Broadway

Background Reading


The scene this morning.  (Photo courtesy Betsy Reese)

The scene this morning.
(Photo courtesy Betsy Reese)

Try as you might to explain why in an age when bike lanes are all the rage that we keep having trouble with “right hooks“, no answers satisfy. It should be the case that any vehicle riding along a street that sees a bike lane along the curb to their right understands that riders are often crossing through an intersection at which they plan to execute a right turn. Why then do they collide? It cannot be because a driver did not know to expect the interaction that often results in injury and sometimes death.

Furthermore you would think that the person with the best view of things (namely the cyclist) would be very wary of crossing an intersection at which there have already been several collisions from “right hooks”. Besides how does one riding a bike simply not notice an SUV or truck or bus bearing down on your from the left? Unlike semi-trucks cyclists have no real “blind spots” that prevent them from seeing their companions about to turn on the road.

So is this simply a case of Area 51 proportions or is there something different going on here?

Do Bike Lanes Make Us Less Cautious?

I have noticed that when riding on streets where the greatest isolation is provided (i.e. Protected Bike Lane or PBL) it is quite easy to simply ignore the usual routine of scanning left and right as you cross the street. Why? Because the lane is supposed to make you safe. I can especially imagine this happening with even greater frequency amongst that portion of the population for whom PBLs are designed (i.e. “newbies“). Lacking much training they take the roadways and expect that their presence is understood by all that dangerous traffic that surrounds them.

Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Chicago has been gambling on the safety of one street bike lane design over another. Some of these stabs are designed to test whether they work better to prevent one kind of injury over another. At the actual intersection pictured above these are two problems that the designers appear to be attempting to “settle“:

  1. By placing the bike lane on the left side of the street it limits the possibility of the most common type of “Door Zone Collision” (i.e. where the driver exits without checking for an approaching cyclist).
  2. By having the car lane move completely to the left of the bike lane it makes a “left hook” nearly impossible. You could of course do the same thing with the right turn lane (which is what exists at 55th and Ellis in Hyde Park).

While attempting to solve one problem (a “hook“) there is another one created. In the case above the cyclist who stays in the left lane only to discover at Morgan that a right turn in needed to enter the UIC Campus, there is a necessity to do three consecutive left turns to return to Morgan and proceed safely.

I have noted that bike lanes make me “doze off” a bit because I am out of the traffic lane and able to ride along at a slower pace and not really worry about car traffic. This is exactly what this PBL design is all about. But then the rider is supposed to switch back to an alerted state at the intersection.

Crossing An Intersection

When crossing an intersection things go from “cool” to “frenetic“. The biggest failure of the PBL designs is that they assume the status of talisman in the minds of those who propose their development and because of the “hype” surrounding them the “newbie” buys into their value. But whereas the land from which protected cycletracks has sprung is populated with folks who actually learned as children to ride bicycles and how to use them (and thus when behind the wheel of a car know how to behave) we Yanks are largely ignorant of everything related to cycling.

So the burden of keeping us safe devolves onto the “shoulders” of the PBL (pun intended). We even have training videos like this one which show the wrong way to cross an intersection governed by a stop sign.

At about 3:55 into this video we see a staged “right hook“. But the rider is in the wrong place for the situation. Clearly the bicycle rider does not come to a complete stop at the intersection and clearly the driver does not signal their intentions to turn. You can read a more detailed analysis of this situation here.

"Right Hook" Diagram

“Right Hook” Diagram

When you enter an intersection you have reached what is essentially a “no-man’s land” It is the place where cyclists have to make the decision to use a “bike box turn” assuming one is provided or to execute a left turn using the left turn lane. So preparation has to be made to enter the intersection along with the cars. If the cyclist is crossing the intersection (by leaving the bike lane and heading straight across) both he and the automobile are duty bound  to keep an eye on one another. But is that what really happens?

My First “Close Call” With A Protected Bike Lane

If a “newbie” is riding blithely along in the bike lane do they really change their mental state when they reach an intersection? I learned a few years ago when riding one of the last iterations of the Boulevard Lakefront Tour (sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance) that very idea of these PBL or bike lanes in general is a bit silly if not everyone is on the same page.

PBL "Reverse Right Hook" Analysis

PBL “Reverse Right Hook” Analysis

The situation pictured above happened on the West Side of Chicago. This was the first year that I had ever even seen a Protected Bike Lane in person. The condition of the pavement was simply horrid. In fact riders were leaving the lane to ride with the car traffic hoping for a better outcome. It should be noted that many of the bike lanes in the city (especially those in “low income” neighborhoods) have been hastily installed over pavement that was crumbling and cracked and were more of a hazard than the roadway would have been without the bike lanes themselves.

It was a Sunday morning and as our group was passing through the intersection “on a green” the red car above made a hasty left turn as the car traffic was passing her position. What she did not see (and perhaps could not see) was the bike traffic also crossing through the intersection as well. We were effectively hidden from her view by the automobiles that were taller than we were.

She punched the pedal and made her turn and then slammed on the brakes as she realized that a far right lane of bicycles was already in the intersection. She clasped her hands over her mouth in horror. I was equally horrified and realized just how very dangerous this situation really was. Having been removed from the traffic lane we were essentially “non-existent” to drivers who considered the traffic lane to be “the traffic lane” and it was not. There were others who were smaller, slower moving and as such completely hidden from her view. This was a manufactured tragedy waiting to happen.

How Do You Fix This Problem?

Bike lanes require a certain amount of very expensive choreography to work well. The Dearborn Street PBL is a good example of a moderately functional street. Just last weekend however while riding this lane I noticed for the very first time that motorists find the traffic lights confusing. We were southbound in the lane crossing Harrison when a driver heading northbound wanted the taxi cab driver in front of her to make his left turn. He however could not because his lane was still awaiting a red light.

The problem here is literally the number of small red lights available. The one governing the bicycle lane was green and she saw it (probably with blurred vision or simply was not concentrating on the relevance of the bicycle icon on the light face). The taxi driver threw up his hands in exasperation that she was honking in an effort to get him to do something that was not legally possible at the moment.

Again there is too much going on here for drivers who have not been educated as to what all the various signals mean and how they are to respond. She is ignorant of the reality of having a bike lane present on a street like Dearborn.

The situation with the “Reverse Right Hook” could have been dealt with had there being two separate turn signals. Or failing that added cost a difference in the timing of the turn signals so that the left turn lane went first and then the remainder of the traffic (both auto and bicycle) crossed in relative peace. But there really is not way for a car on a new stretch of PBL (such as we were on) to fully understand how to execute a “right turn” when a bike lane is present. Drivers are unfamiliar with the entire concept of the PBL and simply do not respond well.

Drivers And Bicyclists Alike Must Shoulder The Burden

Chicago ChainLink Forum Is Broken!

Chicago ChainLink Forum Is Broken!

One thing that I have noticed when reading through the annals of a forum like the Chicago ChainLink Forum is that for some odd reason everyone wants to shift the blame for accidents onto the shoulders of the drivers involved. There is a mantra that goes something like this “no matter the situation the least vulnerable user is never to blame“. But this is hardly true. One of the reasons that people get so very upset when bicyclists like Randy Cohen come out and admit that they have no reverence for the Rules of the Road and believe that others should follow their lead is because this is not only unlawful behavior but it is “unfair” in that it places an additional burden on the motorist to somehow read the mind of the cyclist and anticipate things that should not be occurring.

But cyclists tend to be rather arrogant in this regard. When they deliberately ride in the “Door Zone” and get hit by a door opening into their path you would think that it would be only fair for the cyclist to have a part in the burden of causation. But cyclists “want to have their cake and eat it too“. They would rather pass out leaflets to motorists decrying their no being careful to avoid collisions with cyclists riding in the “Door Zone” rather than going after the real culprit in this situation which is probably the municipality. They are the ones who placed “newbie” riders (i.e. people without adequate training) into a bike lane that is not wide enough to sustain safe travel (allowing a 3-Foot clearance from passing auto traffic on the left) and at the same time providing a “Door Zone Free” bike lane.

So everyone suffers because we insist on stuffing bike lanes onto streets that are clearly too narrow to accept a safe lane, but the need is there to get as many miles of infrastructure built before some other municipality does and that race is what fuels poor design. We as cyclists need to “bite the hand that feeds us”  to let them know that while we appreciate the new infrastructure it really needs to be safer than what existed prior to its installation.