This is Why Bikers Run Red Lights

Bikers often have a well-deserved reputation as jerks: They blow through stop signs, go the wrong way down one-way streets, and even occasionally ride on the sidewalk. All of which, of course, is totally against the law. And frankly, its inexcusable behavior that makes all cyclists look bad, only increasing the bike-auto warfare.

That being said, though, Boston’s streets often push bikers into breaking the law. Yes, seriously.

I bike down to Symphony Hall from the Forest Hills area just about every day when the weather’s nice, on the lovely Southwest Park Corridor. Opened in 1987 along part of the original track of the Orange Line, it’s just over a four-mile ride, mostly winding through park land. There’s maybe 10 stop lights along the way. It’s a pretty solid commuting path, and there are hordes of bikers headed in both directions at rush hour.

Unfortunately, the stop lights on the trail are timed as if to spite cyclists. Since this is a bike and pedestrian trail, bikers are obligated to wait for the pedestrian light, which we all know is the red-headed stepchild of traffic signals. Cars, meanwhile, zoom past in all directions. Bikers are forced to wait what seems like an inordinate amount of time for a crossing signal, or they can “jaywalk” with the pedestrians, against the red light. Most do, despite the danger.

This morning, I finally stopped to time two separate intersections on the route to see just how much they favor cars. The first was by Roxbury Community College, a busy four-way intersection at Columbus Avenue and Tremont Street. Here’s what it looks like:

Roxbury Crossing intersection bike

At rush hour this morning, the lights were timed for a 110-second traffic pattern. Cars get more than 80 percent of the green lights; bikers and pedestrians are left with less than 20 percent of the time to cross. Bikers are given a quick 20-second crossing signal every minute and a half.

That might seem reasonable: It is a four-way intersection. But would it seriously be a problem to drop an extra pedestrian crossing signal in between the green lights for north/south drivers on Columbus and west/east on Tremont? (Each of those directions also gets protected left-turn signals). Why do we have to wait for the entire traffic pattern to cross? And I don’t want to hear the “but streets are made for cars” argument. It’s not true. Streets were originally made for people. Cars invaded them.

Then, there’s the absolutely absurd lights at the T-shaped intersection at Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain.

Jackson Square Intersection bike

Here, the lights are tilted in the favor of automobiles by 90 percent — bikers and pedestrians get a signal only 10 percent of the entire light cycle. A law-abiding biker would spend more than two minutes waiting to cross here. Most don’t wait. Really, there’s no justification for this light, especially considering it’s not a four-way intersection — it’s T-shaped. The city could easily add another crossing signal in the middle of the pattern.

Remember: These blatantly car-focused intersections are along a bike and pedestrian trail, a place where the city is ostensibly encouraging bicycle riding and walking. And sure, by adding bike lanes, starting the Hubway system, and improving bike trails, we’ve made great strides in making Boston’s bike community. I’m not advocating that bikers should break the law in any way. But if we want to cut down on bikers running red lights, let’s start with an obvious step: Making our bike trails more bike friendly.

  • NFG

    Good point. The codes that regulate traffic lights should conform with the usage patterns of the area around them. Also, in the long term, traffic signals should be aligned with the stop lines (as is done in Germany and other places), rather than both at and across the intersection, to prevent autos from creeping into and blocking crosswalks.

  • Jon

    I’m a profession transportation engineer.

    Simply put, per the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the MUTCD), the federal publication that governs signals, there are a number of warrants that must be met in order to legally install a traffic or pedestrian signal along a roadway. If there is insufficient pedestrian or bicycle demand (x number of peds in an hour, y number of bikes in a peak hour, etc.), you cannot, by law, put up a signal.

    • Cycler

      This is clearly not an issue at the SW corridor, where bike and ped demand is high.

      However, it seems like a totally backwards approach (like many things in MUTCD). At the BU bridge for example, the initial argument against bike facilities was “no one rides here” When the reason that virtually no one rode in the street was because it was dangerous and unfriendly to bikes. As far as I’ve seen, the new lanes are well used and beloved by many cyclists who are thrilled to have a safe new way to get across the river.
      There should be latitude when creating a bike corridor to put favorable bike/ped timing in to create induced demand, not just respond to current demand under unfavorable conditions.

  • Patrick Doyle

    Jon: Thanks for the note, that makes sense. What part of the MUTCD delineates the pedestrian/bicyclist demand/warrants? I only ask because the FAQ on their site seems to imply there are no standards, but I might be misreading it:

    Q: Should traffic signals be timed specifically for bicyclists?
    A: Section 9D.02 states that, on bikeways, signal timing and actuation shall be reviewed and adjusted to consider the needs of bicyclists. Because bicycles typically move more slowly than motor vehicles, it is important that the timing of the green interval and associated yellow change and red clearance intervals applicable to bicycle traffic be given specific attention. The MUTCD text is a general statement requiring that the needs of bicyclists be considered when setting signal timing. No specific warrants or guidelines are provided in the MUTCD.

  • Charlie

    Bingo. As a bicyclist, I’ve also noticed that some signals are synced along a street so that if you wait for the green at intersection A, you will get to intersection B just as it turns red. Repeat this down the entire street. No wonder why bicyclists run red lights in cases like this.

    Signal timing also plays a large part in why pedestrians jaywalk. If signals are timed so unfavorably for pedestrians (i.e. long waits, short crossing times), pedestrians are very likely to just ignore the signals altogether. Studies have shown if pedestrians have to wait more than 30 seconds to cross, they will then start to consider jaywalking. The longer the wait, the more they are tempted.

  • Vinnie X

    Don’t ge me started…we’re leg powered, many one way streets in the same direction in sequence, I’m not going that way, I’m going that way…. don’t hit me, pay attention, don’t hit me…cars run red lights, no matter how long a light is two, three or more cars blast through… we look and continue on…don’t hit me, just a person on a bike, pay attention…repeat.

  • Megan

    I think its great that we are moving towards a more biker friendly city, but what I would love to see… bike lanes that aren’t riddled with potholes every three feet and manholes in-between. I guess thats just living in an old city?

  •!/ChrisCicc ChrisCicc

    Actually, riding bikes on the sidewalk in Boston IS legal.

  • Cycler

    I don’t ride this corridor often, but it seemed like much of it would be improved by having concurrent lights (i.e. when the traffic parallel to the trail has a green, bikes and peds have a signal. There may be turning phases which need to prevent bikes and peds from crossing, but not having a dedicated ped only phase gives you a longer signal.

    In Copenhagen, they have optimized a “green wave” for a cyclist speed (14mph I think) for large chunks of their major downtown streets with big bikeways.

  • alan

    Regardless of whether or not roads were built for cars or not they’re certainly used for cars today.

    I gotta think that cars outnumber bikes by at least 90% so doesn’t it make sense that the traffic rules and regulations favor motorists for the sake of easing congestion?

  • maxdaddy

    This is all well and good for areas with bike trails. But many areas don’t have such trails, like Beacon Hill. I think we need more enforcement. And we need a brief summary sign at all Hubway outlets explaining that “bicycles are vehicles” and must obey all the rules governing vehicles. If this means creating the statutory authority for better enforcement, including licensing all bicycles, I say go for it. Speeding bicycles are a menace to pedestrians. And let’s remember it is they, under the law, who have an absolute right of way on most streets except limited-access highways.

  • rob

    I see your point – especially if you are commuting to work or have some place to be – it can be frustrating even as a pedestrian waiting for the walk signal. I don’t agree with your argument implying that with some minor changes cyclists will be less likely to break the rules of the road. As you have mentioned, many do not stop at stop signs or even signal and this has nothing to do with a cross walk. Aren’t you, as a cyclist, supposed to walk your bike across the street, whether that is a law or not, i believe it is a safety issue that if in a crosswalk? I think that your article would have stood on more solid ground if you simply based it on the fact that the lights are not geared to cyclists, causing impatience and an increasingly amount of cyclists and pedestrians to not obey the lights.

  • Richard Kimmel

    Add to signal problems, that many traffic light detectors, the in-pavement kind, do not respond to cyclists and that drivers will turn in front of you when you have the signal in your favor. I almost missed my 30 second opportunity to cross a local street (Oleander Drive) because five right-turning cars cut me off at the curb. I have even been cut off by a patrol car.

  • Bifano, Michael

    Everyone worries about bikers breaking laws, as if nobody ever speeds, which is, by definition, a violation of the law. So we run stop signs…big deal. We’re the ones at risk; besides, we’re not the ones polluting!