A number of weeks ago, I was sitting with a collective of smart masses (John Dales of Urban Movement, Phil Jones of Phil Jones Associates, Caroline Russell and Tom Platt of Living Streets, Mark Treasure of the Cycling Embassy, some guys from TFL and Brian Deegan of Camden Council) to exchange information and thoughts on cycle infrastructure at signal controlled junctions. While running through how the Dutch handle conflicts between pedestrians, bicycles and motor traffic at traffic controlled junctions, Caroline asked me (to paraphrase) something along the lines of “but what do they do when there’s not enough room for dedicated turn lanes?”. To which I responded something about the Dutch never having signalised turning motor traffic crossing bikes or pedestrians and that they either find space or remove an arm of the junction to remove these potential conflicts.
That all sounds good in theory, but turns out not to be the truth. Just goes to show the danger of looking at the way things are done in certain areas/conditions and presuming they are the only way things are done everywhere.
My experience is mostly in and around Rotterdam, the port city in South Holland that was rebuilt after the war with wide American style boulevards which have since been retrofitted with cycle tracks. In Rotterdam there is the space to have dedicated turn lanes so that conflicts between turning motor traffic and bicycles going straight ahead are avoided.
Out of the city in the countryside there is room to provide full segregation, while in cities like Amsterdam where space is absolutely at a premium, the solution has often been to remove motor traffic altogether either through road closures or by banning certain traffic movements.
A few weeks later after our chat, I was in Noord Brabant on holiday with my family, this is the central southern province of the Netherlands about a hours drive south of Rotterdam. While in the city of Breda, I was able to look at smaller traffic controlled junctions in action.
Once back in London I was able to double check the Dutch cycle infrastructure bible, The Crow Manual for Bicycle Traffic, to see what it says and what I missed on previous readings. Sure enough, when it comes to turning traffic, these turning conflicts should ideally be removed, but the manual does go on to give advice on alternative options in a kind of hierarchy of provision. The trick I missed out on is that the manual doesn’t differentiate between treatments for signalised versus right of way turns, both are treated with the same brush strokes.
Let’s look at the three options:
Dedicated turning stage
So this is the ideal solution, the solution that I’ve talked about before and is shown above.
It gives total modal separation, there are no conflicts between motor traffic and bikes or pedestrians as the movements of each mode is synchronised to occur at the same time.
The downside is that it requires space for turn lanes for motor traffic, so for a cross road at a minimum you need 3 lanes on each arm (but only one exit lane) plus space for cycle tracks and pavement, space which often doesn’t exist (a t-junction only requires 2 lanes).
Cycle track bends away from motor carriageway
Next in the hierarchy, if we have no space for a full junction and we can’t close off a junction arm to motor traffic, then if there’s room we should move the cycle track and pavement away from the junction so that we create a buffer between turning motor vehicles and the potential conflict point.
So not only are bicycles and pedestrians protected from left turning cars by a curb, but the curb is large enough to force cars to move slowly and to cross the bikeway and footway at 90 degrees, increasing visibility and thus safety.
The only thing we need are markings to make sure that turning vehicles give way to bikes and pedestrians going straight on. This is where things get weird from a UK point of view.
In the Netherlands turning vehicles have to yield to vehicles going straight on that they might be crossing, so for example, a car turning left must yield to pedestrians crossing that arm of the junction (technically we have this in the UK too, highway code rule #170 but with combination of traffic signals it is rarely observed or expected). They accomplish this awareness by using the zebra markings and elephant feet (big white squares, like a zebra with a gap down the middle) markings, they also sometimes add the give way chevrons when it’s deemed necessary.
Choices choices, KFC or McDonalds? This image is of a large urban junction, but the markings are the same and demonstrate the point.
Here in the UK we have no precedent for this, in the above drawing I have used zebra style markings although they’d be used in combination with the crossing signals, so they’re not really a zebra crossing at all. Opinions appeared to be divided as to whether this would be a legal or sensible set up or if some other new style of marking would be required.
An alternative would be to replace these right of way crossings with signals so that turning motor vehicles get a red signal after the turn, although this could lower the capacity of the junction if the turn is popular (as usual there’s no one size fits all solution).
Cycle track close to motor carriageway
Often however, there isn’t even room for this bending awaywards of the cycleway, so instead we should bend it close to the main carriageway so as to improve visibility.
Here we have a main route running top to bottom, meeting a local road going left to right which has cycle lanes rather than curb separated cycle tracks (just to demonstrate both cases, it’d be better if we introduced cycle tracks before the junction on these approaches too).
As you can see, the cycle tracks are put into a position where there are no obstructions between them and the main carriageway and then marked across the junction where the possible conflicts can occur. We’ve even managed to squeeze in a little waiting space for people to do a two stage (jug handle) right turn.
If there’s room then we might do a hybrid half and half solution, something like the following.
So this is how the Dutch handle small traffic controlled junctions with cycle provision. The issue for the UK are two fold:
Pedestrian green man
We have a requirement for when pedestrians have a green man not to have turning traffic having to give way to those crossing. This is the common way of doing things on the continent and in America (in fact I can’t think of another country other than Ireland that has this requirement) and means that we can have very simple light stages for these small junctions; everyone goes north/south, followed by everyone goes east/west, with turning traffic giving way to anyone going straight on. This makes for a very efficient and very understandable junction organisation.
The problem here is that we can’t currently legally have vehicles with a green signal giving way to pedestrians who also have a green signal. A proposal would be to adopt what they have in the Netherlands and other places and use a type of zebra markings on the pedestrian crossing so enforce the need to give way to anyone on the crossing. This then causes another problem with having a zebra with pedestrian signals… this isn’t going to be an easy nut to crack.
Cycle lane/track across junction
We have an elephant foot marking in the UK, but they are limited in use and don’t have the same meaning as those in the Netherlands. Here’s the relevant blurb from the DFT:
The marking known as elephant’s footprints, formerly shown on working drawing WBM 294 and in LTN 1/86, cannot be used without approval from the Overseeing Organisation. Authorisation will only be given where cyclists cross under the protection of traffic signals and the special marking is necessary because cyclists’ route through the junction would not otherwise be obvious.
So the elephant’s footprint markings are not for the attention of motor traffic but are to guide cyclists across the junction (and they can only be used where there are traffic signals).
Again this is a similar problem to that above with the pedestrians. If elephant’s feet can only be used with “the protection of signals”, then having a turning motor vehicle and a non-turning cyclist both having a green signal would not appear to be covered by this, and the use of give way markings (like on a zebra crossing) isn’t mentioned.
So a proposal would be to get a change to how elephant’s footprints can be used to allow them to be used in conjunction with give way markings (the single line wide dashed markings like on a zebra crossing).
So in conclusion, when it comes to small urban junctions that need to have traffic signals, the Dutch solution is to forgo the safety of having isolated turn stages and the movement of the cycleway away from the roadway, but only as a last resort.
In order to do this in the UK we’d need two things adjusted in current DFT guidelines (someone who knows about such things will check that I’m not talking rubbish here). We’d need to allow turning vehicles to “mingle” with crossing pedestrians and bikes (a toucan/zebra hybrid, toubra or zebcan if you will), and to give elephant footprint markings the same status as zebra markings so they can be combined with give way markings (and used without signals).