A Tale of Two Signs

It was the best of times,
it was the worse of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness…

Consider for a moment a dichotomy that we’ve created. We’ve been driving cars for over one hundred years, and we’ve built our infrastructure around them. Every so often, the general public steals a glance at maybe accommodating some alternatives, makes a few minor adjustments, but generally continues on with the status quo.

One alternative: bicycles. We’ve been riding them for well over one hundred years, but we’re still not sure how or where they fit in. Mostly our stolen glances lead to minor adjustments that typically occur within a “Bike Boom.”

We’re in a bike boom right now, which has afforded many advancements. But let’s look back to the previous bike boom, which coincided with the 1970’s oil crisis. The most lasting remnant we see of that bike boom in today’s infrastructure is the “Share The Road” sign. We’ve even given it a modern face-lift. On Hennepin Avenue downtown you can see these lovely high-tech signs:


As a lover of technology, I appreciate that we can use this medium to broadcast whatever message or imagery we choose on a moments notice. But are we using it effectively?

If you look closely at the above photo, you may see another sign, partially obstructed by the pole that hoists the electronic sign. This traditional, low-tech sign reads: “Right Lane: Buses, Bikes & Right Turns.”


This is at least a good idea. Reserve the right lane for buses and bikes. Only allow cars that are immediately turning right. It has the potential to change a harrowing 4-lane road into a “virtual” 2-lane road. It’s not the best, but if the above sign were actually observed, it would at least be a step in the right direction.

On any given day, I could go downtown and observe drivers’ behavior on Hennepin. In the right lane you’ll see buses, bikes and cars. But are the cars turning right? My unscientific survey suggests that over 90% of car drivers in the right lane are not immediately turning right. So does more enforcement need to happen, or just some education? Probably both, but the latter will go much further.

First, let’s get rid of “Share The Road” the same way Delaware proposes to. It is an ambiguous message that is never interpreted the same way by two cyclists or two drivers. It semi-empowers each party into thinking their share is the bigger half.

Then let’s put the real message up on the electronic sign: “Buses, Bikes & Right Turns ONLY.” I think it will have a much more immediate effect due to the greater visibility. Along with some actual enforcement, I’m confident that real-world behavior would mimic the design much faster. Currently the Minnesota-nice, passive-aggressive approach is failing: green paint that is all but gone, a traffic sign half-hidden behind a signal post, literally zero enforcement. Let’s flip-it and reverse-it. Leverage our technology for it’s greatest use: to make a difference.

Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.

15 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Signs

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    If you get up close to one of the bus/bikes/right turn signs, you’ll note the reflectorized white tape over the word “ONLY”. The signs were originally installed with “ONLY”, but that was covered over when (I’m told) the City Attorney felt it was unenforceable.

    What might be enforceable instead would be bus/bike-only “shoulders” that happen to be the width of lanes. The lane line would be solid, not dashed, and dashed only where people could enter it for right turns.

    I think a big reason people drive in that line now is that they’re going to turn right “eventually”, and it’s not really clear when exactly it’s appropriate to move into the curb lane. Under normal circumstances on a four-lane road, you’ll do that a couple blocks before your destination if you can. Since this looks like a four-lane road, people do that here as well.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        You’d have to ask the city attorney. But I suspect the issue is the ambiguity left by the fact that right turns must use the lane, and there is no defined place for that to happen. Do you get to be in the lane for a block before your turn? Half a block? Six blocks? And at any given time, a cop doesn’t know where you’re planning to turn. Maybe you’re going to turn right at 6th, maybe at Washington. If s/he pulled you over early, you could just as easily say you were going to turn at the next intersection.

        This is why I think the shared right-turn space needs to be delineated from the rest of the lane.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    well, you’re right that something should be done about the hennepin avenue fiasco, but i don’t think your proposal will solve the problem.

    anyone have any better ideas?

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      Don’t you think my solution is at least worth a try? It would cost a grand total of nothing. Add in some enforcement income and it could be a net gain.

  3. Alex

    I’m with Sean – I’d like to see a solid white line except for the 150′ or so preceding a right turn possibility (there are also too many curb cuts on Hennepin and they should be closed where possible). Also a diamond should be painted in the middle of the lane at the beginning of each block to signify a reserved lane that you shouldn’t turn into. Finally, I’d like to see an advisory bike lane striped on the outside of the lane, to indicate where cyclists should position themselves. The green stripe isn’t in the right place, and I’ve seen cyclists hit while trying to pass a right-turning motor vehicle on the right.

    If all this isn’t enough for the city attorney, I’d like to see a mayor say that it’s worth the risk of a lawsuit to have a safe space to bike and faster, more reliable buses on Hennepin Ave. I wish I could believe that Betsy Hodges will be that mayor, but she opposed real bike facilities in her ward as councilmember and I don’t see any reason she’ll behave differently as mayor.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley has some markings that discourage motorists from turning into the bus-only shoulders, basically just a dashed line extending the corner radius

      The only thing I really disagree with you about, Alex, is the idea of an advisory bike lane within the lane/bus-only shoulder. There are only very brief stretches where a bus could reasonably and lawfully pass a cyclist in lane. For the vast majority of Hennepin, you would need to change lanes to pass. As such, cyclists should be encouraged to ride in the middle of the lane. Furthermore, riding to the extreme right encourages behaviors like what you mention — trying to pass a right-turning motorist on the right. Cyclists are better off in the middle.

      1. Alex

        Oops I wrote that wrong – I meant the advisory lane should be on the inside of the lane, not the outside. So it would position cyclists to the left of buses, which follows national best practices for bus/bike lanes (e.g. University Ave in Madison). There is actually enough room on every other block of Hennepin for a 6′ bike lane next to a 12′ bus lane, although every other block is then more like 4′ for bikes next to 10′ for buses. That’s why I’d say advisory lanes only.

        While the dashed lines are intuitive in terms of conveying the ‘turn across this lane’ message, I think I still prefer a diamond because I’m nervous about the very wide turning radius condoned by the dashed lines.

      2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Ah, that makes more sense, Alex. Still not sure I’d be totally behind this, because I don’t necessarily want to encourage cyclists to pass buses in-line any more than I want to encourage motor vehicles to pass bikes in-lane. Yes, there may be space on the wide blocks, but it might ingrain that behavior for the narrow blocks as well.

        In general, I think it would help things if curblines were consistent throughout the corridor.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            It’s a very large vehicle with limited sightlines. A bus at the curb leaves a deceptive amount of space — but obviously after it’s done with boarding, it will pull away a foot or two from the curb, potentially either hitting the bicyclist, or causing the cycling to swerve into the adjacent lane.

            But I’ll admit that’s my theoretical take on it. I’ve seen a lot of close calls, but I’m not aware of any firm information that that’s a common accident. Still, I prefer to make a proper lane change if I need to pass a bus.

            1. Alex

              These are good points. I guess that because these movements are happening anyway, I would lean towards accommodating them more safely. Even with a 10′ lanelette for the bus, they would have room for the two foot pullaway you describe without encroaching into the 4′ bike lanelette, although there wouldn’t be much room for error. The advisory lane, however, would also act as an advisory for the bus drivers to avoid that space. There could be further marking at bus stops, also, such as diagonal hatching to further make bus drivers aware of the cycling space.

  4. Adam MillerAdam

    You’re entirely right about Hennepin. Cars regularly use the right lane, there is zero enforcement and even the green paint is largely gone. The disappearing paint raises the question of whether that’s even the rule anymore.

    But even if the paint was there and and enforcement was good, I’d still probably prefer to ride on Nicollet through downtown anyway, and it’s only 1 or 2 blocks away.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      My thought is… you get one block to make your turn. Rarely would you find a right turn lane that services two right turn points. A little bit of advisory paint would make this clear.

      If it becomes an issue that people aren’t able to turn right due to the amount of bus traffic (which would be awesome BTW), I’d think there could be some education done with bus drivers to briefly yield to cars signaling a right turn (which assumes that drivers actually use their signal). But I don’t think it would have to come to that.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        It certainly wouldn’t be hard to enforce if the rule was that if you cross an intersection driving in the right lane without turning right you’re misusing the lane.

        I walked over that way during lunch yesterday, though, and crossing over 1st Ave with it’s protected bike lane only reinforced the idea that a cyclist wanting to use that stretch of Hennepin is probably better off detouring one block in either direction, where the traffic is less crazy and the bike facilities are better. Heck, Hennepin isn’t even particularly good for driving on.

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