Washington Avenue’s Experimental Signals

Next* summer, Hennepin County will be reconstructing Washington Avenue S from Hennepin Avenue to 5th Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis. And to the glee of Twin Cities urbanists, it will have a cycle track, with bike paths on each side of the street raised above the roadway. Since this cycle track is a bit of a first for the city, I was wondering how the signaling system will be handled. I emailed the project manager, Jennifer Lowry, who gave me the run down.

Based on what I gathered from the email, this is what the most basic cycle will look like traveling on Washington Avenue:

Washington Avenue Traffic Signal Animation

Note: this is a very rough approximation. Cycle lengths do not reflect reality.

Basically, bikes will get a lead interval (of an as-of-yet undetermined length), during which cars will be prohibited from turning right. This will be communicated with an electronic sign like the ones used to control Marquette and 2nd Avenues. During other times, rights on red will still be allowed. This is not the complete right-on-red ban that many of us hoped for, but it is a step in the right direction for bicycle safety.

You may be wondering why the bicycle signal doesn’t stay green like it does at other intersections where a lead interval has been implemented. According to MnDOT meeting notes, the Federal Highway Administration told the City of Minneapolis that, if it was to use bicycle signals with this cycle track design, they would have to be in a separate phase from car traffic altogether. This was decided because the Feds feared the design of the track would make it too difficult for cars and bikers to see each other.

This is Hennepin County’s way of trying to get around that problem. As of now, the county still has to get permission from the FHWA in order to carry out this experiment. We’ll see if they have better luck than the City did.

* = Editor’s Note: We have seen reports indicating that this reconstruction project has been delayed until 2016. 

Tyler Schow

About Tyler Schow

Tyler Schow studies Communications at the University of Minnesota and is currently Communications Intern at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. The views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent those of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

8 thoughts on “Washington Avenue’s Experimental Signals

  1. Jason Goray

    It will be interesting to see how they handle the end of the track. Hopefully it’ll be better than when the Hennepin Ave center lanes dumped us into the middle of the Hennepin/University intersection with multiple lanes of auto traffic on every side…

  2. Monte Castleman

    It seems like a good idea to me taking everything into consideration. Another idea would be to add a flashing yellow right turn arrow for cars to reinforce looking for bicyclists when turning right. Another idea would be to use a red right turn arrow instead of a sign, although some other states allow a right turn on a red arrow, something I don’t agree with.

    Philosophically, there’s two issues with what traffic signals communicate:
    1) Can I go or not?
    2) If I can go, is someone else likely to infringe on my right of way?

    My worry is that bicyclists will think they can no longer go when the bicycle signal extinguishes. Usually straight through movement indications convey 1) but not 2), despite DCs use of a flashing “Walk” or Missouri’s use of “up” arrows for through movements, in order to make the distinction. The feds have banned those indications, but now it sounds like they want to make a distinction for a through bicycle phase.

    1. Kelley Yemen

      No, bikes and cars will follow the green ball after the yellow bike phase and both have the green phase together. There will be no specific red bike phase.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Put another way, we’ve decided that when a mode has right of way (pedestrians on a crosswalk, drivers going straight through on a green ball), that it’s not needed and in fact not allowed to convey whether or not other modes are likely to illegally conflict.

    Two Previous Attempts:
    Missouri- a green ball meant the other direction had a green ball and may attempt to turn left. A up green arrow meant that the other direction had a red arrow and a conflict wasn’t likely.

    DC: A steady “Walk” meant a no right turn on red or another reason why a car was unlikely to try to turn into the crosswalk. A flashing Walk meant right turns on red were allowed

    So I see no logic why a steady green bicycle indication has to mean a protected phase only since it is not consistent with what we’ve decided the meaning and requirements of other “through” indications are.

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