When Tonya Ricks Sterr rides her bike along Columbian Way toward Beacon Avenue South, she does so comfortably separated from traffic thanks to a recently installed protected bike lane. Then, she gets close to the intersection.
“The bike lane just freakin’ disappears,” Ricks Sterr said.
People on bikes are left to mix with vehicle traffic, raising the chances of a collision.
“It’s terrifying,” Ricks Sterr said. “You’re going through, feeling comfortable, and all of a sudden you get to this intersection where there are no facilities, no protection. You’re not really being told you belong there by the infrastructure.”
This Beacon Hill intersection has drawn particular criticism from cyclists because the city opted to end the bike lane ahead of the intersection to make room for a vehicle turn lane, as first reported by Seattle Bike Blog. But the sudden disappearance of safety is a daily fact of life for many people riding bikes.
Among cyclist fatalities in urban areas in 2017, 43% occurred at intersections, according to an analysis by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Of 15 bicyclist fatalities in King County from 2013 through 2017, nearly half were at or near intersections, according to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
Now, a handful of American cities are trying a new approach to combat that risk: a protected intersection. Seattle could be among the next cities to try the design.
Instead of people on bikes waiting alongside drivers behind a crosswalk at a light, a protected intersection allows them to wait farther into the intersection, increasing the chances a driver will see them. Concrete dividers or posts create a separate “island” where cyclists and pedestrians wait, plus a wider turn that can force drivers to slow down. Pedestrians, meanwhile, get a shorter crosswalk that means less exposure to traffic.
The design can offer more protection than the painted bike boxes at some Seattle intersections that allow bicyclists to wait in front of drivers, and less wait for all users than separate signals for cyclists and drivers.
“As we cities have really taken up this mantle of safety and protecting people walking and biking with more protected bike lanes, we’re realizing … wow, the pinch point is the intersection and we’ve got to figure this out fast,” said Robin Hutcheson, who was the transportation director in Salt Lake City when that city opened one of America’s first protected intersections in 2015.
Variations on the design are common in Dutch cities, but only recently are being adopted in the United States as protected bike lanes become more common.
Seattle City traffic engineer Dongho Chang wrote on Twitter in April, “we may have a protected intersection in SEA!!! More to come.” The Seattle Department of Transportation is “strongly considering” protected intersections but has not identified specific locations, said spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
Early research indicates the design can make cyclists feel safer.
In one study, which has not yet been published, cyclists and noncyclists were shown videos of various intersection designs.
“From a cyclist-comfort perspective, [a protected intersection] is far superior to all the others if you can’t do a signal separation,” said Chris Monsere, a professor at Portland State University and principal investigator on the study.
“We know segmented bike lanes are very comfortable and people feel very safe,” Monsere said. “It’s just at the intersections where this kind of breaks down. If you’re making this network, you really have to treat the intersection properly. Otherwise, it’s the weakest link in the design.”
The design “won’t fit everywhere,” said Nick Falbo, a Portland transportation planner who coined the term “protected intersection” in an effort to help American designers grasp the concept.
Narrow streets where large trucks and buses have to turn may not be good candidates, and existing telephone poles or drainage that have to be moved can add extra cost, Falbo said.
The design also usually requires pedestrians to cross the bike lane.
Protected intersections are often shown where four bike lanes converge — one on each side of two intersecting streets — but the design can also be used where bike lanes run on only one side of the street or where protected and unprotected bike lanes intersect. Minneapolis is planning some “half-protected intersections,” said Hutcheson, who is now director of public works in Minneapolis. She said city officials are planning several protected intersections there.
Pittsburgh plans to build five of the intersections, said Karina Ricks, director of that city’s mobility and infrastructure department. It’s not just cyclists who welcome a design that offers “clarity and rationality,” Ricks said.
“A lot of times motorists have a lot of difficulty knowing how they’re supposed to interact with bicyclists at intersections … they end up with crashes because of a lack of clarity.”