Snappy new video is vague on bicycles

Experienced cyclists, like motorists, may proceed through the intersection cautiously after stopping at the stop sign.

That explanation is one of the few things missing from the 2-minute video the Town of Arlington made to explain the new traffic signal in Arlington Center.

Source: Town of Arlington.

In a May 22 email, The Town said that the so-called pedestrian beacon, which governs a new crossing of Mass. Ave. at Swan Place, could be activated as early as yesterday, May 26. It was not yet switched on as of this afternoon.

The signal sequence, which includes a dark phase and two blinking red lights, is likely to be unfamiliar to most area drivers.

The signal is among the last of the changes that have been or will be introduced as part of the Arlington Center Safe Travel Project, now nearly complete.

Joe Szafarowicz of the Town’s engineering department is our amiable host for the video, in which he walks us through the signal as it moves through its steps and explains how motorists and pedestrians are supposed to respond.

The signal is both new and also of a kind that is mostly new to the area.

The video, and a two-page flier from the Town, are, for motorists and pedestrians, great introductions to the traffic signal.

Here’s what Joe has to say to cyclists (at about 1:37):

And for our cyclist friends wanting to cross Mass. Ave., all you have to do is pull up to the painted box. A sensor will recognize you and begin the same signal sequence.

I am sure that is true, and the box for cyclists is appropriately out of the flow of traffic entering Mass. Ave from Swan Place.

However, riders are not required to use the new bicycle facilities. They may elect to join motorists in traffic and proceed after coming to a full stop at the stop sign (not shown anywhere in the video) on the corner.

The flier, which I think is very well done, does not mention cyclists at all.

I choose to believe that this omission simply reflects the goals of the “safe travel” project, which for cyclists includes connecting the two halves of the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington Center in ways that will be safe for families and novice cyclists.

Experienced cyclists comfortable riding in traffic have always been able to navigate this connection like a car. They still can, but now cyclists will have the option of waiting safely out of traffic and triggering the signal cycle without having to dismount and press the walk button.

The official drawings for this project at one time showed a dedicated red-yellow-green bicycle signal facing Swan Place from the other side of Mass. Ave., but the Town, or perhaps MassDOT, thought better of it.

The signal would have introduced some ambiguity into the situation for cyclist: do I have to wait for a green light, or may I proceed (after a stop) like a car? Possibly someone thought it would be a good idea to enforce the signal on all cyclists.

I’m not sure the Town could even do that. There are very few roads in Massachusetts from which bicycles are prohibited, as long as the cyclist follows traffic laws.

Also a “bikes-must-stop-but-cars-may-go” situation at Swan Place could easily lead to some unfortunate conflicts and misunderstandings between cyclists and motorist. Not something Arlington needs more of!

Potential Conflicts

Another issue that the Town does not address in its new materials is guidance to motorists and cyclists who are turning right from Swan Place during the walk phase of the signal. The obvious advice is to proceed, if at all, with extreme caution.

The problem really stems from the fact that the new beacon is being deployed at the corner of Swan Place. This contradicts the recommendations of the Federal Highway Administration that these signals be installed mid block, at least 100 feet from intersections like this one.

I assume the logic of that is to avoid the potential for right-turning vehicles to injure pedestrians in the cross walk during the walk phase.

However, those are just guidelines, and the FHWA signed off on this plan. See my earlier report for a slightly more detailed discussion of this issue.

These omissions aside, the Town has done a very good job with this outreach. Arguably, keeping things simple makes the video and flier more effective.

These materials eschew the faux initialism “HAWK signal” (see previous report) in favor of the slightly more descriptive “pedestrian hybrid beacon.”

Although I have written about the Safe Travel Project since the very first public meeting on it, I never tried to provide the same sort of coverage of this project that I did for Mass. Ave. Phase 1 in East Arlington.

Had I done so, I would no doubt have reported 2 weeks ago that the Town had painted parts of the new bike facilities a vivid green, including part of the new bike lane starting at Swan Place.

4 comments so far

  1. Charlie on

    This does indeed seem like a very strange place for a HAWK signal installation, since it is at the intersection of a street and is not simply a mid-block crossing. I personally think a traditional traffic signal would have made much more sense here.

    • Adam Auster on

      Charlie, I’m not sure a traditional signal could have worked, in terms of its integration with other traffic signals at Route 60 and Medford St.

  2. Brian Ristuccia on

    The waiting area is shown as a box on the plan page shown in the video (near the number 2) but I got the impression that only the bicycle detector symbol will actually be painted on the pavement. Whether or not it’s meant to be painted, the box as shown in the video and on Sheet 25 in the 100% design plan is mostly on Swan Place, behind the stop sign, and in the flow of vehicular traffic turning from Swan Place onto Mass Ave.

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