California traffic signals should detect bikes

Hello Mr. Singh,

As a person who uses a bicycle as almost my only form of transportation, not being detected by traffic signals often makes me feel like some kind of outlaw, even though I am very explicitly operating my vehicle within California law. This difference between the letter and the implementation of the law contributes to the mistaken perception, by drivers, law enforcement officials and cyclists alike, that bikes somehow have both fewer legal rights and less responsibility to obey the rules of the road.

It has come to my attention that there is nobody on the California Traffic Control Devices Committee (CTCDC) who represents the interests of the non-motorized elements of traffic, though there are multiple representatives from the state’s automobile clubs. Under AB 1581 (now CVC 21450.5) bicycles are entitled to be detected by the devices that CTCDC oversees, but with no representation on the committee it seems unlikely that the decisions it takes will reflect our needs. Many other jurisdictions (e.g. Copenhagen, Denmark) that have decided to incorporate cycling meaningfully into their transportation networks have successfully solved the technical problems associated with detecting and directing the flow of bicycle traffic, and so I do not feel that “we don’t have the technology” is really a viable excuse. What we lack is the political will, and I think that having some direct representation of non-motorized traffic on the CTCDC would help facilitate finding that political will.

Zane Selvans

CC: Ken McGuire (Caltrans Bicycle Program Manager)

Green bike locked to cherry tree in Little Tokyo

Update: August 12th, 2009

Remarkably, Devinder Singh took the time to call me back this morning regarding my letter. He said that he would pass my comments on to the rest of the committee, and that he had received a similar comment a couple of weeks ago. Apparently it’s well worth the effort to find a particular person deep in the organization to communicate with. I mean, the Caltrans bureaucracy oversees a transportation network larger than that of most nations, and I got a personal call?

He also suggested that indeed, bicyclists are represented on the committee, which has the following makeup:

  • Caltrans (1 vote)
  • California Highway Patrol (1 vote)
  • the League of California Cities (2 votes)
  • the County Supervisors Association of California (2 votes)
  • the Automobile Club of Southern California (1 vote)
  • and the California State Automobile Association (1 vote)

A total of 8 voting members. The people who are supposedly representing the cyclists are the city and county organizations. I suggested to him that one might just as easily make the argument that those people represent the motorists as well, rendering unnecessary the membership of the automobile clubs. He suggested that other interest groups, in particular the automotive industry, had tried to get membership on the committee as well, and had been rejected, as allowing membership to increase would effectively render the committee unable to agree on anything, because its decisions require a 2/3 supermajority. Of course, the automobile associations are little more than front groups for the automotive industry, so they’ve got their representation, and with the supermajority requirement, it would require unanimous opposition to them to get any recommendation passed that they don’t like.

And ultimately, that’s all this committee does: make recommendations.  Caltrans then has to decide whether to take the recommendation or not, and they get input from other committees as well, including CBAC (the Caltrans Bicycle Advisory Committee), which is why I CC’ed Ken McGuire, who is on the bicycle side of things.  I’m sure not all committee inputs are created equal in the eyes of Caltrans, and I suspect that the CBAC gets less say than I’d like, but at least there’s someone up there who supposedly has our interests in mind.

Another interesting thing to note in all this is that, for no reason I can fathom AB 1581 (now CVC 21450.5) has a ten year sunset clause.  That’s right: after January 1st, 2018, traffic devices in California will no longer be required to detect bicycles.  Given the infrequency with which roads are re-paved, and traffic signals replaced, and how loth cities and counties are to spend money on this kind of mandate, for what they consider fringe users, I would be very surprised if a significant portion of the state’s traffic signals had been upgraded to detect bikes by then.  Doubly surprised since everyone knows they can just wait the trouble and expense out.  I mean, it’s been 20 months already, and they have yet to even release any kind of draft standard describing what a conforming device would be.

However, Mr. Singh did indicate that the release of this standard was imminent.  We should keep an eye out for it.

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5 Responses to California traffic signals should detect bikes

  1. Michelle W says:

    Anchorage avoids that problem by not having (to my knowledge) any signals that detect traffic (other than push buttons for walk signals). All lights are timed. There are times and places where this is annoying and has led me to run a light (when absolutely no cars were within a mile of the intersection) or a red hand (when biking on the path and my light turned green but my walk sign didn’t come on due to no call from the push button – I make sure there is no turning traffic and I don’t do it at the worst intersections or times of day)
    I really, really do not like being a rule breaker – it is against my nature, but sometimes the idiocy of waiting with no reason gets the better of me. In a system where peds (who can easily push a button as they walk by, and negotiate the block walls and other obstructions near the signal poles to do so) and, more especially, cars – which get the benefit of the doubt by numbers, rule the detection and direction game, biking will always be a bit frustrating and thus lead to rule breaking and other inopportune outcomes. I often choose routes without the protection of signals to avoid the frustration of needless delays – but this isn’t as safe in some ways.
    I once wrote the DOT and asked why the signals in busy midtown didn’t automatically assume peds and give a walk sign when the light turned green – like downtown lights do. I was told that they were nominally timed for no peds, and to automatically take the extra time for a walk signal would annoy drivers. There seem to be missing options here or a poor design. Bikes can make it across an intersection faster than peds, in the time of the green light. One option is to ride the road and catch the light, but Anchorage roads and drivers are scary enough to make that choice seem less good than the protected path, even with the signal issue.
    But, rambling aside – bike representation and detection is necessary – good letter.

  2. Erik says:

    The first thing that comes to mind when I read this post is that both the CBC and CABO would not mind a seat in that committee. The second is that those same two organizations could do something about the sunset clause.

    I note that AAA has two votes since So Cal and Cal both have seats on the committee.

    If California were serious about ‘complete streets’ they would not have both a highway committee and a BAC. Instead they would have one committee that was actually focused on including other vehicles.

  3. Zane Selvans says:

    Yeah, unfortunately I think it’s going to take a lot more lobbying on our part before the state really is serious about complete streets, regardless of what the law says. I used to be hopeful that higher oil prices would be enough, but I think it’s clear now that plug-in hybrids and other very efficient vehicles will be able to displace urban petroleum consumption. If we want livable streets, we’re going to have to ask for them specifically. Some encouraging moves in New York and San Francisco though. Maybe it’s not hopeless. I dream of a Pasadena that feels like Barcelona. Someday.

  4. Nate says:

    I hear that the CTCDC is actually the committee on this, and that the CBAC only gets to make recommendations to it. CalTrans basically does as the CTCDC says, and that they’re basically clueless regarding bicyclist issues because they have no reason to take recommendations from the CTCDC.

    I hear that CBAC would actually like a voting membership on the CTCDC. In my opinion, that, and cutting out the CHP (they’re to enforce the law, not make it), cutting out at least one of the two auto votes, and mobilizing folks to influence the city folks, would seem to me a vast improvement…

  5. Zane Selvans says:

    The composition of the committee was set in 1968 in its bylaws, which would themselves require a 2/3 majority to change, so alteration seems highly unlikely. I suspect it’s more likely that at some future date the committee itself would be dissolved (or otherwise cast into obscurity) by Caltrans, and replaced with another decision making body, hopefully having a broader constituency. Maybe the California Complete Streets Standards Body… or something. We can dream!

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