Thursday, April 21, 2016

The street's so insensitive

Coming home from work, I almost always end up at the intersection of Riverdale and Bank. It's a T intersection, with a lane turning left toward Billings Bridge and a lane turning right, up through Old Ottawa South. I need to go left, so I roll over into the middle of the left turn lane and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Because the traffic light is on a sensor loop, and the sensor loop doesn't pick up my bike.

Yesterday I was sitting there waiting when a guy in a big SUV-style company car finally came up behind me. I edged the bike forward, to give him room to come up and set off the sensor, but he stayed - politely, respectfully, considerately - back. I turned and beckoned him up. He waved his hand, like, "no, it's okay, I'll stay back. "

I called out, "I can't set off the sensor," and made some incomprehensible gestures, trying to indicate by sign language what the problem was. He shook his head, then rolled his window down and leaned out. "I can't hear you," he said.

"If you move up, you can set off the sensor," I said. "It doesn't pick up the bike. This happens every time, it's a pain."

"Oh!" he said, and edged forward with the car. Within seconds the light had turned green and we could both go on our way.

But every day? I try to obey the traffic rules, but if I can't ever get a light to change, what am I supposed to do but use the pedestrian beg button and crosswalk? Or run the red light, from the left turn lane, when the coast is clear? (Which I will admit is what I usually do.)

Seventy percent of the intersections in the city have these loops, but they are hardly ever indicated, or marked. Sometimes there are three little yellow dots painted on the pavement, indicating the most sensitive part of the loop, the bit that's supposed to be set off even by a bicycle. But a lot of the time the dots are worn off or may never have been painted. (At Bank and Heron I have no idea where they might be, if they even exist, to set off the advance green. Late at night, I can sit through a couple of cycles before realizing I'm never going to get the light. And then, I'm stuck trying to get out of the middle of five or six lanes each way.) And at this particular intersection, Bank and Riverdale, the dots are still faintly visible, but they are in the wrong place.

They're there.... do you see them?
By "the wrong place" I mean that the dots are smack in the middle of the right-turning lane. Which is stupid, because you don't need a green light to turn right, and if a cyclist, wanting to turn left, stations herself over the dots in order to trigger a green light, she is blocking any driver who comes up behind. And worse, the driver won't know why she's in the middle of the lane preventing all right turns. Frustration, horn-blowing, and maybe even nudging with a car could ensue.

Presumably they wanted to only have one cyclist position for both lanes. It's simpler. So the position marked out puts the cyclist on the outside of the left-turn lane, and the centre of the right-turn lane.

Yeah, they fit two lanes in that bit to the left of the median.

Legally, cars are not allowed to turn right past a cyclist who is stopped in front of them, regardless of whether the cyclist is over at the curb or in the middle of the lane. So, from a design standpoint, going only from what the rules are, and not from how people (who are bloody ignorant apes) behave, there's no problem.

Except that what a driver sees is one of those damn cyclists hogging the road and blocking their way. Except that very few people even know that you're not allowed to pass a cyclist to turn right. Except that when I sit at that intersection on the dots, hoping the light will change, I feel a huge target painted on my back because I'm right where the drivers least expect or want me to be. Except that even as I sit there, I have no faith the sensors will pick me up.

And in fact, that was proven tonight. I decided to test a theory, around 9:00 pm. I pulled up to the intersection. I dutifully stationed myself right on top of the three faint dots. And I waited.

And waited

How close I am to the right curb.
And waited

Yup, that's me. Just waiting smack in the middle of the wrong lane.

And then a car was coming behind me, so I scootched over to the curb to let it by. Seconds after it came to a stop, the lights changed. Proving, to me anyway, that the stupid yellow dots are less than pointless.

This is how far to the left of the yellow dots the left-turning car was. . .
by this point, I'd ducked to the curb to let him by.
Did you know that in 16 states in the United States, it is legal to run a red light if the sensor doesn't detect your vehicle? They're called "dead red" laws. They were enacted precisely because it's the safest thing to do in this situation and it gives you something you can legally do to get the hell out of the middle of the road when the lights have trapped you. And in a city where 70% of the signals have sensors, and a lot of those obviously don't detect bikes, we need those laws.

From now on, I will stop at that intersection and then "dead red" that MF, and if a cop wants to talk to me about it, I'll make him try to summon a green light by invoking the Triune God of the Yellow Dots with anything lower steel-content than a Yaris.


  1. A bit late to post, but I couldn't agree more. Sometime the dots don't work and once you have waited through an entire light cycle in a left hand turn lane without triggering the arrow, there is little incentive to repeat the experiment. I was also once sitting at the dots at a set of lights and they actually worked quite well. I saw the lights for the intersecting traffic go from green to orange and I think red...briefly. Anyways, I left the dots when the lights for the intersecting traffic turned orange, I left the dots to roll forward and clip in. As I proceeded through the intersection, I noticed that light changed back and a car zoomed past my tail at a pretty high speed. I did raise this with some city officials and they didn't seem to recognize an issue with this. My advice when you use the dots is to ensure that you have a solid green before rolling forward.

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  3. I just sat through this light for what seemed like five minutes and it didn't change. This was around 5:30 this afternoon. Surprisingly there were no cars behind me for the first few minutes. After a while, a single car pulled up to my left and also just sat there. In the meantime a cyclist ran the light and crossed at the crosswalk. I could tell the other driver was getting frustrated, too. Then, lo and behold, two more cars pulled up and the light immediately triggered.

    Since it's unsafe for cyclists to try to run this light, especially during rush hour (even when there are lulls in traffic), the city really should get on improving the conditions.

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