Let Cyclists Go on LPIs. (They’re Doing it Anyway.)
One of the simplest tools in the pedestrian safety toolkit can also benefit people on bikes. In a lot of cases, it already is. That tool is the Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI.
Here’s how the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) defines it in its Urban Street Design Guide:
A Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) typically gives pedestrians a 3–7 second head start when entering an intersection with a corresponding green signal in the same direction of travel.
Put another way, pedestrians get the walk signal before motorists get the green. This allows people on foot to get out ahead of car traffic, which makes them more visible to drivers, and, according to NACTO, “reinforce[s] their right-of-way over turning vehicles, especially in locations with a history of conflict.” In New York, where 44 percent of pedestrians hit by drivers are in the crosswalk with the legal right of way, even a 3-second head-start is no minor thing. “LPIs have been shown to reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections,” says NACTO.
While leading bicycle intervals do exist, some cities skip bike-specific signals and simply allow cyclists to proceed on LPIs. Washington, DC, for example, has allowed this behavior ever since the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013:
(a) A bicyclist may cross at an intersection while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic control devices.
(b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.
While New York does have a few places where cyclists are directed to use the pedestrian signal – the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge at Tillary Street, for example – I’m not aware of any intersections where cyclists can legally treat an LPI as green. (If you can think of one, please let me know in the comments.)
Nevertheless, this practice happens all over the city, and based on my completely unscientific, anecdotal, amateur observations, it’s making people safer.
Here’s the simplest example of cyclists advancing on an LPI, which I encounter nearly every day during my ride to work. It’s at the intersection of Prince St and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. (Prince becomes Charlton west of 6th Avenue.)
Fairly straightforward, right? Cyclists start going as soon as the walk signal turns on, allowing them to get partway down the street before car traffic gets the green. (Here’s another video of the same intersection, this time with a bigger swarm of cyclists proceeding on the LPI.)
For an even better example of how proceeding on an LPI can protect cyclists, here’s the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street in Brooklyn:
In this video, the walk signal turns on, indicating that pedestrians can cross Atlantic Avenue. Cyclists start going at the same time, using the LPI to get a head start on drivers. But here’s where this practice really proves its worth: when the light turns green for cars the driver of a minivan turns behind the final two cyclists. That’s highly preferable to what can happen at intersections where cyclists and motorists advance at the same time. In such situations, the first driver out of the gate might gun it and try to turn in front of a line of cyclists. Far too frequently this results in a person on a bike getting crushed under an impatient motorist’s car or truck.
It’s also worth pointing out that in the video above, the turning minivan driver fails to signal. This demonstrates another great thing that happens when cyclists get a head start: it reduces the need for them to guess a motorist’s intent.
It’s time for the law to catch up with what’s already happening on the streets. New York City should make it legal for cyclists to advance through intersections with leading pedestrian intervals. Given the purported goals of Vision Zero, it’s an idea that would yield immediate results with little in the way of effort or expense. A general rule that applies to all LPIs would require some sort of City Council legislation, but if a handful of forward-thinking elected officials got behind it, such a law could be enacted nearly overnight. Unlike other costly and time-consuming traffic calming measures such as protected bike lanes, all it would take to roll this out would be the installation of signs like this:
Now, before anyone clutches their pearls and declares that civilization itself will disintegrate unless Everyone Follows The Law, it may be helpful to get some things straight:
- Bikes aren’t cars. A 30-pound bicycle is no match for a multi-ton car or truck. People on bikes are hugely exposed at intersections, and under Vision Zero the city should be doing as much as possible to reduce the danger that comes from mixing flesh-and-bone cyclists with steel and glass vehicles.
- The city frequently allows people on bicycles to legally do things people in automobiles can not. Two-way bike lanes on streets that are one-way for cars and places where cyclists are legally allowed to use the sidewalk prove that it’s possible to create rules that acknowledge that bikes aren’t cars.
- This would largely apply at large arterials, which is where most LPIs in the city can be found anyway. For quieter side streets or any place where drivers and pedestrians currently get their respective signals at the same time, existing rules would still apply. (Even though bikes aren’t cars, New York will likely lag behind other cities in rationalizing traffic laws for cyclists for quite some time.)
Perhaps the biggest potential objection to allowing cyclists to legally advance on LPIs would come from people who think that it would create chaos and uncertainty, especially for pedestrians. Such an objection would be misplaced. In most cases, cyclists who proceed through an intersection on an LPI would be traveling in the same direction as people crossing the street on foot. Turning cyclists would still have to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, which is no different than what’s expected at an intersection without an LPI. Any confusion that might exist in the initial days or months after the passage of such a law would diminish over time. As it stands now, some cyclists start pedaling on LPIs while others do not, simply because it’s illegal. Codifying this practice under the law would eliminate this uncertainty and quickly turn it into a common, accepted practice.
There’s one additional benefit to legalizing this behavior: it would take away a cudgel occasionally used by the NYPD to ticket cyclists. While proceeding on an LPI is technically illegal for people on bikes right now, those who choose to do it are keeping themselves out of harm’s way, as demonstrated in the videos above. There’s simply no data-driven reason for punishing anyone who engages in this behavior.
If people who bike are meant to be equal beneficiaries of the city’s Vision Zero efforts, a law allowing cyclists to proceed on leading pedestrian intervals is one of the easiest steps toward that goal. Let’s do it, New York.