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Let Cyclists Go on LPIs. (They’re Doing it Anyway.)

September 24, 2015

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 streetsNew 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:

T5691

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:

  1. 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.
  2.  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.
  3. 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.

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13 Comments
  1. September 25, 2015 8:10 am

    Go to Paris and see they have just allowed cyclists to ride through red lights. Frankly, ‘turn right on red’ should be everywhere, cars included. And getting a head start on red lights in order to be more visible would do a to for bike safety around the world – especially in London where heavy goods vehicles have crushed too many cyclists to death. Simple common sense and it will all be better.

    • September 25, 2015 10:35 am

      Right-on-red for cars is a very bad policy for pedestrians, because it encourages drivers to just roll through the red light. This robs pedestrians of the confidence that they will have an unobstructed path across the street when they have the light.

      That is the effect of this policy in northern New Jersey and Long Island; it presumably would produce the same result here in New York City.

      But I have spent some time in Philadelphia the past two summers; and I was surprised to notice significant differences in driver behaviour there as compared to what I am used to in the New York area. Amongst these differences is drivers’ practice of actually coming to a discernable stop before turning right on red. They do this whether pedestrians are present or not.

      So either they are especially polite in Philly, or else we in the New York area are rude assholes. (My money’s on the latter.)

      • September 25, 2015 10:59 am

        Ah, well, yes. I took on ‘right on red’ living in Canada…. We apologise if you stand on our toes.

    • Alex permalink
      September 29, 2015 3:39 pm

      One of the things I really appreciate about NYC is it’s ban on right-on-red for cars. Any time I travel to a city that allows it (which is most US cities) I am reminded how much safer I am crossing the street in New York. Drivers constantly abuse right-on-red by not fully stopping, creeping up into the crosswalk, and ignoring pedestrians. Cars being barred from turning right-on-red is a Godsend and should remain in practice.

      That said, bikes should absolutely be allowed to turn right on red. This is another common sense measure that would give cyclists a jump on car traffic. I frequently turn right-on-red at Tillary and Court in spite of the law. I need to immediately get over to the left hand lane of Court and doing that while competing with 2 lanes of turning cars is nearly impossible and certainly dangerous. Given bikes do not have the bulk and obstructed view of cars and that they’re often not joining the motor vehicle lanes, it’s perfectly safe to allow them to proceed after stopping at a red light.

  2. September 25, 2015 1:15 pm

    Awesome post. Tweeted it to my council member.

  3. ahwr permalink
    September 28, 2015 4:13 am

    Sometimes I get to a crosswalk on foot and I see two seconds left on the countdown clock. I know the intersection so I know that means cars will not get a green for another eight or ten seconds because after the countdown gets to zero there is a yellow/all red/LPI, so there is plenty of time for me to get across before any traffic is allowed to proceed. Many others cross this way.

    >It’s time for the law to catch up with what’s already happening on the streets.

    There’s slack in the system, a lot of time and space that isn’t allocated to anyone. Why are pedestrians making use of the time and space not allocated to motorists less deserving than cyclists? If you were talking about an individual intersection that would be easier to answer than a default rule to apply to all current and future intersections with a LPI.

    You’re proposing to make it legal for cyclists to use that time instead of pedestrians, when adding six or eight seconds to the legal walk phase would greatly improve conditions for pedestrians on many crossings.

    Instead of choosing one over the other you could improve conditions for all non motorists if you lower the proposed cyclist accommodation slightly. You want bikes in front of cars where they’re visible. But cyclists don’t have to go fast for that. So extend the walk phase to improve conditions for pedestrians. If a cyclist was already at the stop bar it would be fine for them to treat the red as a stop sign/caution light at that point and proceed if there aren’t pedestrians trying to finish crossing. But a cyclist not at the light yet who can’t see if there are any pedestrians still crossing because of all the cars and trucks in the way should slow down before passing the stop bar. Something along the lines of yield to pedestrians and enter the crosswalk at walking speed if there are cars/trucks that would keep you from seeing someone jogging across at the last moment. LPI=flashing yellow/red for bikes (or whatever color implies rolling ‘stop’ at ~walking speed) should get all the safety benefits for cyclists of LPI=green for bikes, don’t you think?

    >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

    I wouldn’t expect chaos and uncertainty. I’d expect the outcome of LPI=green for bikes to be to chase pedestrians back to the sidewalk when there was the opportunity to improve walkability.

    • September 28, 2015 1:14 pm

      “Why are pedestrians making use of the time and space not allocated to motorists less deserving than cyclists?”

      I never said that. It’s not a zero-sum game.

      “You’re proposing to make it legal for cyclists to use that time instead of pedestrians…”

      No. I’m proposing to make it legal for cyclists to use that time *in addition to* pedestrians.

      • ahwr permalink
        September 28, 2015 4:07 pm

        >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.

        >I’m proposing to make it legal for cyclists to use that time *in addition to* pedestrians.

        You said you want cyclists to be able to treat a LPI as a green. That conflicts with people who start crossing late in the cycle. Say N/S street countdown for pedestrians is at 2 seconds, takes 8 seconds to cross. Right now there are 8 seconds before cars moving on the E/W street get a green. You’re proposing to give bikes a green at 5 seconds, so then there isn’t time for pedestrians to finish crossing. Typical intersection out of every minute cyclists might be able to start moving through 22-25 seconds. Pedestrians are closer to 5-15. Adding a few more seconds to that is a big deal and cuts down how many people have to wait. LPI as flashing yellow/red for bikes instead of LPI as green for bikes gets you all the safety benefits for cyclists and improves walkability.

        >It’s not a zero-sum game.

        It is if you insist on cyclists getting a green, because then you can’t add time to the painfully short legal walk phase.

      • September 28, 2015 5:55 pm

        As I said in the post, DC has had this since 2013 and it’s been working without issue.

      • ahwr permalink
        September 28, 2015 6:23 pm

        Haven’t been to DC in a few years, perhaps you can enlighten me. Does working mean no injuries? Or does working mean the city maximized walkability and cyclist safety at the same time? The former is what I would expect from LPI=green for bikes. The latter is what I want.

  4. October 5, 2015 10:00 pm

    1. Bikes aren’t cars.

    Ah, this kind of goes against 40 years of vehicular cycling / bicycle driving teaching.

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