Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dangerous by Design: Portland's Unsignalized Intersections


             The image above depicts the current intersection treatment at NE Going Street, looking north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (MLK).

             Imagine you are a cyclist at this intersection, crossing the seemingly always-busy MLK by riding west on NE Going Street. As you wait for the traffic to pass you notice a car in the right-hand lane slowing to a stop just before the “zebra crossing.” The motorist looks at you and begins waving their hand, nodding and mouthing “go ahead.” Their behavior clearly states, “proceed, I am stopping for you.”

             This is where the problem begins.

             Cyclists and motorists alike in this situation are at danger of becoming involved in a serious crash because of the ambiguity of the intersection. The situation can play out in a number of scenarios. The motorist, stopped in the middle of a very busy roadway is now an immediate hazard to traffic coming up behind them. Rear-end collisions in this situation are frequent because drivers are not expecting a vehicle to be fully stopped, without legal basis, in the middle of the roadway. At this point, any number of elements, such as speed, poor vision or inattentiveness while driving play into the odds for a rear-end collision.

             Consider the cyclist’s situation. Since the oncoming vehicle has stopped, the rider now perceives the situation as safe to cross. The cyclist proceeds through the intersection. As a queue of cars begins to form in the right lane side, an impatient driver changes lanes to avoid the line of traffic. The cyclist and the motorist do not see each other, both hidden by the line of cars. With quick reactions, an impact can be avoided, but the system should not have allowed the situation in the first place. 

             Both instances portray situations of unnecessary collisions, injuries and legal questions. Would the bicyclist be charged with failing to obey the stop sign by not yielding the right of way to an approaching motorist? If the driver who stopped was in a rear-end collision, would the stopped driver be charged?[1] That these questions are even coming up says there is a problem. The intersection pictured above is just one of many throughout Portland that are confusing and dangerous. Confusion mainly stems from the crosswalk zebra bars on the streets. But cyclists passing through are not stopped at the crosswalk. They're stopped in the middle of the street, between two marked crosswalks, facing a stop sign. Therefore, legally, motorists do not, and should not, stop for cyclists that are waiting to cross an intersection. In the scenario above, when motorists stop and visibly wave cyclists through, this creates highly unsafe situations.

             Why else should Oregon motorists not stop, without a legal basis to do so, for cyclists on a major through street? Because it is illegal. ORS 811.550, “Places Where Stopping, Standing, and Parking Prohibited,” provides that a person commits a Class D traffic infraction if “a person parks, stops, or leaves standing a vehicle in any of the following places,” which include “On a throughway.”[1][2] Simply put, when a driver stops in an unnecessary manner, there is a good chance that person may be violating ORS 811.550.

             What lessons are we teaching younger or new riders when one message is given by safety instructors, such as stop until the vehicle traffic has passed, but drivers actions says something different? This behavior sends a mixed message. “Always stop for signs and traffic—unless a nice driver waves you through,” is not a very solid, consistent or safe message.

             Fortunately, there are solutions to address the confusion at these intersections. Encouraging predictable behavior through roadway signage will ensure the safety of all roadway users. A good first step should be an evaluation of the proper visible signs on intersection approaches. The sign on MLK shows an image of a pedestrian and a bicyclist. They are both lumped together even though one is a vehicle and the other is not. This is confusing and makes drivers think they have to stop for both. Remove the cyclist from the sign.

             Another lower-cost solution is to redirect the bicycle route crossing to a signalized crossing. If that is not feasible, consider installing a specific signal, such as a HAWK (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK) beacon.

HAWK beacon at NE/SE 41st Ave. & E Burnside St. Source: Franz Loewenherz

             HAWK beacons are overhead signals activated by pushbuttons and give a sequence of flashing yellow, steady yellow, steady red and flashing red indications alerting motorists that pedestrians and/or cyclists are crossing an intersection.[4] Although HAWK beacons are expensive pieces of equipment, ranging anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000, studies have found them to be effective engineering treatments that can improve the safety of crossing busy arterial streets, yielding compliance rates exceeding 94% for sampled studies.[4][5]

             To cut down on the obscurity of the intersection, another solution is to stripe the entire crossing. This solution is certainly cheaper and quicker to implement than a signalized intersection.

Mock up of a full crosswalk treatment on MLK & NE Going St. Source:

             In the meantime, there is a free remedy available for those cyclists who must interact with this type of intersection. It is not ideal; it forces a cyclist out of their path of travel. But by dismounting from your bicycle and walking it across the intersection, you have become a pedestrian and it is therefore a motorist’s legal obligation to stop for you. There is no legal gray area on this one.

             The other option is to educate drivers to not stop.

             Our roadway system is not perfect. As we all continue to utilize our roadways, small tweaks are needed to keep the system running smoothly and safely. As a cyclist and a driver, I feel that it is important to be courteous on the roadway but intersections that cause confusion are a serious matter of safety for all users, not just one or the other.

[1] Ray Thomas on the unintended consequences of "ambiguous intersections"
[2] Oregon Revised Statutes - 2011 Edition; Chapter 811 — Rules of the Road for Drivers
[3] Bike Accidents: Collisions With Cars at Intersections
[4] Turner, S., Fitzpatrick, K., Brewer, M., & Park, E. S. (2006). Motorist yielding to pedestrians at unsignalized intersections: Findings from a national study on improving pedestrian safety. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 1982(1), 1-12.
[5] New HAWK pedestrian signals emerging in Cedar Rapids


  1. Josh- interesting post! That intersection at Going & MLK is definitely not ideal. I agree that the lack of consistency is a huge problem. I have definitely had a car stop in one lane but not the other as a cyclist. The situation you describe of the blind spot that gets created as a cyclist tries to cross is definitely problematic.

    Regarding your comment about teaching drivers to not stop, how do you propose the cyclist would cross the street, if cars never stopped? Would the cyclist wait for a break in traffic, or hop off their bike and cross like a pedestrian? It seems like a larger infrastructure change is necessary, either through the use of HAWK beacons. Or, maybe those light-up crosswalks that were presented by one of the midterm groups? Thanks for the insight and analysis.

    1. Kelly,

      Thanks for the comments!

      Good question on how to cross the intersection if nobody stops.

      The safest and most ideal situation is certainly the installation of HAWK beacons on intersections with vagueness for cyclists and motorists but without a proper cyclist/traffic study, a surplus of extra money (haha?) or unless a cyclist is killed, saddly, one probably will not go in. However, if the entire intersection was striped as a crosswalk, then cars would be legally bound to stop. As Mr. Maus of says in an updated article to the crosswalk law, “When you're on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk, you can get the same rights as someone walking when you are still on your bike. However, if you are simply trying to cross a road on your bike while in the main roadway, it's different and you are a vehicle, not a "pedestrian."’ (
      Or, as you mentioned, the walk-your-bike method is still certainly an option to getting across an intersection such as MLK & Going St. As the updated article above from BikePortland states, you can either dismount from your bike and walk across the crosswalk or you can ride across the crosswalk. “You do not have to dismount to exercise your right to cross. You could even be doing a trackstand, as long as you dip your front wheel into the roadway.” Although many motorists may not know about this updated rule so if it was me, I would probably just walk my bike.
      Another solution is to ride a block north or south to the closest intersection that has a traffic signal so you can pass safely through that way.
      The last ditch attempt is to wait until traffic clears then ride through. Not the most ideal situation for us cyclists in this instance, is it?

      Does anyone else have any thoughts on crossing? Collaboration is a powerful tool and I am always open to hearing alternative solutions.

  2. I don't know how many times I've had drivers impatiently wave me across, getting pissed until they see that the cars in the lane next to them aren't stopping for me. Oh, traffic woes.

    I'd be curious to know if a roundabout treatment would be effective for this type of intersection. I know it's a really busy throughway so it doesn't make sense to compare it to the roundabouts in say, Ladd's Addition, but roundabouts seem to work well in high traffic volume areas. My first thought is Springfield, OR at the MLK Jr Pkwy & Harlow Road intersection, an intersection that's not far from the freeway, Riverbend Hospital, and the businesses on Gateway. This intersection though has heavy traffic from all 4 ways, whereas the intersection you're talking about is only heavy (with cars) going north and south. Still could be interesting to see it implemented, especially if it was designed to highly prioritize bicycle/pedestrian traffic.

    I like the HAWK idea. For some reason I was thinking that the RRFB (Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons) have shown to be more effective than the HAWK signals, but I can't remember where I heard that. Either one would probably do wonders for that ridiculous intersection.

    Great post Josh!


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