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Bicycle Traffic Signals Spread Across American Cities

Words by Leon Kaye

Rent a bicycle for the day in European cities such as Amsterdam and Stockholm, and chances are your trip around town will be interrupted by bicycle traffic lights. Once a very odd and rare sight across the pond, bicycle traffic signals are now becoming more common here in the U.S. as bicycling is on the upswing.

A recent joint study of the Federal Highway Administration and the Oregon Department of Transportation has found that more cities are installing the signals to enhance not only bicyclists’ safety, but that of pedestrians and commuters. At least 16 American cities, from Seattle to Washington, D.C.,  have aggressively installed the lights. So why are they becoming more common, even in intersections where bicycle lanes do not exist?

As fuel costs increase and more Americans seek healthier lifestyles, bicycling is catching on. Dangers, however, still lurk for those who are on two wheels. Many drivers are either reticent or clueless about sharing the road, with collisions between motorists turning right--and smack into cyclists moving straight ahead--unfortunately, too frequent of an occurrence. At the same time, many bicyclists are not aware of, or disregard, local traffic laws. Others do not use proper hand signals. Finally, standard traffic signals often do not give cyclists enough time to cross an intersection (though yellow really means do not cross for bicyclists as well as motorists).

The installation of bicycle traffic devices can reduce such accidents and help make traffic more seamless all the way around. According to a USA Today article, there is still no national standard for how municipalities can effectively use these signals; and while some are automatic, akin to signals dedicated for city buses, others require a bicyclist to activate the signal--similar in function to the decades-old pedestrian signals in your local town.

Salem, Oregon is one city installing these bicycle traffic signals at more intersections. Last year’s passage of statewide legislation added bicycle signals to the state’s kit of required traffic control systems. To that end, Salem has installed the lights at 10 railroad crossings throughout the city.

For Salem, the bicycle-specific traffic lights are a cost-effective way to keep traffic moving and all commuters safer; their average cost is about $1,000 per light; new traffic lights can cost a minimum of $80,000. Weigh those costs against the (human and monetary) price of dealing with a traffic accident, and such investment makes sense. Watch for more of these signals to appear across the U.S. as more citizens grasp the benefits of bicycling.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Image credit: Science Museum (UK)

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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