There’s been a lot of talk on Facebook and Twitter about a new protected intersection currently being installed on Albert Street in East Melbourne. The protected intersection was funded through the $100m TAC Safer Cycling and Pedestrian fund, promised by the Andrews government before the 2014 election. Many of the projects on the list have been delayed significantly, and there is concern some of the money has been diverted to non-cycling related projects, so it’s fantastic to see something finally being built!
The bike lanes are not finished yet. There’s green paint to go in, and the signals and lighting are not finished. But you can ride it now.
Some on social media are concerned that this design deviates from the classic “Dutch” intersection design, and NACTO guidelines. They worry that it could be more dangerous than what was there before, particularly on the downhill approach along Albert Street heading east. One commentator on a cycling Facebook group went as far as to say:
(This is a) Hazardous design & taking away bicycle riders rights to give left turning cars priority. As an engineer who has built bikeways for over a decade and has 38yrs of commuter cycling I say that design is hazardous & probably a disgusting attempt to keep bicycle riders subservient to motorists.
These are serious charges. Concerns about this new design fall into three distinct categories:
- The ‘banana’ humps are difficult to see, and cyclists might run into them.
- The tight angle of the intersection forces cyclists to slow down too much, and is generally awkward.
- By forcing cyclists to deviate left, the intersection gives left turning vehicles priority over cyclists.
While these concerns are genuine and earnest, we think that on balance they are mistaken. We think it’s a good design which Melbourne cyclists can be proud of.
We’ll go through each of these concerns individually. But first it is worth dispelling one myth. We have met with some of the people who designed the intersection, and can confirm that they are not part of a conspiracy to make bikes subservient to cars. The designers are mostly cyclists, who are earnestly trying to improve the safety and comfort of cyclists in Melbourne. Unlike most projects in Melbourne where cyclists are simply an afterthought, this project was focused from start to finish on improving bike safety. The project involved the removal of a peak hour vehicle turn lane at a major Melbourne intersection – something that would have bee simply unheard of only a few years ago.
Why make an intersection protected?
The unavoidable problem with all intersections is that some vehicles want to turn left, and some cyclists want to travel straight ahead. Without banning left turns or separating with signals, no grade intersection can completely remove this problem. It can only be managed. Protected intersections improve safety in two ways:
- Vehicles have a slow speed on the approach to the left turn conflict point, and
- Cars and bikes face each other at a 90 degree angle at the conflict point.
Because everybody is going slowly in a protected intersection, and everyone is facing each other, the risk of a crash is greatly decreased.
So how does Albert Street match up? For cars, the width of the entrance into Lansdowne Street has been decreased from 10m wide to 6m. That will make the left turn into Landsdowne street much tighter for cars, forcing them to slow down.
Once cars have slowed down to turn left, they will be facing cyclists at a 90 degree angle. This will mean that cyclists and car drivers can look each other in the eye.
Based on these criteria, the Albert street protected intersection is a big success.
The intersection will slow cyclists down – and that’s a good thing
The downhill section of Albert Street is a death trap. Cyclists travelling at 40km/h go head to head with left turning cars every day. Experienced cyclists might feel that they can manage this risk well, but conditions such as this are unlikely to encourage more people onto their bikes.
The Dutch have the advantage of relatively flat roads which help to keep average cyclist speed between 13 and 20 km/h.
There is no safe way to design this intersection that does not involve all vehicles (including cyclists) slowing down.
The good news is that while you will be going slower through this intersection, the overall length of your trip will not be longer. City of Melbourne have introduced a ‘green wave’ on Albert Street – so the average cyclist will get to Richmond faster than before.
And while this intersection design forces you to slow down, some of the complaints about overestimate just how tight it is. The intersection has only just been resurfaced, and so you can see that much of the “kerb” is completely flat with the road:
It is actually quite comfortable for cyclists to round the intersection at a moderate speed without aggressive turns. Far from being a slalom, most people take the intersection with only a single turn out and a single turn back in.
Why did they change the design from Dutch/NACTO standards?
There’s a lot of frustration about VicRoads ‘reinventing the wheel’ here and not just using Dutch guidelines. But the changes were made for good reasons.
Traditionally with these intersections, the cycle lane stays more or less straight and the ‘turn’ space for cars is inside the intersection.
Figure: Because the protection in The Netherlands is in the intersection, bikes do not have to deviate from their path.
Many intersections in The Netherlands do force cyclists to turn away from their desire lines, but the curves tend to be much subtler than what we see on Albert Street, particularly on the North West corner where space is tightest.
Figure: The bike lane here in The Netherlands deviates away from the intersection. It would be much easier to cycle through Melbourne’s protected intersection at speed than this one.
To make a protected intersection, you need to have enough space so that the car has turned left by the time they cross the cyclist’s path. We could have pushed this space in to the centre of the road, which would have meant cyclists would have deviated less. To find this space we could have narrowed the median of Albert Street, but that would have created heritage concerns and involved destroying a tree. We could have reduced the number of traffic lanes, but this project has already taken a turn lane away. We could have narrowed the footpath (something they’re not afraid of doing in the Netherlands), but that’s undesirable for lots of reasons.
It would have been a better result had the department sacrificed two traffic lanes for the project, but given any safe design will slow cyclists down anyway, the damage done by only removing one traffic lane is not extreme.
Much has been made of the protected humps being the ‘wrong shape’. In the Netherlands they look like almonds, whereas we have ended up with bananas. But the difference between the two should not be overstated. This design only used bananas to enable more storage space in the intersection for bicycles turning. In fact, when you ignore the mounted portion of the banana it looks very much like an Almond.
Are the humps dangerous?
Concerns that the banana humps are dangerous are legitimate. It’s more than possible that a cyclist heading down the hill at a high speed could fail to see the humps and crash into them. There a few reasons to be less concerned about this possibility though:
- Faster cyclists also tend to be more regular cyclists, so they will get used to the new design quickly,
- This is a popular route, so cyclists will be able to follow the person ahead of them during peak times,
- The downhill section faces east, so there are no issues with glare at sunset during the PM peak hour, and
- The project includes new street lighting – which is yet to be installed.
We think that the banana humps should be painted a different colour and/or given a reflective treatment to ensure that cyclists can see them at night. But let’s wait and see what it looks like when the street lighting is installed first.
Will cars give way to bikes at this intersection?
Perhaps the most controversial question is who will give way to who at this intersection.
At regular intersections, bikes must give way to cars which are indicating and already turning left. But there is no clear definition of when a car begins it’s left turn, which made the situation very confusing.
The installation of bike signals means that legally, drivers must now give way to bikes.
We don’t think the legal question is too important though – drivers will take their cue from the surroundings.
One of the challenges in Australia with protected intersections is that we don’t have the design language to tell drivers who has right of way at these conflict points. The Netherlands benefits from a ‘sharks teeth’ road marking which makes it clear who gives way to whom.
Figure: “sharks teeth” triangles in The Netherlands tell drivers to give way.
Managing the conflict here in Australia without sharks teeth is tough. Even if we started including them in new roads, it would take years for drivers to learn what they mean.
One way around this on Moray Street in South Melbourne was to build in a speed hump. That could have been a possibility here, but it would have added complexity to an already novel design. It also would have slowed cyclists more.
Because this intersection is in a much tighter space than some seen in the Netherlands, there is no room for a zebra crossing across the bike lane. That means that there must be two stop lines at each leg of the intersection (one for right turning bikes, and one for straight through). It’s possible that drivers might see this second stop line and think bikes should give way.
However, there are good reason to think that drivers will give way to pedestrians. The protected intersection design places cyclists in a similar position as pedestrians, and drivers are used to the idea that they should give way to people at this location in an intersection. This intersection also slows drivers with a very sharp turn, which increases the chance they will give way. And chance that drivers will think cyclists are turning left is not high, since (as seen below) cyclists do not change their angle very much on their way into the intersection.
When we visited the site today, we found that every car gave way to bikes, even when they entered the intersection before the bikes.
With green paint across the intersection it will make it even more clear that bikes have priority here. Bikes will also have a head start at the intersection, meaning that they will be able to get ahead of drivers before they begin to turn left.
It’s impossible to know what will happen in reality, especially over the next six months as everybody gets used to this new intersection design. So let’s wait for the green paint and then see.
Our suggestions for this intersection
There are other issues this intersection that we have not seen mentioned on social media. We are concerned that the pedestrian desire lines are interrupted, which might lead some pedestrians to walk in the bike lane for part of the intersection. We didn’t witness this at the site visit today, but it’s something to watch for.
And there have been a few cat eyes placed across the desire line of cyclists. These could be easily moved to a spot where they won’t be run over by cyclists in the wet.
Figure: A red cat-eye has been placed in an awkward position.
The bicycle lanterns are a bit far back from the intersection. This could be fixed by rotating them to the other side of the pole.
Figure: bicycle lanterns are not easily visible from the bicycle stop line.
When the lanterns go on we’ll be interested to see green times. Some crossings like this turn red well before the main intersection, and if that happens here it will cause problems as many cyclists get confused about which signal they should abide by.
Thinking more broadly, Lansdowne probably wasn’t the best intersection for this. There are far more left turn conflicts at Gisborne Street. But doing the first one on Gisborne would have involved dealing with Yarra Trams and the Eye and Ear renovations, and so it’s understanding that they decided to pick off an easier target first.
There is also the issue of cost. If pilot projects set a benchmark for a protected intersection that costs millions of dollars, it will be much more difficult to get many of them built across the city. We need to think about how to achieve the same outcomes with far less infrastructure.
Critics of the design raise some good points, but we think it’s premature to draw negative conclusions. When Albert Street’s protected lanes were originally put in they were criticised for ‘hemming in’ vehicular cyclists. It took years for drivers to get used to the new treatment and realise they were not supposed to park in the bike lane. But bicycle numbers on the route increased as those who were too scared to get on a bike were drawn to the extra feeling of protection they provided.
Since then, Albert street has provided a base off which Melbourne was able to build many more protected lanes – with improvements being made to the designs each time.
We think that this treatment will spur a similar wave of improvements to infrastructure that will increase cycling in Melbourne, as more nervous cyclists get on the road.
Before casting judgement, we believe people should wait for this treatment to be finished, the line markings to go in, the lights to be turned on, and for drivers to get used to the design. Then we can begin to have a discussion about what improvements need to be made and how we might do a better job next time.