FHWA’s Bicycle Signal Interim Approval: What It Means for Practitioners

Yesterday the Federal Highway Administration published its December 24, 2013 Interim Approval (IA-16) for the use of bicycle signal faces. This development, which happened in large part due to significant efforts by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), provides an important new tool for transportation planners and engineers to provide better bicycle facilities.

Bicycle signals have been used in Europe for many years. They provide guidance for bicyclists in many circumstances where general traffic signals or pedestrian signals might create confusion or result in conflicting crossing movements. This is especially apparent in circumstances such as cycle tracks, where motor vehicle traffic turning from the street parallel to the cycle track might conflict with bicycles. The tool is also useful where trails cross streets, as it may not be clear whether a pedestrian signal applies to bicyclists. Furthermore, bicyclists generally need far shorter clearance times to cross streets, so activating a bicycle signal (preferably with passive detection rather than a pushbutton) may reduce delays to motorists in certain circumstances.

What does the new Interim Approval mean for practitioners? Well, the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide already provides recommendations for installation of bicycle signals and detection. The Interim Approval now allows jurisdictions to use bicycle signals on projects receiving Federal funds or requiring FHWA approval, without the need for time-consuming experimentation procedures.

However, there are some important distinctions between the FHWA Interim Approval and the NACTO Guide. First, IA-16 requires the use of a Bicycle SIGNAL (R10-10b) sign adjacent to all bicycle signal heads. This is a suggestion in the NACTO Guide. This makes sense in situations where parallel motor vehicle traffic may have a clear view of the bicycle signal, but is unnecessarily restrictive where driver confusion is not likely. Moreover, bicycle signals are expressly prohibited at pedestrian hybrid beacon, a location where they could play an important role. Bicyclists can cross at PHBs much faster than pedestrians, so bicycle signals combined with bicycle-specific detection could result in more efficient operation for all modes. This exclusion is disappointing, and hopefully additional research will result in approval for bicycle signals at PHBs as well.

It will be interesting to see how the Interim Approval will affect the pace at which jurisdictions install bicycle signals. Do you have experience with the efficiency and safety of bicycle signals, either as a designer or as a cyclist? If so, let us know in the comments!

[Photo source: City of Alexandria, VA. This bicycle signal, on the Mt. Vernon Trail, was installed under FHWA experimental approval.]

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