Bike lanes and right turns: Who designed this system?

A friend of mine recently gave up on Los Angeles after being mowed down on his bike by an uninsured SUV driver making a right turn. He’s now living in Seattle. We lost one of the good ones, guys.

I’ve always thought right turn lanes were a threat to people on bicycles, but this incident in particular got me thinking about it a bit more seriously, and in doing so, I’m becoming increasingly baffled as to how we came up with the system we have.

right hook

First things first, let me be clear: no matter what anyone does, right turns are always going to be a mess. If both the driver and the cyclist are turning, most intersections produce a situation in which a driver must drive in the bike lane in order to make a right turn. The only time that doesn’t happen is when the street being turned onto also has a bike lane, which means that the driver and the cyclist both have a lane and don’t need to merge, but in the much more common case where the road being turned onto does not have a bike lane, the driver must merge into the bike lane before making the turn in order to avoid crashing (via a “right hook”) into any cyclists that might also be making that turn. Like I said, it’s a mess, but even so, it’s nothing compared to what happens when a cyclist is going straight.

Criss cross crash cycling

When a cyclist goes straight, there’s this little dance that happens between her and the cars that are turning right. They essentially need to trade places; the cyclist must move to the left of the right turn lane so that she’s not blocking the driver’s turn. When this happens, the paths of cars and cyclists form an X. If you need a refresher on why that’s a problem, please enjoy the best commercial ever.

Needless to say, this is an extremely dangerous situation, and when you throw someone into one of those, at the very least, you should let them know that it’s about to happen. A lot of cities around the world figured that one out pretty easily, coming up with solutions like this:

Green paint in Chicago reminding drivers that they're crossing cyclists' path.
Green paint in Chicago reminding drivers that they’re crossing cyclists’ path.
Bike boxes put cyclists in front of cars so that they're not in a turning driver's blind spot.
Bike boxes put cyclists in front of cars so that they’re not in a turning driver’s blind spot.

Despite everyone else’s success though, Los Angeles has failed to rise to the challenge. The vast majority of bike lane-equipped intersections I’ve seen here look like this one on Los Angeles St, next to City Hall:


Seriously. That’s a solution someone came up with.

This may as well be the transit equivalent of that movie The Purge–for a brief moment, all rules are abandoned; What happens during that moment is anyone’s best guess. Cyclists have no idea where they’re supposed to be, and drivers have no idea they’re about to enter a bike lane. It’s perfect chaos.

The absolute worst thing about the above situation though is that the dotted line that used to be the right boundary of a vehicle lane turns into the right boundary of the bike lane! That gives the very clear message that the bike lane is on the left side of the current lane, and that there should not be any cyclists on the other side of that line, exactly the place where they’re going to be as they cross over to where the bike lane continues. If that paint has any effect on traffic, it’s to make cycling more dangerous, not safer.

Come on guys. This is a really simple fix. I need to know: What’s the deal? Why are we doing it this way? Is there some ill-conceived engineering guideline that no one has ever bothered to change? Is it a cost-cutting technique? Or has literally no one ever even given it a thought?

No matter what the answer, something needs to be done, because we’ve let this go on long enough. It’s a simple change that will make a huge difference and save a lot of lives.

One Reply to “Bike lanes and right turns: Who designed this system?”

  1. For bike lanes, I feel more comfortable if they are near the edge of the road rather than between two lanes of cars like bus/turn lane on the right and cars on the left. You’ll have to always have to measure the passing distance on both sides. There isn’t much room for errors. In the Netherlands, they solve the right turn conflicts with protected intersections. If cities are building new roads, couldn’t they put the curb further into the road to make a protected bike lane between the cars and sidewalks. If they get it right the first time, they won’t have to retrofit.

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