Five things to notice about this Copenhagen traffic signal

June 08, 2016

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

We're reporting from Copenhagen this week — here's why.

Protected bike lanes get all the love. But in the best bike cities, some of the most important bike infrastructure is psychologically invisible.

It's the traffic signals.

If streets are a city's arteries, traffic signals are its pulse. And the way they're done in Denmark (among other countries) is very different from standard practice in the United States.

Above is an unusually complicated signal across from one of Copenhagen's main rail stations. Here are some things worth noting about it. (We'll reproduce the photo each time for your lack-of-scrolling pleasure.)

1. It's on the near side of the street.

Though in this case there's also a car signal in the middle of the intersection, near-side traffic signals are common in Europe and they're a surprisingly big deal. They mean someone in a car won't edge into the crosswalk on red, because if they do they won't be able to see when the light changes. Like human-scale street signs, near-side signals make a street feel more like a street and less like a highway.

2. It's got a bike signal.

Acually it's got three. (More on that in a sec.) They're the little ones on the right, green in the photo above. Bike signals were finally accepted as a standard practice in the United States in 2014, but only in extremely limited situations where all other signal phases can be simultaneously red. Though many cities have successfully petitioned for exceptions to this rule over the years, the United States is many years behind other developed countries in simply making it legal for traffic engineers to give bikes a green light of their own when it'd be appropriate.

3. People on bikes are getting a head start.

As you can see above, the bike signal is green while the auto signal remains red.

This "leading interval" isn't there because bikes are better than cars (though, OK, we can debate that). It's there to give people waiting at the red light on bikes a chance to clear the intersection — or at least get into the sight line of people driving — before anyone tries to turn right across their lane. This can greatly reduce one of the most common causes of a car-bike collision, the right hook.

4. There are redundant signals.

From left to right: There's a car signal hanging over the middle of the street (A). There's a car signal on a pole to the right of the street (B). There's a bike signal right next to the car signal on that pole (C). There's another bike signal on a different pole, closer to the corner of the intersection (D — here's another angle if you'd like). There's a third bike signal on the main pole, but further right and further down (E).

Here's what each of them does: A is for people driving in the center through lane, going straight. B is both for people driving in the rightmost lane and for people biking, so they know what's going on with the cars without having to look away from the person ahead of them. C is mostly for the people driving, so they can know what's going on with the bikes without having to look away from the road ahead of them. D is for people on bikes who have just crossed the intersection from the left and are making the second leg of their left turn. (This design, which isn't ideal, is known as a "Copenhagen left" because it's common in this city that has retrofitted numerous auto-oriented intersections for biking.) Finally, E is the main bike signal at eye level.

Overkill? OK, yeah, maybe. Attention to how biking works in the real world? Definitely.

5. There are separate right-turn signals for both cars and bikes.

They're not lit up in the shot above, but you can see them at the lower right of most of these signals. This is because Denmark is one of the many countries that don't allow right turns on red, either for cars or bikes. This prevents conflicts with cars and bikes going perpendicular and removes the incentive for people to inch forward into sidewalks and bike lanes on red, blocking cross traffic.

For people on bikes who are turning right, there's another bonus: you can get a free right turn while traffic is moving elsewhere. That's why the right half of the bike lane pictured above is empty: the people who were turning right already got their green light, leaving only the people going straight. If you look at the pavement markings beneath the people biking, you can see the separation between the right-turn biking lane and the straight biking lane.

Which means that in Copenhagen, some streets have not one but two bike lanes in the same direction.

We don't love everything about the system described above. But it's hard to complain about that.

The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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