Four U.S. cities are racing to open the country’s first protected intersection

May 27, 2015

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

A protected intersection under construction at Manor and Tilley in Austin, fall 2014. Photo: City of Austin.

Sometimes, change builds up for years. And sometimes, it bursts.

Fifteen months after American bikeway designer Nick Falbo coined the phrase "protected intersection" to refer to a Dutch-style intersection between two streets with protected bike lanes, the concept hasn't just ricocheted around the Internet — it's been approved by four different cities.

The cities of Austin, Salt Lake City, Davis and Boston are now in a four-way race to create the first working protected intersection in the United States.

The holy grail of bike infrastructure: Low-stress traffic crossings

Photo from Utrecht: J.Maus/BikePortland.

The promise of the design is simple: instead of forcing people in cars and on bikes alike to look constantly over their shoulders for one another, protected intersections arrange traffic so that everyone can see what's going on simply by looking forward.

For a certain circle of American transportation wonks, the "aha" moment came in 2011, when Dutch writer Mark Wagenbuur produced a video for David Hembrow's popular bike-policy blog called "Junction design the Dutch - cycle friendly - way."

Wagenbuur took an intersection from the recently published NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide and showed how the same space could be rearranged to make things simpler for people walking, biking and driving. It a tour de force of simple explanation.

Then something strange happened: nothing.

Though U.S. bikeway professionals enthusiastically passed Wagenbuur's video around, and though the ideas could have been applied even to intersections with painted bike lanes, they weren't.

Maybe it was Wagenbuur's light Dutch accent, sadly alienating to some U.S. ears. Maybe it was the description of the intersections as "Dutch." Maybe the country just wasn't quite ready for the idea.

Whatever the reason, it was a problem that Falbo, a fan of Wagenbuur's and a recent hire at the Portland-based firm Alta Planning + Design, decided to help solve, too.

How a video game artist turned planner helped visualize change

"I had been trying to find a project here at Alta where we could at least bring the design into the conversation," Falbo said in an interview. But Alta's clients never seemed interested.

"You try to explain it, you even send them Mark Wagenbuur's video," he said, but cities would end up asking for a familiar U.S. design instead.

Meanwhile, Falbo was watching the success that another Dutch concept, physically separated bike lanes, seemed to have after advocates stopped referring to them as "cycle tracks" or "Dutch infrastructure" and started using the more intuitive "protected bike lanes."

Falbo decided to start working on his own time to create something that could cut through the noise.

It began as an application to a design contest associated with George Mason University. After "a lot of doodling," Falbo came up with a list of four basic components of protected intersections:

  • A corner refuge island
  • A forward stop bar
  • A set-back bike and pedestrian crossing
  • Bike-friendly signal phasing

Working from that list, he chose a dangerous intersection not far from his own house, the corner of 122nd and Division in auto-oriented east Portland, and mapped out where each part of a protected intersection would go. Then Falbo, whose college degree had been in video animation and had spent years in the video game industry before becoming an urban planner, turned the result into a six-minute video, recording his own narration using an iPad in his guest bedroom.

On Wednesday morning in February 2014, Falbo decided to share the video over some email listservs he was part of.

BikePortland picked it up. Then we did. Then Streetsblog. Then FastCompany. Then Wired.

Falbo didn't win that design contest. But around the country, the idea was once again spreading.

Austin: On the ground but waiting for users

A bidirectional protected bike lane in Austin's half-occupied Mueller development. Photo: Greg Griffin.

Austin, it turned out, had actually started talking about its first protected intersections soon after Wagenbuur's video.

The Texas boomtown was in the process of developing 700 acres of a former airport into a huge master-planned development. In 2011, the small firm hired to plan that site, McCann Adams Studio, approached the city about building Dutch-style bikeways into the area's blank canvas.

The next year, Austin was chosen for the first round of The Green Lane Project, PeopleForBikes' program to help leading cities build protected bike lanes. As part of that operation, the McCann Adams team met a group of Dutch consultants and brought them on to their plans for the Mueller site.

Austin got its first protected intersection on the ground in September 2014 — not the major signalized junction Falbo had described but an intersection between two bidirectional protected bike lanes on Manor Road and Tilley Street, which aren't signalized where they cross.

Two bidirectional bike lanes and two bidirectional streets, all intersecting: it's an unconventional design by any standard. But that intersection and a second one that opened nearby this month integrated some of the most important aspects of Falbo's design: the forward stop bar, which gave people biking a head start across the intersection, and the refuge islands, which hopefully create spaces large enough for turning cars to wait in without blocking traffic behind them.

The homes in that area haven't been sold yet, so the intersection isn't yet in regular use. When Falbo's video came out, Austin bikeway planner Nathan Wilkes was watching with interest. A more Falbo-style interchange with an intersection of one-way protected bike lanes will be built in the next few years at 51st and Berkman and 51st and Mueller.

Jana McCann, a principal at the planning firm, said she expects the first homes in the area to become occupied in the next two or three months.

"We've just got this great kind of unity of mind in the last five or six years," McCann said. "Mueller's become this kind of testing ground for bicycle facilities."

Boston: 'It's OK to ask for what we really want'

A City of Boston rendering of plans for Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University.

In Boston, a plan to improve seven blocks of Commonwealth Avenue for biking and walking had been stalled for years.

It had been stalled so long, in fact, that what had once looked like a moderately bike-friendly plan had been looking less so — especially for a corridor just outside Boston University that accounted for 3 percent of the bike-related collisions in the entire city.

The city was aware of the flaws, but balked at changing direction at the 11th hour. Then, at a community meeting in December, advocates decided to make a full pitch not only for protected bike lanes, but for protected intersections too.

Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, said he didn't expect the Boston Transportation Department to actually build an intersection that wasn't in any U.S. design manual yet. But he decided to pitch it to them anyway.

"That's what we're shooting for, right?" Stidman said. "I think it's OK to ask for what we really want."

So he shared some of Falbo's 3-D renderings of a protected intersection in action. He could feel the energy in the room shift.

"That was really the moment — when people saw the car turning and saw that the cyclist and the car driver could see eye to eye," Stidman said. "After the presentation, one of the engineers from BTD leaned over and said 'Could you send that over again?'"

Three months later, Boston released its draft plan for Comm Ave, to be built in spring 2016. It included a raised bike lane separated from both sidewalks and cars — and protected intersections.

Salt Lake City: 'This just made so much sense'

Salt Lake City plans for 200 West at 300 South.

In Salt Lake City, Falbo played a direct role. The city's planners, looking for a solution for making bike lanes more comfortable on their extremely wide downtown streets, brought Falbo on for guidance.

A protected intersection almost exactly like the one Falbo described turned out to be perfect for the situation.

“We looked at the entire range of possibilities, and this just made so much sense," Salt Lake City transportation director Robin Hutchinson told CityLab this month. "We know that ‘protected’ is what people are asking for. It creates safety and comfort. We have the space. It solves some of our parking issues. We’re able to do so much with this one design.”

As reported this month by Streetsblog USA and local TV station KSL, the project is expected to start construction in August and finish by fall.

Davis: A Dutch-inspired solution

Plans for the corner of Covell and J in Davis, Calif., are missing a forward stop bar and continuous bend-out path for people biking, but include other characteristics of protected intersections.

In Davis, which for decades has been the #1 city in the country for bike commuting, the order for a Dutch-style intersection came straight from city council.

As in Austin, new intersections were being created from scratch, in this case to serve a major housing development on a former cannery site north of town. Davis hired a team that prepared a plan to completely separate traffic with multimillion-dollar bike and pedestrian underpasses. They vetted the plan with neighbors and got approval.

But Davis Councilmember Brett Lee, who works as an engineer, wasn't convinced that they were really using the best practice available — just the one that could be most easily explained to the U.S. public.

"I've spent some time in Holland, and I was sort of thinking, wait a minute," he said. "You wouldn't get your neighbors over to vote on whether some medical procedure should be done."

So Lee successfully pushed a resolution to hire the Dutch consulting firm Mobycon for a peer review of the street. They recommended something very close to a protected intersection.

Some biking advocates in town pushed back: it was less expensive than a tunnel, so how could it be better? Then Lee came across the Wagenbuur and Falbo videos and sent them around.

"In the abstract, you just kind of describe the Dutch junction to somebody, it kind of doesn't make sense," he said. The videos changed that.

"You can just look and go 'Oh, I get it,'" Lee said.

Advocates from Mountain View, Calif., are already organizing a pilgrimage to Davis in November to see the intersection in action.

"We're excited about inviting our city engineers, our favorite councilmembers, planners, commissioners, and anyone else we feel needs to see these treatments," Cherie Walkowiak of Safe Mountain View wrote in an email.

Brian Abenat, a transportation planner in Davis working on the Cannery project, said the project at Covell Boulevard and J Street will start construction in a few days and is likely to open late this summer, the same time as the Austin and Salt Lake projects are scheduled to come online.

"It's good for bicycling; I don't know if it matters who has the bragging rights," Abenat said. "But whoever gets there first will get to have those bragging rights, I guess."

How the idea spread: New words and useful images

Falbo's illustration of a "corner refuge island," another phrase he coined.

After so many years of inaction, what made protected intersections finally start to be built so quickly?

In part, it's coincidence. In part, it's the fact that U.S. cities have only recently begun holding bike lanes to a high standard of safety and comfort.

Speaking this month, Falbo said he thinks that if his video added anything to make this year's milestones possible, it was langauge.

"It was created for a design competition that I did not win, so it was not a success in that regard," he said. "The one thing I think my video did that I think was the most important in contributing to the idea was that it gave it a name."

"Until that came out, there was no standard name for the design — you heard 'Dutch junction,' 'Dutch design,'" Falbo went on. "Suddenly the designers and engineers could refer to the 'corner refuge island' and talk about it. ... You give it a name and you let people talk about it, and suddenly they can have conversations that they couldn't really have before."

Of course, if Wagenbuur's and Falbo's ideas had been buried in blocks of text, they wouldn't have spread. Their visualizations, disseminated over the modern image- and video-friendly internet, married words and pictures in a way that wouldn't have been possible five years ago, let alone 20.

Taken together, the words and images didn't just inform. They inspired.

Change required engineers to understand the details. But it also required non-engineers to understand what to ask for, and why to be excited about it.

"Just to see it come from a fuzzy idea to less than a year away to projects that are in active construction, it's amazing to watch, because this is not a field that is known for fast-paced change," Falbo said.

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 [email protected]

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