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Vassar Street -- boldest example yet of
Cambridge's insurrection against the traffic law

Traffic law in the USA requires vehicles to merge right before turning right, even when the rightmost lane is a restricted-used lane such as a parking lane, bike lane or bus lane.

The sign in the picture below, in Madison, Wisconsin, is consistent with this requirement of law.

The sign shown in the photo below, in Madison, Wisconsin, USA,
is consistent with law requiring vehicles to merge right
before turning right.

DSCF0023 Madison lane cropped.jpg (21562 bytes)

Massachusetts law states this requirement as follows:

When turning to the right, an operator shall do so in the lane of traffic nearest to the right-hand side of the roadway and as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of roadway.

Massachusetts General Laws, Ch. 90 14.

Though proponents of the Vassar Street project frequently refer to Dutch standards, this is also the law in the Netherlands.  Here are a quote and graphic from a Web page about Dutch traffic law addressed to motorists:

[W]hen you share the road with the bicycles even if there is a different colored small lane [i.e., a bike lane] separated from your lane with a dashed white line, the right way of taking a right turn is cutting in with the bicycles on their lane at their speed, such they can't pass on your right. Then you can safely take the turn.

dutchlaw.gif (1787 bytes)

Three safe and legal options for bicyclists

The motorist must merge to the right, but the bicyclist has three legal and reasonably safe options when traveling straight through an intersection, depending on traffic conditions and the bicyclist's level of skill:

  • to merge to the left of right-turning traffic and continue through the intersection -- the fastest option, and practical for adult cyclists at all but the most challenging intersections;

  • to wait in line for turning traffic to clear;

  • to get off the bicycle and cross in the crosswalk as a pedestrian.

Cambridge's disagreement

When I [John S. Allen] served on the Cambridge Bicycle Committee (1994-1996), Cambridge Bicycle Coordinator Cara Seiderman repeatedly referred to motor vehicles' yielding when crossing bike lanes, rather than when merging into them, as required by law.

Some Bicycle Committee members objected, Seiderman relented, and early Cambridge bike lane installations had dashed sections before intersections. But more recently, Cambridge has installed bike lanes with solid stripes all the way up to the crosswalk. And now, the Vassar Street installation includes signs specifically instructing motorists to turn right from the left lane.

Placing through-traveling bicyclists to the right of right-turning motor traffic is typically justified as a way of reducing the demands on bicyclists, so even small children can get around by bicycle. Unfortunately, motorists are then required to look back and to the right, at the same time they need to scan ahead for traffic in the intersection -- an impractical and sometimes impossible burden. The motorist in this scenario can have difficulty seeing the bicyclist for many innocent reasons:

  • The motorist has a stiff neck.

  • The bicyclist on the motorist's right may be in a blind spot, hidden by the motorist's rear window frame, or by a dirty tinted window, or by clothing hanging on the hook, or cargo, or the vehicle could be a van without windows behind the driver's door.

  • The bicyclist comes into the vicinity of the motorist at let's say, 15 miles per hour. Motorist scans two seconds before turning, sees nothing. During those two seconds, the bicyclist advances 44 feet, is now in a conflict position.

  • The motorist may feel "hurried" by following traffic behind.

Turning right from the left lane is hazardous.  So is entering an intersection from concealment to the right of stopped vehicles. Some problems are shown in the left picture below, from my Bicycling Street Smarts booklet.

Avoid crossing paths with turning traffic in a bike lane (6 kB gif)

Bike lane right turn problems. Straight-through bicyclist must cross paths with right-turning traffic. Motorist (a) must look left and ahead for other traffic and may not see the bicyclist. If motorist (a) does yield to bicyclist, left-turning motorist (b), who can not see the bicyclist, may proceed into path of the bicyclist, and motorist (c) must wait. The bicyclist, not sure if motorists (a) and (c) are turning, must look both backward and forward.

Leave the bike lane if necessary to avoid conflicts with turning traffic(6 kB gif)

The bicyclist has merged out of the bike lane in advance of the intersection. Now nobody has to look backward and forward at the same time. Motorist (a) can make a safe and legal right turn. The bicyclist and motorist (c) can both continue through the intersection. Motorist (b) can see the bicyclist and knows to yield. Dashing of bike lane stripe indicates to right-turning motorists that they should merge right.

Gullible bicyclists are given a false sense of security by the incorrect signs and markings. The problem may be resolved lawfully by providing a separate traffic signal phase for bicyclists -- but at the cost of a substantial increase in waiting time for everyone, leading to a disrespect for the law. A special signal phase might sometimes be justified at a path-road crossing, but not at a low-speed, road-road intersection which is already signalized.

The insurrection on Vassar Street

So, Cambridge and MIT have instructed motorists and bicyclists DSCF0091yield signsm.gif (4997 bytes)to violate the traffic law by getting on the wrong side of each other. At the intersection of Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue, three different signs herald the disagreement with the traffic law. The first sign, shown at the right, is very explicit. It is a nonstandard sign, not recognized in the Manual on Uniform Traffic control Devices.

In the photo below, the red arrow at the lower right corner points to this sign. For the first half of the distance from the sign to the intersection, bicyclists and motorists are hidden from each other by a row of parked cars. Then for half of the remaining distance to the intersection, bicyclists are  prevented from entering the roadway. Too little distance remains before the intersection for bicyclists comfortably to negotiate a merge to the left turn lane (yellow arrow) to turn left. Notice the truck turning right from the left side of the bike lane (green arrow).

DSCF0088yield sign.jpg (28782 bytes)

The next photo shows how  the sidepath and bike lane are concealed from motorists' view.

DSCF0090Yield sign.jpg (31311 bytes)

Additional signs nearer the intersection reinforce the unlawful instruction by the first sign. The sign shown in the upper right corner of the photo below indicates the destinations for the ordinary travel lanes while failing to mention the bike lane. The sign that follows (next to the fire hydrant in the photo) indicates that the right lane is for bicycles only, in conflict with the traffic law.

Then, closer to the corner are two signs for a bus stop. I tip my helmet to the MBTA. As the photo shows, its drivers have been correctly trained to stop close to the curb, ignoring the bike lane sign, so bicyclists won't body-check passengers getting on and off the bus.

DSCF0093bus in bike lane.jpg (36138 bytes)

If you click the Next>> link below, you can see a photo sequence that begins a few seconds later. As the bus pulls away, a bicyclist riding in the bike lane and catching up with motor vehicles is trapped to the right of a Honda mini-SUV turning right from the left lane. This situation is typical of the slow traffic on Vassar Street. As the bus pulls away, also note the semitrailer truck past the intersection,  parked and unloading. The truck blocks the second lane, while a parked car blocks the curb lane. There will be more about the unloading trucks on another page.

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Sequence of traffic movements (Javascript-enabled images)

Now let's use a bit of digital magic to put the bicyclist and motorist  through the intersection correctly. In the sequence below,  the motorist merges to the right, as required by law and in spite of the sign. The bicyclist scans to the left and merges left to overtake the right-turning traffic. Negotiating a merge is very easy when bicyclists travel as fast as the motor traffic, or faster, as is typical on Vassar Street.

Ghost images of the bicyclist and the motor vehicle in the incorrect positions are shown for comparison's sake.

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Sequence of traffic movements (Javascript-enabled images)

The risk to avoid

In most of the notorious bicycle crashes in the Boston area in recent years involving adult bicyclists, the bicyclist was overtaking on the right or stuck by a right-turning vehicle:

  • On June 24, 1995, Kenneth Couch, 18, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, a talented music student, was killed near the intersection of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Witnesses said Couch was trying to pass a MBTA bus on the right when he ran into a parked car and fell under the rear wheels of the bus.

  • At 5:09 PM on October 30, 1997, William J. Spring, 62, an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank, was seriously injured while walking in a crosswalk on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston near Clarendon Street. He was struck by  bicycle courier Jonathon Gladstone, 29, of Somerville, who also was injured. Gladstone had the green light, but it has been reported that he was overtaking stopped cars on the right as Spring crossed in front of those cars. Analysis of this crash.

  • On March 30, 1998, Alexis Gewertz Shepard, 28, of Somerville, a singer-songwriter who led the Alexis Shepard Band, was killed when her bicycle collided with a tractor trailer that turned right across her path on Cambridge Street in Cambridge.

  • On June 5, 2001, a bicyclist was crushed and killed by a right-turning bus in Boston. More details await further research.

  • On August 14, 2002, Douglas K. Richardson, M.D., of Newton, 51, a renowned neonatologist, was killed when riding on Beacon Street in Brookline. A garbage truck overtook him and then turned across his path.

  • On June 10, 2003, William O'Brien, 18, of West Newton, was traveling westbound on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, passing stopped cars on their right. He entered the intersection with Morton Street, struck the right side of a left-turning minivan, and was killed. He had just finished his freshman year at St. Lawrence University, where he was studying Swahili. He had been thinking about spending his junior year in Africa.

  • On June 28, 2004, Joseph D'Ambrosio, 64, a retired town employee and avid cyclist, was killed in Braintree when a Chevrolet box truck traveling approximately 20 mph turned right across his path at the intersection of Washington and Church streets.

  • On Friday, Aug. 20, 2004, Chikako Atsuta, 39, of Somerville, died at Massachusetts General Hospital two hours after she collided on her bicycle with a lumber delivery truck thatk was taking a right turn from Washington Street onto Dane Street.. She lived in a two-family home on Columbus Avenue. Her roommates declined comment, saying only that Atsuta was from Japan and that her parents and brother are flying to Somerville from Japan. Bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk on Washington Street marked a makeshift memorial for Atsuta.

DSCF0168mortonsm.jpg (17343 bytes) William O'Brien was traveling toward the camera next to a line of stopped vehicles, and the minivan that he struck was traveling from right to left in the photo. The red arrows point to markings locating the back end of the minivan where it stopped. Let's not encourage bicyclists to overtake on the right.

The classic Cross-Fisher study of car-bike collisions shows the motorist left turn across a bicyclist's path to be the #1 cause of car-bike crashes, and the motorist right turn to be the #2 cause. With a record like this, it hardly seems prudent to design streets intentionally to encourage bicyclists to overtake on the right, or motorists to turn right from the left lane.

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