Safer roadway designs: How Danes make right turns

I went to Copenhagen, Denmark, in January 2011, and I was there for about 48 hours. I met Mikael of Copenhagenize, who lent me his Velorbis bike. I biked as much as possible, at all hours of the day, and I encountered a lot of the cycling infrastructure that makes it easy to bike and encourages the hundreds of thousands of trips by bike a day – even in winter!

This photo essay shows one of the ways you can design an intersection to facilitate safe right turns and through-maneuevers, for both people driving and cycling, as seen in Copenhagen. I’m posting this to show an alternative to the centered bike lane design common in Chicago that leads to many unsafe merge maneuvers that I mentioned yesterday in A tale of five bridges (first photo).


The driver of the white taxi on the left yielded to bicyclists going straight before making a right turn from the left lane to the right lane and enter the Kennedy Expressway ramp. Not everyone yields. 

A centered bike lane and right-turn lane at Augusta Boulevard and Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. It makes you feel trapped. There have been four crashes with five cyclists along the bike lane here over 4 years, starting at the beginning of the green bike lane, and ending at the intersection. See the last section for more details about these crashes.


I’m approaching the intersection of Amager Boulevard and Klaksvigsgade in Copenhagen. There’s a Street View map of this intersection at the bottom.


I wait behind another person on their bike in the bike through lane while drivers turn right in front of us. Look in the top right corner of the photo and you’ll see a miniature green light indicating that cyclists can turn right.


This photo shows a close-up view of the signal heads here: notice the smaller signal heads for bicyclists. The right-turn light is activated for both people driving and cycling. New York City and Portland, Oregon, both use bike signals to separate turning and through movements of bicycles and cars.

What about Chicago

Why do this? Separating the different vehicles and especially their movements creates a safer transportation systsem. The injury rate in Denmark is several times lower than in Chicago (or any American city for that matter), and their cycling rate is several times higher.

I look forward to the complete bike crash and safety report being written by the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Chicago Department of Transportation. It will have more analysis than I could do on my own for Grid Chicago (see the crashes at these two intersections on this map). While I write a lot about crash data, analysis, and reporting, I do not think bicycling in Chicago is dangerous. I think being around cars and their drivers with limited driver’s education is dangerous. The crash data is useful because it helps point out where and why crashes occur.

Trying out new designs

If we are to meet our ambitious goal of cutting injuries in half by 2015, we should take road design more seriously. I’d love it if there was a “CSI” team that would investigate each bike crash and test changes to infrastructure design to reduce the likelihood of crashes there again. The essential factors that make cycling safe are increasing the number of people doing it, and building separated infrastructure. Cities around the world find that the latter, “building separated infrastructure”, has a major impact on the former. I don’t think Chicago experiments with different designs as often as many other cities.

Mayor Bloomberg of New York City announced December 29, 2011, that they’ve experienced an all-time low of traffic fatalities in 2011, a 40% reduction since 2001. Starting in 2007, the NYC Department of Transportation started rejiggering streets, building and rebuilding plazas, constructing 100+ miles of protected bike lanes, among other changes. See my post on The Chainlink for a brief comparison of traffic fatalities between our cities (hint: NYC 2010, 271 people; Chicago: 315 people).

From 2007 to 2011, bicycle trips into Manhattan have doubled. Manhattan was the location of the city’s first protected bike lane, on 9th Avenue. Traffic has slowed around Times Square. See these transformations in action with Streetfilms videos: Public spaces, complete streets, and Times Square.

Using bike-specific traffic signals

Bike Portland reports that bike signals at traffic lights will be able for implementation across Oregon. The City of Portland has been using them since 2004 on an experimental basis. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation Signals and Street Lighting Division Manager, Peter Koonce, this is why they want them:

Providing an exclusive signal display recognizes the differences between motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, and it separates bicycles from conflicting movements.

I just confirmed that if Chicago wanted to do this, it, too, would  have to receive a “Request to Experiment” from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) because the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) doesn’t list bicycle signals as an approved traffic control device.

Crash data

August and Milwaukee – Four of the five cyclists involved in four crashes here received injuries. One crash was a hit and run. The data reveals missing pieces and inconsistencies. For example, one driver was noted as going southwest prior to the crash, a direction that’s difficult to go in this intersection. Another one was going north. One crash record had “other” or “unknown” for driver condition, vehicle direction and maneuver prior to crash. It would be immensely helpful if the exact location in the roadway of the crash was in the data (crashes are marked as happening in the center of the roadway). Six additional crashes occurred more in the middle of the intersection and one near the on-ramp.

Elston and Milwaukee – The cause of a majority of the seven crashes here is “NA”, “Unknown”, or “Unable to determine”. One crash was a hit and run (remember our hit and run rates are very high). Seven people cycling were injured. The map and date was created using this “Crash Browser” I’m slowly developing, a precursor to the group effort I’ve mentioned a few times here.

View larger map, or view in Bing’s bird’s eye view. You can read more about my trip herehere, and see more photos on Flickr.

Updated December 29, 2011: Added “Trying out new designs” section head to enhance that part of the article and added new text to this section to clarify my point about the need for different designs. Sectioned out the bike-specific traffic signals text. 

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  • mark

    NYC has these same type of signals along many of the protected bike lanes in Manhattan, except those lanes are generally on the left side of the street, so it works in conjunction with left-turning cars.  I thought it was great and would love to so these in Chicago.

    • Steven Vance

      I think they worked well. I tried them out on my visit in August 2010. NYC hired Danish planner and architect, Jan Gehl, to help them design the bike lanes and reimagined public spaces (Union, Herald, and Times Squares included). 

      Here’s my backward view of the 9th Ave. cycle track:

      • Peter Koonce

        A challenge with the bicycle signals is that you end up reducing the amount of time that the person on the bicycle can use the intersection. It’s the classic tradeoff of safety vs. efficiency. In Portland, we have both instances where we have separated the people on bikes in time from cars and because it is such a busy intersection for motor vehicles we ended up with good signal compliance.

        • Steven Vance

          The Chicago intersection in this article (Milwaukee/Augusta) is constantly busy, but never has a long queue. It has a very short signal cycle, which I think is nearly equal in each direction. There are no left turn lights (although one from NW Milwaukee to W Augusta would be useful). 

          • AKA60643

            I agree that a left turn signal from NW Milwaukee to W Augusta could be very helpful.  That turn can be brutal.

  • John Wirtz

    The separation by signal phase would make a lot of sense for protected bike lanes.

    • Steven Vance

      And since Milwaukee Avenue will have one…

      (C’mon, Alderman Moreno!)

  • Jass

    Not a huge fan of separated signals because it means less time to cross for everyone.

    15 seconds of right turning cars means 15 seconds less for bikes, even if not a single car wants to turn.

    What would be best, but isnt allowed, is straight traffic being controlled via signal, and turning traffic via stop sign.

    • Steven Vance

      What I’m really advocating is for sped up design experimentation in Chicago. Hundreds of signals here are still mechanically controlled. Walk by an old, green signal box and you’ll hear whirring and clicking.

  • Severin

    If you had posted this article on Bike Portland you’d be met with comments from people saying you’re forfeiting their right to the road and putting cyclists in greater danger. I tell myself to stop defending Danish and Dutch practice on Bike Portland because people always attack it and claim it won’t work there and that for some crazy reason Portland needs unique solutions of their own or that cycle tracks don’t work altogether in Portland

    • Steven Vance

      I did post a link to this article as a reply to one of the comments on the Bike Portland article. I don’t know if anyone responded to it because I don’t get notifications from there. 

      The NACTO bikeway design guide is heavily (heavily!) influenced by Danish and Dutch bikeway designs. These designs are modeled in cities around the world. I think we should try them out here. We should also try out their more difficult driver’s education programs, as well as vulnerable users liability laws. 

  • mark

    The part of this design that I like the best is that turning car traffic is separated from straight-thru traffic.  When I was riding in NYC, the turning traffic lane comes right up next to the bike lane for the last quarter block or so, with barriers separating it from the thru traffic.  This makes it very clear what the intentions of each vehicle is.  As I got used to this arrangement, it was easy to see if any turning vehicles were coming up in the turning lane.  If no vehicles were turning, and there were no peds in the street, I would roll through the intersection on the green of the thru traffic.

  • mark

    The part of this design that I like the best is that turning car traffic is separated from straight-thru traffic.  When I was riding in NYC, the turning traffic lane comes right up next to the bike lane for the last quarter block or so, with barriers separating it from the thru traffic.  This makes it very clear what the intentions of each vehicle is.  As I got used to this arrangement, it was easy to see if any turning vehicles were coming up in the turning lane.  If no vehicles were turning, and there were no peds in the street, I would roll through the intersection on the green of the thru traffic.

    • Steven Vance

      As New York City has noticed, documented, and proclaimed, separating the modes leads to fewer crashes. This is not new information. Research and studies have shown that separated infrastructure helps with reducing crash and injury rates. 

      Here are my photos of cycling in New York City, in 2010. I appreciate their aggressive implementation of diverse bikeway types

  • Illiniwu

    having separate lights for bikes is essential to not being right-hooked.  especially when you’re approaching the intersection in a line of stopped cars when the light turns green before you’re able to position yourself ahead of all the cars.  now the light is green and a lot of drivers (usually if they are the first in line) don’t bother to signal right or even look for cyclists even with a painted bike lane.

    separate traffic lights for bikes would especially be ideal for streets with access to the lakefront trail.  i’m wary of exiting the trail at 31st (most other exits are relatively simple usually into a park like argyle).  i end up walking my bike 3 blocks out until i can negotiate myself into regular traffic.

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