In downtown Los Angeles, the sign of the times is bicycle-shaped.
City leaders on Thursday officially unveiled L.A.’s first bike-specific traffic signals as well as a stretch of protected bike lanes along Los Angeles Street between Alameda and First Street.
Similar to an automobile signal and positioned right alongside, these new signals will flash the familiar green, yellow and red lights to alert riders to go, slow or stop. The key difference is that the lights will be shaped like bicycles.
The new signals are found on Los Angeles Street at Arcadia, Aliso and Temple streets.
The project carries a $775,000 price tag and includes the city’s first four bike signals, the protected bike lanes, new transit platforms for bus riders, street resurfacing and new crosswalks and striping, according to a statement from the office of Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes downtown. It’s part of Huizar’s DTLA Forward initiative and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian deaths and injuries.
You can see what it's like to ride that stretch of road with a point-of-view video produced by Huizar's office. The ride starts at about 24:45.
This stretch of Los Angeles Street was picked in part because it is a critical link between the Civic Center and Union Station.
It’s part of a gap transit people refer to as the "first-last mile connection." A number of public transit options carry people downtown, but as they disperse into different neighborhoods for that last section of their commute, they must find other modes of transport, said Dan Mitchell, assistant general manager for the L.A. Department of Transportation.
Mitchell said for years the city has focused on increasing the quantity of bike lanes, but this project aims to improve the quality of those lanes by making it easier for cars and bikes to share the road, particularly with the looming rollout of Metro's bike sharing program in the area. Mitchell said the changes on Los Angeles Street are designed in part to serve customers who use that program, which officially launches July 7.
A particular challenge on streets where all modes of transit mix is that right-turning vehicles and bicycles must be in the same place at the same time, and it can become confusing whose turn it is to go, Mitchell told KPCC in a phone interview prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.
Another challenge for cyclists can be crossing traffic to get to the left turn lane to make an unprotected left. New left-turn boxes, marked in bright green, will give these riders a safe place to go while waiting to make what would otherwise be an unprotected turn across the intersection.
“Our hope is that by providing this better-organized street and a higher-quality connection for people traveling by foot, by bicycle or by vehicle from Union Station to the Civic Center, we can help provide greater safety and better awareness of all the people that are moving around, so that we can ensure that people feel more comfortable and feel more comfortable taking transit to and from the Civic Center,” Mitchell said.
Protected bike lanes are not new. Residents in Northridge have had a taste of them along Reseda Boulevard since the city introduced them last year, according to Mitchell.
The protected lanes separate bikes from cars using plastic bollards or other physical barriers. In the case of Reseda, cars park away from the curb, allowing bicyclists to ride in the space between.
Los Angeles Street will use bollards and “transit islands,” which provide additional safety and efficiency for bus riders. These concrete islands are set away from the sidewalk and on the other side of the bike lane. This arrangement will allow buses to stop without pulling over and blocking the bike lane, and it will also mean, presumably, that passengers can load up and the bus can get moving just a little bit faster.
Motorists approaching these bike-signaled intersections will notice other changes, too. Flashing yellow left and right turn signals will warn drivers to yield to pedestrians and other oncoming traffic.
A red light will indicate to drivers that they cannot turn right, while cyclists may see the green bike signal and can proceed safely through the intersection.
“There’s a great deal of research from throughout the country on the use of a flashing yellow arrow for making turns, and that research has been positive in improving safety and having benefits in, you know, clarifying movements to the people that are viewing them,” Mitchell said.
Angelenos may not be familiar with the idea of a bike traffic signal, but the idea has been catching on in other big cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, according to Mitchell.
Still, don’t expect to see more of these signals pop up overnight. For now, transportation officials are monitoring the changes closely to see how well they work. Mitchell called it a kind of “learning lab.”
One other stretch of road could see the bike signals, and that’s Figueroa Street between the University of Southern California and 7th Street downtown.
A grant for the Figueroa Corridor Streetscape project, dubbed “My Figueroa,” requires construction to be completed by March 2017.