Making a Bike Lane Safe, Even If There is a Pole in the Middle!

Problem statement or the design brief:

“A utility pole is in the middle of a bike lane (bicycle lane). There is a high risk of bikers (cyclists) crashing into the pole. However, for the foreseeable future, the pole cannot be removed, nor can the bikeway be widened. How might we prevent bikers from crashing into the pole?”

This was the brief received from a civil engineering firm from California specializing in protected intersections and bike lane infrastructure.

A utility pole in a bike lane in Somerville. image: The Boston Globe, Ian Woloschin

Solution

We came up with a solution that prompts the biker to slow down, smoothly guides the biker away from the pole, and instills caution to check the adjacent lane for traffic as the bike lane narrows, thereby drastically reducing the probability of a biker running into the pole or getting hit by a vehicle from the adjacent lane. Here is how it looks:

Left image: recreated Emeryville scenario of a pole in a bike lane. Right image: Proposed solution

First, reflectors are placed on the pole and the bike lane is painted green. Secondly, the zone near the pole is painted white (white hatching as per standard practice), which gradually guides the biker away from the pole. For added safety, the white painted area is bordered by yellow porcelain reflectors. To mark the lane boundary clearly (and thus discourage cyclists from entering the adjacent lane), flexible square reflectors are used. These reflectors are flexible and retain their original shape even after being hit repeatedly.

Top view

Instead of the reflectors, up-cycled tire art can be used. This can utilize waste tires, save costs, make the lane vibrant, and promote circular economy.

Up-cycled tire art with reflective paint, safely guiding bikers away from the pole.

Based on the insights uncovered from interviewing a bunch of bikers and observing their response during our prototype testing, a signage indicating bike lane narrows was also included in the solution.

The signage is taken from MUTCD’s standard signages, however, a bike is included in the signage to indicate that the signage is specific to the bike lane.

Thinking like designers, we had ‘Slow’ to be painted on the bike lane as well as vehicle lane along with Rumble strips to slow down bikes and cars in the area. However, the bikers and the motorists interviewed found these ineffective and confusing. Hence these aspects were suggested as optional aids.

Behind the Scenes: Applying design thinking

Design Documentation: from design brief to delivery

We went to our drawing board to understand if this was a unique situation. How could it create an unsafe setup for a biker as well as other vehicles/pedestrians in the adjacent lanes? How do bikers react to unexpected things coming in their way?

  1. Data

Searching the internet uncovered that the presence of a utility pole in the middle of a bike lane, footpath, or roadway is not uncommon. The news of bikers hitting the pole was a common outcome in such cases.

2. Interview, Simulate and observe:

After interviewing a bunch of bikers, we came to know that obstacles in bikeways are not uncommon. Sometimes the obstacle is a trash bin, a car, or an abandoned shopping cart.

We created an obstacle using corrugated boxes and restricted the bike lane using wooden building blocks to simulate and observe bikers’ reactions in a safe and controlled environment. Here is what we observed:

a. The biker crashes into the object.

b. The biker is likely to hit or be hit by a moving vehicle in the adjacent lane, while negotiating (trying to avoid) crashing into the pole. The bikeway is at the same level as the road.

c. The biker is likely to hit a pedestrian if the footpath is at the same level as that of the bikeway.

Idea generation canvas and prototype testing snapshots

We carried out observations on sites where road work was in progress. We also referred to the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) along with NACTO bikeway design guide and AASHTO MASH compliance requirements. Bike lane design guidelines specific to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) were also referred to.

3. Generate ideas: A bunch of ideas were generated and evaluated based on safety and risk versus investment and effort.

4. Create and test low-fidelity prototypes: The shortlisted ideas were turned into low-fidelity prototypes using corrugated boxes and wooden building blocks. User testing was completed on this setup, and feedback was incorporated into the design.

5. Create Digital Mockups and a signage

According to the bikers, signage indicating what to expect and where to go would be a great way to avoid any mishaps around the pole. Hence, a signage was included. The digital mockups were created using different software. The project documentation was done on Miro, an online whiteboard.

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I help organizations solve complex problems with delightfully smart solutions using design thinking

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Kalyani Khodke

Kalyani Khodke

I help organizations solve complex problems with delightfully smart solutions using design thinking

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