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Posted by on Jan 30, 2009 in Bicycle Culture, Safety | 17 comments

Waves of Green

I’m very curious to know how our readers react to this video—the problem, the proposed solution and the way it is presented. Note your impressions as you watch. What are they in the beginning? Do they change as the video progresses?

After you watch the video, read this article in News from Amsterdam.

Please share your impressions and thoughts in the comments.


  1. [I wasn't able to view it from this page. Don't know if that's my problem or yours.]

    Portland’s downtown signal progression is 18 mph. It makes for very nice cycling. (And contrary to perception, most downtown Portland streets don’t have bike lanes.

    The other big upside I wish StreetFilms had addressed was the benefit to pedestrians. Slower motorist speeds will make crossing much easier and safer.

    In The Netherlands it’s easier for the traffic engineers to justify the slower signal progression. There the auto mode share is probably no more than 30 percent, while on Valencia in SF it’s probably more like 75 percent, and here it’s more like 95 percent.

  2. It’s the wanky way I had to embed it. I couldn’t get their embed code to work. Probably only works on a Mac. I’ll make another attempt after my bike ride.

    In the meantime, you can watch the video at its source. The streetfilms link.

  3. Actually, I prefer the signals to be timed for cars. The light turns green, the queue of cars and trucks proceeds ahead of me, and I am left in car-free peace until I come back upon the end of the queue at the next stop light.

    Why in the hell would I want to ride in the middle of a pack of cars, in the gutter lane or not?

  4. Keri, what do I think of how this is presented? While I like the concept, I dislike the presentation. The presentation is all too typical: “Let’s take something away from motorists and give it to us greenie cyclists.” I am _so_ tired of the snot-nose-kid-saying-gimmie-gimmie-gimmie approach to public policy. I don’t like it when investment bankers or oil wildcatters do it, and I don’t like it when cyclists do it either.

    In the case of slower signal timing, I do have an alternative framing of the issue, which is win-win in nature:

    The existing 25 mph signal timing on a busy city street is _anti-motorist_, but not for the reason a casual observer might expect me to say.

    It’s much too fast for the motorist’s best interests! When one is driving to get around other motorists parallel parking, motorists slowing down to make turns, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc., one can not keep up a 25 mph average. I have observed this countless times driving on Walnut and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia. They were set for something like 26 mph. I’d be lucky to get 15 blocks before having to wait for a red cycle, and I had to be a hyper-alert driver to do even that.

    I don’t know what the optimum speed for motorists is, but 18 to 20 mph sounds about right. That sounds slow, but it’s only slow before you stop to consider the benefits: a motorist can cruise along, easily change course to accommodate all the aforementioned impediments to through travel, have more time to react to changing conditions, and more time to search for addresses he or she may be looking for. The motorist who is traveling the length of the street will get a much better trip time. The city as a whole sees slower traffic. I would expect a safety benefit at intersections.

    The benefit to bicyclists are equally good — you get to ride at a sane pace and not encounter red lights.

    Win-win. You can only think that way if you decide you don’t need to feel morally superior to those icky motorists.

    Responding to “LBJ’s Love Child,” I think you raise an interesting point, but I’ll take sane traffic speeds, and an unending stream of green lights over the benefits you mention.

    John Schubert

  5. “When traffic is flowing at this speed it is dangerous for cyclists to ride in the auto lane when the bike lane is blocked…” -from the film.

    This is a preposterous statement. It is reckless fear-mongering and exposes a us-versus-them attitude. Cyclists are traffic, not an intruder on the public way!

    On the speed limit sign showing European green wave success, it displays a 30 KMH speed limit- about the same as the 25 MPH they are complaining about in San Francisco!

    Also, to be clear, the green wave doesn’t boost cyclist’s speed by 30%! It reduces their time traveling by about 30% per trip.

    It is a typical anti-car biased sloppy Streetfilms production. I laughed at Janel Sterbentz last question: “If the lights were synchronized to bicycle speeds, would you run fewer lights?” This was as insightful a query as if she had asked if they would stop at green lights.

    The speeds of cyclists are so variable, that no matter what the timing of traffic signals is, some cyclists will hit a lot of reds. It has the sexy appeal of a techno-fix, but it wouldn’t do what Streetfilms suggests. It would further annoy motorists (Which I suspect is the goal and agenda.) and would optimize travel for a different sub-set of cyclists other than the ones for whom it is perfect for now.

    If the lights are set for 25 MPH as the film claims, cyclists who are traveling about 12 mph will always get green lights. The complainers in the film appear to be experienced cyclists of whom I would expect average a cruising speed of above 15 mph. If the timing were changed to accommodate them, the slower cruisers would now be out of sync.

  6. At the beginning of the film, I empathized with the bicyclists. The thought of coming to a complete stop at 15 traffic signals (some on an incline — it’s San Francisco, after all), clipping out and clipping in would be a royal PITA on a daily commute.

    So, when the reporter switched to video of Amsterdam’s and Copenhagen’s “green wave” systems, I thought, “Suwheeeettttt!” What I wouldn’t give to have this in O’town. I imagined such a system on Goldenrod and other major roads that connect my neighborhood — Tuskawilla — to south Orlando, where my office is located. Ah, the ability to get from Point A to Point B with minimal interruptions.

    Then the cyclists spoke. They wanted traffic signals timed to their speeds and not the motorists’ speed for all the wrong reasons. One lady said it would make her a “safer rider.” Another rider yearned for “more fluidity…I wouldn’t have to run red lights.”

    OK, stop tape. Did I hear that right?

    So the light turns red and you have to… blow through it?
    Is that what you would do if driving a car?
    And you want the city to change the timing of the lights so you don’t have to run them?
    Is that what you would expect if you were driving a car?

    OK, let’s review.

    Bicycles are vehicles.
    Accordingly, cyclists follow all rules of the road.
    They stop at STOP signs.
    They stop at RED lights.

    Cyclists, please think long and hard before asking — or worse yet demanding — preferential treatment. You stand to lose far more than you gain.

  7. As John Schubert pointed out, there are benefits in denser urban environs to timing signals for a slower speed. My experience in Portland was both as a cyclist and a motorist. Aside from too many one-way streets, downtown Portland was a mellow place to drive a car. Let’s add up the benefits and ignore the responses from the cyclists in the video:

    Safer for pedestrians
    Faster transit service (buses and trolleys operate at about cycling speed when stops are factored in)
    Safer for motorists entering and exiting on-street parking spaces
    More comfortable for motorists unfamiliar with the area who might need go slower to find places; gives more time for lane changing
    Less noise
    Fewer stops for bicyclists
    Easier lane changing for cyclists

    In the Bicycle Level of Service research done by Sprinkle Consulting for FDOT, reducing motorist speeds resulted in increased cyclist comfort, whether or not bike lanes or wide curb lanes were present.

  8. My impressions were nearly identical to Lisa’s. Thank you, Lisa, for breaking it down that way.

    I recall a few group rides where we headed down Orange and out Washington/Old Winter Garden early on a Sunday morning. We caught almost every red light. Every time we got some momentum, we had to stop. It was really aggravating. We stopped and waited for green at all of them, BTW.

    Similarly, there are some roads in town where the lights are sequenced so poorly (or not at all, I guess) that I have to stop constantly in my car… even in quiet off-peak hours. 436 from Aloma to the Airport is a good example (I know it’s hard to time lights on a 2-way).

    Poor signal timing for autos increases emissions and fuel consumption. It also feeds jackrabbit behavior. Predictable timing can calm the knee-jerk reaction to stomp the gas out of every light (at least in adults), that makes the streets safer for everyone.

    Anyway. As Schubert says, the argument for timing lights at a slow speed in a busy downtown can so easily be positioned as a win-win. In the beginning if the film, I thought they were doing that.

    I disagree with Mighk that we should ignore the cyclist comments. They were a very dominant feature of the film. For those of us who believe cyclists are vehicle drivers with the same rights and responsibility, that part of the film was a distraction and left a negative impression of the whole idea.

    We are pro-cyclist! Imagine how that would be received by non-cyclists—by a society that already thinks of us as scofflaws.

    Framing is everything. There are many environmental changes that benefit cyclists while also benefiting everyone. The more we work the “win-win” aspects, the less we look like a special interest with its hand out. And the less we reinforce negative stereotypes, the better off we’ll be.

    Re: the Amsterdam article. I thought it was interesting that they wanted to eliminate the green wave based on it lowering car speeds by 3/4 of a minute. It seemed to me, the greater time benefit to other users (particularly transit users) would have outweighed the benefit of increasing car speeds by 45 seconds. But I’m not an engineer, so I won’t try to do that math. What gave me pause was this comment:

    Flos is not concerned that abolishing the green wave will harm Amsterdam’s bicycle-friendly image – an image the municipality cultivates in order to promote the city abroad. “Cyclists don’t respect traffic lights anyway”, he argues.

    Some other thoughts on timing. I suspect it’s not possible to time a wave for cyclists where there are hills. We can’t keep a constant speed in varying terrain. ChipSeal made a good point about the wide variance of cyclist speeds, too.

    Anyway, I like the concept. I’m not sure if there are win-win applications of it here, but it would be interesting to look into. I would not want it framed as being for cyclists, but as benefiting everyone.

  9. Is 25 mph the signal timing or the posted speed limit? I don’t see any posted signs, but I have no reason to believe that “reporter” has any concept about how signal timing works (or even few here who post a response, with some obvious exceptions). Urban signalization is not timed at the posted speed limit, and rarely is it timed on a street like Valencia for motorist’s continuous green way.

    Looking at the traffic flow in the video, I don’t anything other than “sane” traffic speeds. By using Google Streetview ( ) I see a street that doesn’t seem to have any of the problems mentioned in the video, and as is all too often the case, is devoid of the large numbers of cyclists depicted in the pro-bike video (not “ringers,” surely).

    Why should 95% of the road users be further inconvenienced for the benefit of 5% (being generous to SF cyclists here) who show no inclination to operate their vehicles in a law abiding manner? Since when do we strive to reward unsafe public practice by penalizing the law-abiding?

    Having lived in SF between Nob Hill and Chinatown, I can assure you that the Castro District is relatively flat (not in an Orlando sense, mind you), so worries about unclipping and momentum are unwarranted.

    However, one can see signs that the street was recently converted from a 2-way, 4-lane with parking on both sides, to the bicycle advocate’s favorite solution: 2-way, 2-lanes (with door-zone bike lanes) and a scramble-lane for left turns. Perhaps traffic moved more freely, with larger gaps for cyclists, BEFORE all the motor traffic was forced into one through lane?

  10. LBJ’s Love Child makes a good point about the tenuous correlation between posted speed and signal timing. When you have one-way pairs (as downtown Portland and Orlando have) or a particularly strong directional flow then you can do it. In suburbia this isn’t going to fly.

    My point about ignoring the attitudes of the cyclists in the video is that we should look at this idea in total, not just through the filter of vehicular cycling promotion. You don’t dismiss a (potentially) beneficial idea just because stupid or selfish people support it.

    LBJ also wrote:
    “Why should 95% of the road users be further inconvenienced for the benefit of 5% (being generous to SF cyclists here) who show no inclination to operate their vehicles in a law abiding manner?”

    To repeat: cyclists aren’t the only potential beneficiaries of a slower signal progression, so let’s not present it that way.

  11. “cyclists aren’t the only potential beneficiaries of a slower signal progression, so let’s not present it that way.”

    That was exactly my point.

    The video does present it that way… it only briefly mentions the advantages to other users.

    The reason I asked the questions the way I did—about impressions people got from the video—is that I think it’s important to examine not ONLY good ideas, but the presentation of those ideas and how that presentation plays with the 95% of the population that doesn’t ride bikes.

  12. Mighk said: “To repeat: cyclists aren’t the only potential beneficiaries of a slower signal progression, so let’s not present it that way.”

    Pigs will fly before I will be convinced that the point of that video is to speed up buses, or to do anything other than reward one of the behaviors of cyclists that most irritate other roadway users.

    That is NOT a high speed street, but is actually a fairly low speed one, with fairly low speed signal timing. As ChipSeal pointed out, cyclists traveling at the normal European bicycle speed would encounter the signals as green more often than not, allowing for the signals to complete two cycles before cyclists arrive at the intersection. The fact that there are “18″ signalized intersections along Valencia should say something about the monumental impact such an approach would have.

    An element of an urban street grid in a North American city does not function independently, but is an integrated part of a network. This is nothing more than to attempt further segregation, and is a logical extension of the idea that bicycles don’t really “belong”, but that they can not operate in a normal streetscape without an increasingly complicated series of facilities and restrictions.

    Remember, the Bay Area is an EPA Air Quality Non-Attainment Zone. The kind of increased queuing that such a re-timing would cause is nothing to sneeze (or cough) at.

    Valencia is not a good candidate for Woonerven or Bike Boulevard treatments… and that’s the next demand.

  13. Lisa B said,
    “Bicycles are vehicles.
    Accordingly, cyclists follow all rules of the road.
    They stop at STOP signs.
    They stop at RED lights.

    Cyclists, please think long and hard before asking — or worse yet demanding — preferential treatment. You stand to lose far more than you gain.”

    Yet, about a year ago, didn’t Keri and Mighk go up to Seminole County to talk to the police up there about the cyclists the neighbors were mad at and trying to get them kicked off “their” neighborhood streets?

  14. “…didn’t Keri and Mighk go up to Seminole County to talk to the police up there about the cyclists the neighbors were mad at and trying to get them kicked off “their” neighborhood streets?”

    We met with Seminole county to try and solve a problem, not to get special privileges for cyclists. We were there to safeguard the cyclists’ right to protect their space in a narrow lane (no other vehicle driver is expected to share a lane or compromise safety for the convenience of others). We also encouraged the cyclists to reduce their group sizes in problem ares (which are only about 3 or 4 miles of road). We suggested that if the cyclists are breaking the law (running stop signs and violating ROW of others) they should be ticketed for that. But lane position in a narrow lane is not something the cops can legally enforce and they should not ask groups of cyclists to ride in an unsafe position for the convenience of motorists.

    Remember, this activity is taking place on Saturday mornings, not during high-traffic times. Some of the irritation was warranted by bad behavior on the part of cyclists, some of it was just pure selfishness of motorists who think they own the road and can’t keep a 10 second “delay” in perspective.

    So our meeting was 100% in line with Lisa’s comment. Enforce the law as it applies. Don’t enforce bias. Don’t coddle people’s lack of perspective.

  15. “We suggested that if the cyclists are breaking the law (running stop signs and violating ROW of others) they should be ticketed for that.”

    So those pace lines running through the neighborhoods are stopping at the All-Way stop signs now? Or was that left to the police?

  16. The groups I ride with stop at stop signs.

    We have exactly zero control over the actions of other groups or individuals. Hal can admonish riders to obey the law a million times in his newsletter, but if they choose to run stop signs then it is up to the police to enforce the law… with equity, of course.

  17. Frankly, I think the entire discussion is a bit superfluous.

    Valencia, the street profiled, is a somewhat minor roadway. It is sandwiched between two much more efficient avenues – Guerrero and Mission. In fact, Valencia sprouts from Mission south of the Mission District and heads north to downtown, where both it and Guerrero terminate at or near Market.

    From looking at Google Maps, Guerrero is only partially plagued by bike lanes. Close inspection will actually reveal that much of the bike lane system has been decommissioned on that route (some obliterated stenciling can be observed). Therefore, I would simply avoid Valencia altogether and select either Guerrero or, more likely, Mission. The latter would provide an excellent route from the Cemetery District, past downtown and to the bay.

    If forced to consider only the route highlighted in this discussion, which, as a competent vehicular cyclist, I would never do, I would agree with the comments expressed by everyone else. To wit:

    The signaling should be geared toward the most prevalent vehicle type – motorists. Cyclists should either increase their pace, decrease their pace, or accept their lot based on choosing this particular route.

    Scofflaw activity is never acceptable.

    This momentum argument is tired and over used. Motor vehicles also experience inefficiencies when they have to start and stop frequently. The alternatives are to learn how to make judicious use of the bicycle gearing system, adjust one’s pace or choose an alternate route with better light cycling (no pun intended).

    A slower design speed for the signaling would benefit all design users.

    The cyclists in the video never had my sympathy; they largely earned my contempt by the end of the clip.