Glow-in-the-dark bike lane might lead to safer cycling

From Houston Chronicle

By Dug Begley

Published October 7, 2016

Robery Brydia tests luminocity of green paint with phone at night
Photo by Elizabeth Conley, Staff
Robert Brydia, from Texas A&M Transportation Institute, uses his phone to activate the paint in the bike lanes at the intersection of Bizzell and Ross Streets, on Oct. 5 in College Station.

COLLEGE STATION - Texas A&M transportation researchers have a bright idea to make streets safer for cyclists: Make bike lanes glow, and get them out where drivers can see them.

Crews this week finished reconfiguring the intersection of Bizzell and Ross streets on campus into a so-called Dutch Junction that adds space at crossings for bike lanes and pulls the stop sign for cars further back from the intersection to increase visibility. In remaking the bike lanes, crews also are using a solar luminescent paint that stores solar energy to increase visibility at night.

In other words, Texas A&M University has the nation's first glow-in-the-dark green bike lane. Robert Brydia, a senior research scientist the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, joked he is optimistic the test will lead to "glowing reviews" once cyclists and drivers adjust.

"Innovations have been continuing to evolve for safety and efficiency," Brydia said, during a recent late-night observation of the intersection. "It's two innovations on top of one another."

The Dutch Junction is the first in the United States that operates without a traffic light and relies on stop signs. The glowing paint, used sporadically in Europe, is also new to the U.S. and Texas A&M is the first to receive Federal Highway Administration approval for the green illuminated color used. Officials chose the Bizzell and Ross crossing for the new traffic pattern because it has a high volume of all forms of travel, said Peter Lange, A&M's associate vice president for transportation services.

Efforts to improve safety, however, come during a dark time in Texas for walkers and bikers. Despite a 2 percent drop in overall roadway fatalities from 2014 to 2015, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed in Texas increased year over year. Roughly 11 times as many pedestrians, 550, died on Texas roadways in 2015, compared with 51 cyclists.

The Houston region, meanwhile, represents a large share of statewide cycling deaths, largely because along with the Dallas area it represents a large share of the state's cyclists and drivers. That makes the region, especially the growing urban area, a spot where more attention must be paid to how bikes and automobiles share the road, officials and observers say.

The city is in the process of updating its bike master plan, which calls for $550 million in investment over the next 20 years that would sextuple to nearly 1,800 miles Houston's bike lane system. Simply approving the plan, which could happen later this year or early 2017, is vital because it shows commitment to road safety for everyone, proponents of the plan say.

"In the short term, you can design really safe things," said Mary Blitzer, advocacy director for BikeHouston.

In Houston, especially in ever-growing areas where more people are using the same battered streets, incidents where cyclists, pedestrians and drivers fail to yield to others are increasing. Since 2011, the number of pedestrians and cyclists statewide who failed to yield right of way increased 16.9 percent, to 2,357, according to Texas Department of Transportation data of contributing factors for roadway crashes in the state. The number of drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians increased 32.8 percent in the same period, to 1,207.

The state does not factor drivers who fail to yield to cyclists or crowd them on roads, which is included in other crash factors and indistinguishable from vehicle-to-vehicle incidents.

To remedy cyclists riding into cars and vice-versa, efforts by Houston officials focused lately on giving runners, walkers and cyclists their own space. Trail systems along Houston's bayous have provided key east-west routes for many recreational cyclists and even commuters.

Having reliable, safe connections to those trails have lagged, cycling proponents have said.

"By making some striping and signage changes we can make a bike lane that benefits the community," Houston planning director Patrick Walsh told city council members in June. "It does show we can have an outstanding network."

Supporters think the improvements will dramatically increase use, pointing to other cities such as Los Angeles, Denver and Minneapolis that improved cycling amenities and saw use increase significantly.

"More people start riding when they get these perceptions of safety," Blitzer said. "A city where people ride is a safe city."

Rebuilding the road, however, is only part of improving safety. Texas A&M's new Dutch Junction requires drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to react in slightly different ways.

"As people get used to it, you will see all kinds of crazy maneuvers out here," Brydia said.

Part of the test of the paint and intersection is subjecting students to it. More than 3,000 undergraduates in the school's engineering department will navigate the intersection as a pedestrian, cyclist or driver and complete a brief survey. Researchers also have surveillance cameras pointed at the intersection and will review how many people flow properly through the intersection.

The test, and use of students as subjects and researchers, is part of an effort spurred by Chancellor John Sharp to explore a "living laboratory" where research is embedded into campus life. Brydia said other ideas are in development, including research on tracking parking lots and relaying that information to nearby traffic signs.

Early results, albeit anecdotal, indicate there are many people to educate on the new Dutch Junction configuration. On Wednesday night, as researchers assessed how the paint was holding up to traffic, about half the bicyclists who passed by didn't use the green lanes, staying instead in the slow lane of the road.

Drivers fared slightly better, perhaps moved from the crosswalks by the dozen or so people scattered on the corners.

Lange said once drivers and pedestrians adjust, there are noticeable benefits.

"It pulls everything back," he said of the new intersection. "Now that bicyclist crossing is going to be a lot easier to see."

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