The green light and why you're not getting it

Look hard upon this green light, for if you heed not my advice, you shall never see it in the wildI've been riding my bike to work recently. Not every day, but certainly enough to re-learn a few of the things I used to know back when I was a regular bike commuter. One of these is that drivers are sometimes idiots. Certainly not all the time, but when you encounter perhaps a hundred cars on a given commute, it only takes 0.1% of drivers to be idiots, and you're getting a near miss (or worse) once every ten trips.

However I've also observed that sometimes cyclists can be idiots too, me included.

So, anyway, there's this lovely bike path network that the City Of Sydney have put in place in conjunction with the RTA. It's not comprehensive, by any means, but it is pretty useful. On my 10km commute, for instance, I'm only really exposed to traffic for about five or six kilometres - less if I choose backstreets. The last stretch from just before the start of the Anzac Bridge, through Pyrmont to the CBD is entirely on designated paths.

Of course it's not all rosy. There are traffic lights for us cyclists which should be observed - like the one pictured just to the left there. I noticed, however, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, that they don't appear to work reliably. Sometimes the main lights will change, along with the pedestrian lights, but the bike light will remain bafflingly red as you stand there waiting to pedal onwards. Most riders seem to just charge through at this point. I've certainly done it, a lot, and I've watched other riders do it too. Technically illegal, but understandable. After all, we might be standing in the rain. We know full well that the light should be changing for us. We can see a clear road. We're crossing the road and to hell with the RTA.

But I, dear readers, am not made from the common stock. I am a curious sort, an internet detective. A problem solver. A puzzle nerd. I like to look into things, so I looked into why these traffic lights are so crappy, and I do believe I've hit upon the answer.

I quickly discovered (as numerous riders seem not to know) that there are road sensors which are designed to detect the approach of a bike, and schedule the light sequence accordingly. Sometimes, they're marked with a line of diamonds, though not always.

These are common in motorised junctions, though it often seems that drivers often don't know about them either. I, of course, do - and I get very frustrated when drivers hang back three or four metres at a set of lights because they're not triggering the damn sensor and the lights will therefore never change.

I call these people "morons".

Of course, in not immediately realising there were bike sensors similar to the car sensors I already knew, perhaps I'm a moron too?

Well, sort of, but I have a defence. Here's what a cycle sensor looks like, helpfully highlighted in the right-hand image:

OK, so here it is.... See the problem now?

 Note carefully the gap on the left-hand side.

The left-hand side where most riders naturally line up their bikes, so they can perch comfortably on the kerb without having to lean over.

That left hand side.

Especially riders like me, that run mountain bikes with very high bottom brackets, which aren't that comfortable to stand over on flat ground.

Riders that habitually move to the extreme left when at 'normal' road junctions, so that idiots in cars* (or buses) don't hit them.

Yeah. There.

When you do what I do and sidle up to the kerb for a comfy stand, you don't even touch the sensor. The light system, therefore, doesn't know you're there and doesn't change for you. And then you jump a red light, and probably get scowled at, or perhaps even yelled at, by a driver who also doesn't know about the sensors. People even miss it on the other side, as evidenced by the clear skid marks just to the right of the highlighting in the image.

It's a bit of a design flaw**.

Since finding out about the sensors, I've occasionally walked by the divided bike path along Union Street, and I've observed riders doing exactly what I did. Pulling up at the red light, missing the sensor, then getting annoyed and jumping across when the light remains red when it should be switching to green.

One lady this morning got very confused, but didn't want to jump the light. She instead waddled the bike over to the pedestrian section outside the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel and joined the foot traffic, completely defeating the purpose of the separated bike path. I had a wry smile as I watched this, but I didn't say anything. I consider this an anthropological observation and have no wish to interfere.

Had I been riding, of course, I'd have made a point of hitting the sensor and then hopping left to my kerbside retreat. I wasn't riding though. I just watched, faintly amused, as this middle-aged lady, looking slightly absurd in knitted cardigan and bike helmet, fell victim to what is an extremely poor design choice on the part of the RTA and the CoS. In peak times, it'll probably work fine, as multiple riders line up. Off-peak, though, the lights are a complete failure, because of the yawning gap on their left (which might be a political metaphor, I haven't decided yet).

A publicity campaign might fix it, or signs at the junctions. Or they could just put in a sensor that works. Or it may just continue, with people who are curious enough to hunt down the info getting cleanly through the junctions - while those not privileged enough to be in the know get left standing at the kerb.

Anyway, now you know. And I know. So we're privileged. It'll be our little secret.



UPDATE 8/3/12: Sometimes you don't just get yelled at for jumping the lights. You get fined. Coming a day after my post on one of the reasons the lights don't work, this story worries me.

I've also subsequently found, from experience, that sometimes the lights don't work even when you hit them dead square in the centre. And people are being fined for this. Not happy.


* Incidentally, if you see someone on a bike getting struck from behind by a balding cricketer in a Mercedes, Comedy Law states that you must shout, loudly and clearly, "YOU'VE BEEN WARNED".

** Deliberate understatement. See what I did there?

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