Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting Clear about Right-of-Way at Fell and Masonic Crosswalk: Different Signal Phases for Cyclists and Pedestrians

Operation of bicycle and pedestrian signals at Fell & Masonic, site of a collision on Feb. 13
Video: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition YouTube .

An observation by the SFPD officer who interviewed witnesses at the scene of a bicyclist/motorist collision at Fell and Masonic February 13th suggests a review is needed of how the California Vehicle Code (CVC) relates to the crosswalk signal operations at this site.

According to witnesses interviewed by BIKE NOPA the day following the incident, the cyclist was clearly in the crosswalk with a green light and had the right-of-way. One noted that the pedestrian countdown signal was at "6" (it runs from 15 to 1).

The SFPD officer also obtained this information from the witnesses. However, he suggested to BIKE NOPA that the cyclist might share some responsibility or fault if she had entered the crosswalk during the countdown. He explained that the countdown is meant as a guide and warning to those already in the crosswalk. This interpretation of the CVC is accurate for pedestrians but apparently not for bicyclists who have their own crosswalk signal.

Pedestrians receive a walk signal for crossing that holds for about three seconds before it begins the countdown from 15 to 1. Then the signal displays an orange hand. The bike light, however, has a different sequence. It turns green at the same time as the pedestrian signal, and remains green through the pedestrian's warning countdown. The bike light turns yellow for three seconds before turning red at the same time as the pedestrian light.

Why does this different sequence for bicyclists and pedestrians matter? The California Vehicle Code (CVC) states that pedestrians should not enter the crosswalk after the warning flash and/or the countdown has begun. However, for bicyclists the CVC states: "an operator of a bicycle facing a steady yellow bicycle signal is, by that signal, warned that the related green movement is ending or that a red indication will be shown immediately thereafter." (CVC, 21456.3 (b). The code does not prohibit the cyclist from being in the crosswalk during the warning phase.

In the case of the injury collision the night of February 13th, if the bicyclist was in the crosswalk during the pedestrian countdown, as witnesses stated, she had a full green bike light and, thus, legal right-0f-way when she collided with the taxi van and sustained injuries to her shoulder.

The crosswalk linking the Panhandle Path is unique in the city. Bicyclists have the legal right to ride, not walk, through the crosswalk according to a new state law reported previously here. The crosswalk is also unusual since it has the two different signals, one for pedestrians and one for bicyclists.

Bicyclists should take caution at this intersection where illegal left-hand turns by motorists occur frequently. Cyclists only get approximately three seconds of a yellow warning bike light before the red appears. At the same time, SFPD should be clear that cyclists retain the right-of-way throughout the green bike light sequence even while the pedestrian light shifts into a warning countdown.


  1. Last I passed there, I saw two cars running the red turn light.

  2. I've been doing a random study of vehicles running the red arrow at Fell and Masonic for a couple of months. When I've got 5 or 10 extra minutes on my ride home, usually around 6:00, I stop and watch and count vehicles making illegal left turns during the bike/ped phase. My observations confirmed what anyone who rides this route knows, violations are endemic.
    Rarely have I had to wait more than 5 minutes to witness someone blowing through the light. One evening, I counted 7 violations in 10 minutes. I'm sure that in traffic control circles there are measures that can be taken to amplify the correct behavior at an intersection where drivers are frequently violating the law and endangering public safety; signage, bigger signals, flashing lights, God only knows what it will take. But the point is that a solution has been put in place to protect the large volume of pedestrian and bicycle traffic crossing this intersection, which is clearly not working like it was supposed to, and it demands improvement.

  3. @john: Thanks for taking the time to note the red light runners. I will forward this post with comments to the SFMTA Traffic Engineer Jack Fleck and to SFPD Park Station. If you've got the time in the future, it would help to note the date, time period, and the counts of illegal turning motorists to provide even more data.

  4. Good post Mike, it would be interesting to know if the MTA is aware of the issue, and if they have any plans for further improvements. I would be shocked if they are not aware of the problem, as anybody who has been through that crosswalk more than a few times knows drivers constantly run the left turn light, and also block the crosswalk when going straight on Masonic.

    I remember cops staging stings for a few weeks, but that was months ago, and I haven't seen them since.

  5. According to the Law bicyclists are not pedestrians! Why do they use the crosswalk?

  6. @scosyrev: California state law grants bicyclists full use of the crosswalk and permits them to ride across it. This crosswalk also connects two segments of a multiple-use path for cyclists and pedestrians.

  7. Sorry, I made a mistake with "crosswalk" - I did mean "sidewalk, sideway, pavement, footway, causey, footpath". What does law grant bicyclists there?

  8. Bicyclists in San Francisco are not to bike on sidewalks. It is fine, of course, for cyclists to spin through on the mixed-use path in the Panhandle.