Have you ever wondered how traffic lights prioritize cars and bicycles at busy intersections?
Nearly a year ago, researchers at the University of Oregon created an app that communicates with a specially-designed box that’s attached to the traffic light on campus at 18th and Alder. The app lets the light know when cyclists are approaching the intersection, helping them to get priority in a city largely built for automobiles, according to lead researcher Stephen Fickas. The project is known as V2X, which stands for vehicle-to-infrastructure
“Our society is very car-centric,” Fickas said. “We’re the first ones to have bikes actually communicating with the infrastructure.”
Fickas, who’s also a computer and information science professor at UO, views V2X as the first step in including bicycles in conversations surrounding vehicle-to-infrastructure communication — which includes the advent of driverless technology, and the ability for cars to send messages to other cars.
“Newer cars can actually communicate with each other, sharing information about where they are and how fast they're going,” Fickas said. “We want to make it so this same communication exists for bikes to make it safer for cyclists.”
It’s easier for a car to regain the momentum lost by stopping at a red light. The 18th and Alder project, which was approved by the city last year, was meant to be a trial run to see if bikes could safely and conveniently travel through a busy intersection with priority. Only a few professors and researchers have the app that actually communicates with the traffic light.
Marc Schlossberg, a planning, public policy and management professor at UO, rides his bike to campus five days a week. His commute passes through 18th and Alder. Schlossberg says that since the project began, he can expect to receive a green light nearly 80 percent of the times he passes through the intersection.
Schlossberg, who acts as a conduit between the V2X developers and the City of Eugene, says that one of the most difficult aspects of the project was getting approval from the city to install the box.
“Traffic engineers are understandably a little bit reluctant to allow other people to tap into their control systems,” Schlossberg said. “There’s no place in the city where bicycle movement is prioritized at a traffic signal.”
Every two years, Schlossberg takes students abroad to see countries who’ve placed value in cycling as a form of commute, such as Denmark and the Netherlands. For him, the project represents something much larger than bicycles seamlessly passing through intersections. It’s about creating an environment that champions sustainability by encouraging a healthier and more climate-conscious way of commuting to work and school.
“If the city is really serious about meeting their climate action plans and really serious about wanting to triple the amount of people on bike in this community, then something like this would be need to be a part of the answer,” Schlossberg said.
Andy Kading, traffic operations officer for the City of Eugene, is the main point of contact between V2X and the city. He was instrumental in getting permission to use the 18th and Alder intersection for the first phase of the project.
“This technology has been around for a while,” Kading said. “But this particular way it's being used for bicyclists is very cutting-edge.”
Kading, who’s on Eugene’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, supports the prospect of introducing a system that places an emphasis on cyclists.
“That they're doing something to better accommodate bicycles is something I'm incredibly excited about,” Kading said.
However, Kading and the city had early concerns about implementing an untested prototype into a public intersection, citing public safety as the city’s main concern.
“Anytime something that isn't a widely accepted standard interacts with our signals, we have concerns in the national sense,” Kading said. “So anytime we make minor changes, we have to be very careful about what we do. People's lives are at risk if something goes wrong.”
The City of Eugene currently has a transportation plan that aims to reallocate space for bicycles and improve pedestrian walkways, according to its website. The plan includes the proposed 13th Avenue bikeway, which will provide a two-lane protected bike lane along 13th Avenue from campus to downtown. The project should be completed by the end of summer 2019, according to Schlossberg.
Kading says the goal of the project is to increase the amount of cyclists while lowering the amount of daily drivers in Eugene by 2035.
“We want about half the people in the city to take transit or to ride bikes and then maybe 50 percent of them to drive in the future,” Kading said. “And right now we're at like 97 percent drive.”
The Safe Routes to School program in Eugene and Springfield has a similar mission statement as V2X, but with a slightly different approach — creating safe and fun ways for kids to walk, ride or roll to school.
“The number one barrier to kids walking and biking to school is actually just their parents’ perceptions of risk,” Safe Routes Coordinator Laughton Elliot-Deangelis said. “Kids want to walk and bike to school if given the opportunity.”
In 2017, the Safe Routes program was given a $10 million in Oregon Department of Transportation funding to go towards Safe Routes infrastructure projects, such as building improved bike parking stations at K-12 schools, and creating more bike lanes.
Elliot-Deangelis says that V2X is a significant step toward making biking a safer option for kids commuting to school.
“Cyclists are in the most vulnerable position,” Elliot-Deangelis said. “They’re not surrounded by steel and protected by air bags. Technologies like V2X are looking to give bikers and pedestrians the same kind of safety considerations as we give those in cars."