Webster Road slip lanes Update #4 – July 6

As of this morning, the slip lane lights at Webster Road are operational.

TMR have opted not to use the “stop here on red arrow/signal” signs that BCC uses, and have retained the give way signs at the end of the slip lanes.

The pedestrian signals are synchronised with the main intersection lights, and will not change while the adjacent carriageway lights are green. At the crossing shown above, from Gympie to Webster Road, I measured a maximum pedestrian waiting time of 110 seconds – almost two minutes! Here’s a video of the crossing in action:

If you find yourself getting bored and impatient watching the video, consider how likely it is that pedestrians and cyclists will comply with the waiting time, and not just cross in a gap in traffic. But do watch it all the way through. There’s a fun surprise at the end…*

At the eastern slip lane, from Webster into Gympie, I measured a maximum wait time of 45 seconds – assuming you can actually cross when the signal finally changes:

Heavy traffic on Gympie Road and the fact this signal will never change during the Webster Road phase mean that the crossing is often blocked by vehicles waiting to turn.

The central crossing has not been modified at all, of course. This crossing only has a green pedestrian phase of 10 seconds per light cycle, despite being completely protected by the traffic on Gympie Road for up to 60 seconds before changing.

Why is this crossing held at red for an entire minute when it’s completely protected by the adjacent traffic?

There’s no reason this extra minute could not be added to the green time, or indeed any reason that the light here can’t dwell on green (automatically change without a pedestrian having pressed the button) to allow the bikeway traffic to cross safely and efficiently. It would be completely safe, would cost nothing, and wouldn’t affect the car phasing at all. It just never occurred to anyone on the project to do it – because despite the entire purpose of the project being to upgrade the pedestrian crossing, no-one at TMR was thinking about it from pedestrians’ point of view.


Good morning Nic,

I see that the lights on the slip lanes at Webster Road are fully operational this morning.

I also note that, due to the synchronisation of the slip lane lights with the main intersection, the western slip lane (Gympie to Webster) has a maximum pedestrian wait time of approximately 110 seconds, which seems to contradict Les Dunn’s assertion on 18 June (MC120130) that “both traffic signals to be installed on the slip lanes will have a short waiting period prior to turning green”.

Does the department stand by Mr Dunn’s claim, and believe that a wait time of nearly 2 minutes to cross a single slip lane, as one stage of a 3- or 4-stage signalised crossing, constitutes a “short waiting period” and is acceptable and compatible with TMR policy, including TRUM Volume 1, Part 9 6.5.3-6 (“Slip lane pedestrian signals need to respond quickly to pedestrian demand, otherwise they will result in a high level of pedestrian non-compliance which undermines the safety benefit of treatment”)?

Thanks,


This week we had confirmation from Bart Mellish that the 1.1 million dollar project at the intersection of Beckett, Bridgeman and Albany Creek Roads in Bridgeman Downs is, indeed, signalising the slip lanes.

Beckett/Bridgeman and Albany Creek Road.

This project is still in the early planning phase, so there is plenty of time to take the lessons from Webster Road and campaign for a better outcome here. Notably, it is a much more modern intersection, with existing auxiliary lanes which lend themselves to slip-lane removal, and high-angle approaches which lend themselves to raised priority “wombat” crossings. We can also be sure that whatever treatment happens here will in time be copied by the Brisbane City Council at the 17 other slip lanes along Bridgeman and Beckett Roads. So let’s make sure it’s a safer and more pedestrian-friendly one than signalisation.



* Yes, I made a late decision and crossed during the flashing red phase. But the driver still ran a red light and only – reluctantly – stopped when I made it clear I intended to keep walking in front of her.

Webster Road slip lanes Update #3 – June 25

Having seen the slip lanes at South Brisbane, this morning I decided to go and check out two other signalised slip lanes I’m aware of – one at the Grange and one at Sandgate.

Days Rd and Kedron Brook Rd, the Grange

The signalised slip lane at Days Road was built in 2018 when the roundabout was replaced. While I was impressed that there are pedestrian crossings on all three legs of the intersection, the slip lane signals are – surprise! – synchronised with the main traffic lights. I timed a maximum pedestrian wait at the slip lane of 45 seconds.

Rainbow St and Bowser Parade (very Mario Kart), Sandgate

The slip lane from Rainbow Street to Bowser Parade in Sandgate is certainly the oldest signalised slip in Brisbane that I know of, dating from around 2007. This slip lane is opposite Sandgate Station and sees significantly more pedestrian traffic than Days Road does. It is – of course – also synchronised to the main traffic lights, and I timed a maximum wait of 85 seconds. While timing I saw several pedestrians cross the slip lane, none waiting for the lights, and some running to catch the main crosswalk phase across to the station. I also, amusingly, watched a car sit and wait at the blank slip lane lights for an entire cycle, because the driver didn’t understand what the unlit signals meant.

Even if the engineers who design these slip lanes, and the politicians who sign off on them, genuinely believe they are safe, surely they must be aware that a long waiting time eliminates any chance of pedestrian compliance? I have been wondering why the Brisbane City Council synchronises their slip lane lights in this way, and the only theory I can come up with is that they’ve determined that driver behaviour makes it dangerous to allow the slip lane signals to change independently.

At all other intersections in Queensland, a yellow arrow signal only ever appears immediately after a green arrow at the end of a protected turn phase, when all conflicting traffic is being held by red lights. Therefore, most drivers interpret a yellow arrow as “the way is clear; hurry up before the light changes.” If this logic were applied at a slip lane, where the turn is permissive rather than protected, a driver hurrying through without paying attention could well collide with traffic on the cross road – if the signals were not synchronised to ensure a gap. I’ve put that theory to TMR, and asked if it was considered at Webster Road, but haven’t heard back yet.

As for the Webster Road intersection, the work there is almost complete:

The bin bags on the signal heads seem a little redundant: as they’ll be mostly unlit in service anyway, they’d hardly be more confusing for drivers now than they will be then.
“Provision of chevron marking at the corner of Webster Road to Gympie Road to stop drivers from using the shoulders to get to the slip lane,” clearly working as intended.

But that doesn’t mean my campaign has failed, or should come to an end.

Despite being demonstrably dangerous and anti-pedestrian, signalised slip lanes are becoming a de facto standard in Queensland, based on nothing more than wishful thinking that a safe alternative to slip lane removal exists. But it doesn’t.

And not only are these signals dangerous, but they’re expensive – about $250,000 per slip lane. That means hundreds of millions of dollars in public money could potentially be spent on a slip lane treatment that is no better, and quite possibly worse, than the known-unsafe treatments they replace. And that’s something worth trying to wake TMR up to.

-David

PS: Here is TMR’s official response to my first letter, and my follow-up sent on Monday:

So what’s wrong with signalised slip lanes, anyway?

Many readers who are not habitual pedestrians, or who have not encountered a signalised slip lane in the wild yet, might be confused why advocacy groups are opposed to the signalisation of the slips at Webster Road. After all, won’t the signals make the crossing safer? Isn’t that why TMR is installing them? In this post, I’ll break down the issues around signalised slip lanes, and slip lanes more generally.


A slip lane is a short piece of road which allows nearside-turning traffic to bypass a signalised intersection. They are an exclusively North American and Australasian phenomenon, and are not used in the UK, Europe, or Japan.

The fact that some traffic at a busy intersection does not have to stop at the lights presents a problem for pedestrians trying to cross, of course. Therefore, in all Australian states and New Zealand, the road rules say that drivers must stop and give way to pedestrians crossing the slip lane. This road rule applies regardless of whether the slip lane is marked with a zebra crossing, with a signalised crossing, or with nothing at all.

Even without a zebra crossing, cars are supposed to stop and give way here. But they don’t.

Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to cross the road at an unmarked slip lane knows that drivers do not stop and give way to pedestrians. In some cases, motorists might not know their road rules, but for the most part it’s because they are busy preparing to merge onto the road they’re turning into, and are looking for conflicting traffic coming from the other direction. There’s simply too much work to do in too short a time to be able to effectively watch and respond to pedestrians.

Zebra crossings are one tool that has been widely used to try and fix this fundamental flaw. A zebra crossing, with large reflective signs and bold pavement markings, draws motorists’ attention back to the possibility of pedestrians crossing the road.

This has not been an unmitigated success. Motorists are still overworked and frequently miss seeing pedestrians, and pedestrians – emboldened by the presence of the crossing – are more likely to assert their right-of-way and step out in front of vehicles. Slip lanes with zebra crossings are dramatically over-represented in left-turn pedestrian collision statistics in Australia and New Zealand. And in recent years, improved safety rules for the construction of zebra crossings – including limits on allowable vehicle speeds and sight lines – have made marking zebra crossings on slip lanes impossible anyway.

That just leaves signalised slip lanes. A signalised slip lane has pedestrian activation buttons, red/green pedestrian lights, and signal lights for vehicles on the slip lane.

Stanley Place into Grey St, South Brisbane.

The default state is for the pedestrian light to be red, and the vehicle light to be off. Note that the vehicle signal heads do not have green lights. This is because motorists using the slip lane still need to give way, both to pedestrians crossing the slip lane and to traffic on the road they are turning into.

Signalisation is another attempt to fix the drivers-don’t-give-way problem: if they won’t stop for pedestrians, they can presumably be relied on to stop for a red traffic light. But it’s a very poor fix. Signalised slip lanes create a multitude of safety and compliance issues, including:

  1. Observing and obeying the signals adds to motorists’ workload, reducing their awareness of pedestrians even further. Most drivers will look first to the signal head, then turn to look for traffic, and not even think about people crossing the road.
  2. The road rules are contradictory. Drivers must give way, but the signals’ default state prevents pedestrians from legally crossing. This confuses and erodes everyone’s understanding of right-of-way at slip lanes.
  3. Pedestrians and cyclists won’t comply with the signals on such a short crossing anyway. With only a single lane to cross, most people won’t bother pressing the button and waiting for a walk signal, but will just look to see if anything’s coming then cross.

In short, nobody is going to follow the rules at a signalised slip lane – not pedestrians waiting for signals, and not motorists giving way to pedestrians – and that’s the hallmark of a truly unsafe design. The only reason we don’t know that signalised slip lanes are dangerous, the reason they’re not represented in the accident statistics, is that up until a few years ago no-one has been crazy enough to build them.


So why build them now, and why build them at Webster Road? As far as I can tell, the thought process goes like this:

  1. Unmarked slips are dangerous, and so not allowed.
  2. Slips with zebra crossings are dangerous, and so not allowed.
  3. We don’t know that signalised slips are dangerous, so they are allowed.
  4. Removing slip lanes is unacceptable to politicians.

Therefore, governments and councils signalise slip lanes, and will continue to do so until either 3) or 4) changes.

Hopefully it will be 4); either by convincing politicians that the community supports the removal of slip lanes, or by replacing elected recalcitrants at the earliest opportunity. If we’re waiting for safety standards to catch up with 3), then like all safety standards, they will be written in blood.

-David



PS:

To take photos of signalised slip lanes for this post, I went to South Brisbane this afternoon. The signalised slips behind the State Library were built last year as “compensation” for closing Victoria Bridge, because apparently we can’t have one step forward without two steps back.

And even I, who knew they were bad in theory, was astonished to see what a total disaster the signalised slips here are in practice.

When I spoke to the lead engineer at Webster Road, one thing he assured me was that, because they’re not connected to the intersection cycle, signalised slip lanes are “pedestrian priority” and will immediately give pedestrians a green walk light when they press the button. I had my doubts about this, of course; there’s obviously always the delay of 5+ seconds while the lights change, and I was sure an additional timer would be added if the lights had been activated recently.

So I was keen to try this out in South Brisbane, and was expecting that, if I pressed the button a second time immediately after the lights had changed, I would have to wait 20 or 30 seconds for another walk signal.

So imagine my surprise to discover that the slip lane lights at South Brisbane are synchronised to the intersection! The slip off Grey St will only give pedestrians a walk signal at the same moment the Stanley Place traffic lights go green, and the slip off Stanley Place will only give a walk signal with the traffic on Grey St.

This means crossing this intersection legally would take pedestrians several cycles of the lights to get the three walk signals in sequence, and the maximum wait time I measured for the Grey St slip lane was – wait for it – 95 seconds.

Would you stand on a traffic island like a goose for a minute and a half, instead of just crossing the slip lane and getting on with your day? Neither would this guy, and neither would anyone else.

I was at South Brisbane observing the intersection and taking photos for about half an hour. In that time I saw:

  • About a hundred pedestrians cross the slip lanes, with practically 0% compliance with the signals. A few pedestrians pressed the button, waited for a few seconds, then gave up and crossed anyway. Most pedestrians just ignored the signals completely.
  • Several drivers get halfway down the slip lane, then slam on the brakes, look confused, and very cautiously creep around the corner. Because what does a blank signal head mean? Who knows…
  • At least two drivers RUN THE RED LIGHT at the pedestrian crossings: one who stopped to let a pedestrian cross, then drove on before the signal cleared, and one who just sailed through the red arrow without stopping at all. Because expecting drivers to watch three things at once – pedestrians crossing, a signal light, and conflicting cross-traffic – doesn’t work and isn’t safe.

So if anyone’s still in any doubt that signalised slip lanes are a terrible, horrifically dangerous idea, head down to South Brisbane some time and watch them in action. Just try not to get run over while you’re there…

– D

Webster Road slip lanes Update #2 – June 14

I went for a walk down to Webster Road this afternoon, where the Brisbane City Council and TMR are extending the North Brisbane Bikeway. The ramp widening on the western slip island is almost complete, while the eastern island is a mess of temporary tarmac – still no signs to indicate to pedestrians what’s going on, of course.

(The bollards on the far side of the intersection are not part of the bikeway works – they’re repairs from the latest all-too-frequent car crash).

But perhaps what’s most alarming is there has been no marking or cutting around the existing pedestrian crossing across Webster Road, which currently features absolute-minimum-standard 1.2m kerb ramps and a nice big stormwater drain jutting into the crossing in the middle.

This is meant to be part of the North Brisbane Bikeway, remember – it’s quite a contrast to the showpiece photos on TMR’s website! This is not a crossing that two cyclists can safely pass each other on, let alone the kinds of groups – families on bikes, with dogs, or with kids in strollers – that one commonly sees using the paths around Marchant Park.

Upgrading a signalised intersection with a bikeway crossing is not rocket science: you remove slip lanes, and you widen the crosswalks to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross safely and simultaneously. In recent years, BCC and TMR have mostly managed to do this – from Woolloongabba to Wooloowin. So what’s gone so badly wrong at Webster Road?


It’s been three weeks since I wrote to the Minister’s office about my concerns with the Webster Road crossing, and two weeks since I was told a formal reply was being drafted. I phoned and emailed Nic at TMR today to find out how that was going, as well as to confirm that there are indeed no plans to widen the crosswalk as part of the current project, but she did not get back to me. I’ll update this if I hear from her tomorrow. (EDIT: the current crossings not being upgraded has now been confirmed, and I’m expecting the formal response later this week).

In general, getting any information from TMR about the bikeway at Webster Road has been difficult: their attitude seems to be that it’s “minor works”, so they’re not obliged to tell anyone anything about what they’re doing. It’s horrifying to think, but was avoiding public consultation a factor in the planning decisions? Maybe Right to Information can shed some light – however long that process takes…

(They have built an oversized concrete apron around the signal control box though. There’s priorities for you).

-David

Webster Road slip lanes Update #1 – May 24

Starting last month, the Brisbane City Council has been building an extension to the bikeway at Marchant Park in Aspley. The new extension crosses Webster Road at Gympie Road – which is of course a major State-controlled arterial – so the department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) are responsible for the upgrade at the crossing.

Last week the MP for Aspley, Bart Mellish, made a Facebook post about the intersection, reporting that TMR are planning to replace the current zebra crossings on the slip lanes with traffic signals. I was concerned this would make an already dangerous location – the slip lanes here are a free-flow design from the 1960s, with high speeds and poor visibility – even more hazardous for pedestrians and cyclists, so on Friday I wrote a letter:

I received a phone call the same day from a Communications Officer and the Project Team Leader, and their response was very positive. Essentially, they agree with my concerns, and would much prefer to remove the slip lanes, but told me altering the left-turn from Gympie Road was a sticking point. So today I wrote another letter, addressing that issue:

Some of the many alternatives available to drivers who currently use the slip lane at Webster Road.

The difficulty with removing the slip lanes is more political than practical, of course; a problem typified by the local MP’s knee-jerk response on Friday that he would not support creating “massive delays and traffic chaos” for a “slight improvement in convenience”! But the fact remains these dangerous and antiquated highway slips are completely inappropriate in a residential suburb, especially across a popular walking and cycling route – and set to become more popular, when the new bikeway extension opens.

If you are a road safety, walkability or active transport advocate and have a relationship with TMR or the Brisbane City Council, please get in touch with your contacts and voice your support for closing these slip lanes as part of the current bikeway upgrade. If we miss this opportunity, it will go straight back in the ‘too hard’ basket, and we’ll be stuck with an intersection at Webster Road that’s even less safe for pedestrians and cyclists than it was before.

Cheers,
-David

Three types of bus route diagrammed (or; why our public transport is inefficient and overpriced, yet overcrowded and underfunded)

When we talk about public transport investment, we often have the idea that “more is better”; more money needs to be invested, more capacity will result in more ridership, and more ridership will relieve traffic congestion. Politicians, particularly, like to boil their transport proposals down to a dollar value. However, this approach to discussion doesn’t capture anything of how public transport works: it doesn’t explain why a few of the world’s transport networks (Hong Kong, Singapore, the London Underground) operate in or near profit, when ours needs heavy subsidisation, nor does it allow us to judge the merits of different transport proposals beyond “this one costs more, so it must be more”.

In the hope of encouraging a richer discussion, I’d like to offer a brief taxonomy of three different types of public transport routes, with an explanation of how they function in the context of our city.


The commuter service will be very familiar to most public transport users – in Brisbane, this is the model for our entire train network, and almost all our bus routes.

A commuter service in the morning peak collects passengers from a suburban area, drives into the city (either on dedicated infrastructure or competing with peak-hour traffic), and delivers them to the central business district. Most vehicles will then run empty (“deadhead”, “reposition” or “run blank”) back to the suburbs to begin another service, as morning demand is heavily biased towards inbound services. In the afternoon, the services run the other way, distributing city commuters back to their suburban homes.

This is the most common form of public transport, and the one we often think of as the most important. But it’s also by far the least efficient – when everyone rides from one end of the line to the other, a fully-loaded bus can only carry its full capacity (in the example diagram, 50 passengers) once in a trip. The temporally short and one-directional peak demand also means a lot of empty running between services, and vehicles being idle or underutilised for much of the day.

A shuttle service connects multiple points of interest (or activity centres) together. These services can be loops or linear, but the key difference from the commuter service is that demand is more spread out, in both space and time. They are vastly more efficient than commuter services – the shuttle in the example diagram carries twice as many passengers, in half the time, as the commuter service; can simply turn around at the end of the line instead of running empty, as the demand is bidirectional; and can run at fuller loads for more of the day, as passengers are travelling to a greater variety of destinations for a greater variety of reasons. In cities with profitable public transport, most of their services fit this model.

The most notable shuttle service in Brisbane is the 66, the city’s busiest bus route, which runs on a dedicated busway and connects the Brisbane CBD to the main railway station, the Cultural Centre, three hospital precincts and two university campuses. Most of Brisbane’s busway services and other high-patronage routes, particularly the 199, 196 and 60, which all run through the City from approximately West End to New Farm, could be considered shuttle services too.

Local services loop from one major activity centre, usually a shopping centre or railway station, around a suburb via multiple minor activity centres, such as smaller shops, schools and housing estates. They are arguably the most important type of public transport route, as they expand local mobility, reducing households’ dependency on cars and empowering those who can’t or don’t drive. They’re also often the most overlooked and undervalued services on a network, because:

  • If passengers are using the bus to go only a few stops (to access a local shop, for example), low average loading may give the impression of low demand. In the example diagram, the bus only ever has 10 to 20 passengers on board, despite carrying more passengers in total (70) than the commuter service (50). This encourages network planners to decrease frequency of these services in the name of efficiency, making them less useful and less attractive to potential riders.
  • There’s a cultural tendency to view these services as “shopper hoppers” – a convenience for retirees, the unemployed and other idle people who have nothing better to do. Therefore, they are only run in off-peak times, when vehicles can be spared from more “important” commuter duties. This, in turn, limits the usefulness of the local service: no-one can use it to get to work or school if it only runs in the middle of the day.
  • Simply: politicians, public servants and planners tend to be CBD commuters, and are only used to thinking of public transport in those terms.

Do these ideas affect how you think about our public transport, and how we should reform and develop it in the future? For me, thinking about these different types of service has made me less keen on Cross River Rail (which increases capacity for commuter trains to the outer suburbs), and more keen on the Brisbane Metro (which increases capacity for shuttle-style busway services). It’s also made me think that perhaps expanding and extending local bus services, so people can do more within their local community, might be a more effective use of resources than putting more inefficient commuter services into peak-hour traffic.

Ultimately, public transport reform can’t happen in isolation. The efficiency benefits of shuttles over commuter services are immense, but effective shuttle services need more decentralised activity centres to operate between. Similarly, improved local bus services are a fantastic complement to walkable, mixed-use communities in our suburbs, but without other reforms they risk becoming “feeders”, merely connecting houses to railway stations as part of a commuter service which is no more efficient for being split over multiple vehicles. The cliche that land use and transportation planning are two sides of the same coin applies as much to public (and active) transport as it does to roads and highways.