Some Improvements Make Things Worse: A Case Study

From a cycling advocacy perspective, the median above looks to be about as perfect as possible. Look at that green paint! The easy-to-reach “beg buttons”! No left-turning cars to worry about! Did we mention the green paint!

It’s perfect, isn’t it?

No, from this, admittedly contrarian, cycling advocates’ perspective, the median above is far from perfect. It’s actually a big mistake, an error that may well influence other “improvements” at intersections around Albuquerque for years to come. Allow me to explain.

As you may well have recognized, the median above is how the intersection of Lomas Boulevard and Alvarado N.E. looks now, after installation of a High-intensity Activated Crosswalk (the acronym of which is “HAWK” instead of “HIAC” for obvious, yet confusing reasons). Here’s a bigger shot via Google, including how the intersection looked previously, in March of 2015:

Alvarado is part of Mayor Richard Berry’s “50-Mile Activity Loop.” The Loop aspect of the Mayor’s “ABQ The Plan” centers on connecting existing multi-use paths around the city via little and not-so-little stretches of roads, such as Alvarado and Unser Blvd. Here’s the jagged little loop:

Experienced cyclists, and pedestrians, who haven’t seen the Loop before might be excused for laughing, bitterly, about some of the road choices. Miles and miles of Unser Blvd….really? Actually encouraging folks to walk/cycle from Eagle Ranch in the northwest part of town to Paseo del Norte Trail? Are you serious?

Some of the seemingly bad choices are, at least slightly, being addressed through future improvements, including getting from Eagle Ranch to Paseo del Norte Trail. Alvarado and Lomas was “improved” last year, with Alvarado also getting the HAWK and an inordinate number of “sharrow” stencils.

The HAWK placed at Alvarado and Lomas is the City of Albuquerque’s first; Bernalillo County beat CABQ to it by putting one earlier in 2015 at Isleta Blvd. and McEwen Court. My, admittedly contrarian, opposition to the new Lomas and Alvarado does not extend to the HAWK signal itself. I loves me some HAWK signals. I love them as much as the City of Tucson does, where the number of HAWKs is somewhere beyond 150 (they spring up so often an accurate count is difficult).

HAWK is a great way to stop traffic at places deemed unworthy of full-blown signalization via easily accessible means. In fact, fancier HAWK variants (i.e., not the one at Lomas/Alvarado) include video sensors that make it unnecessary to use “beg buttons” and can even sculpt the crosswalk time to match the speed of the crossing pedestrian/cyclist. HAWKs are great and getting better all the time.

The problem at Lomas/Alvarado isn’t the HAWK, it’s the median. What’s wrong with it, you ask?

  1. It encourages “non-compliance,” a nice way of saying cheating. If I’m cycling, or walking, and want to cross Lomas with a HAWK, I’ll hit the beg button one time, wait for the HAWK to stop drivers (you might not believe it, but driver compliance for this things in cities like Tucson is very high), then cross. But if I see that median “refuge,” I may well disregard finding the beg button and just look for a quick gap between cars in the immediately adjacent lanes and scoot to the median. If traffic is heavy after the median, I’ll hit the beg button in the median. If not, I’ll either just keep scooting along or hang tight a second or two until a gap develops.
  2. In other words, the median kinda defeats the purpose of the HAWK. For example, if I don’t hit the beg button in crossing to the median, then hit the button at the median, I’m wasting a bunch of driver time because there aren’t video sensors detecting that it’s only taking me about three seconds to cross this second half of Lomas. Then there’s my decision to not use the HAWK because I’m just making it to the median as part of a two-step crossing. In sum, the placement and configuration of this median serves to make it more important than the HAWK signal.
  3. Drivers can’t turn left on to Alvarado. Yes, I know I’m supposed to be a self-centered cycling advocate, and yes, blocking motoring left turns is generally a fabulous thing for pedestrian and cyclists, but there’s no reason to prevent drivers from making left-turns off of Lomas IF WE’RE USING THE HAWK! That’s why we’re spending the money to HAVE IT. That’s why we’re crafting a handy-dandy (unless you’re on a bicycle) informational tri-fold brochure explaining how a HAWK signal works.

Ergo, my, admittedly contrarian, position is that we’ve installed our very first HAWK signal with just about zero “belief” in HAWK signals. The median is proof of this. As one who loves HAWKs, and wants to see them grow in number throughout Albuquerque, the very important and precedent-setting signal/median at Lomas/Alvarado is a mistake.

That mistake, and yes the mistake includes the added costs involved in designing/installing such a median, will be used as rationale to NOT have more HAWKs in Albuquerque.

For example, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about what to do regarding Alvarado’s crossing, further north, at Menaul. While not included in Mayor Berry’s “Loop,” Alvarado serves as an important connector north as well as south of I-40. Most central to this is that it links to a bike/ped bridge across the Interstate. North from there, cyclists can make it to Claremont N.E., a lovely little east/west residential road with parks, schools and a generally pleasant cycling vibe.

But only if the cyclist can survive crossing Menaul:

Long argument made short, Alvarado/Menaul is an EXCELLENT candidate for a HAWK signal (extreme and overly long argument available upon request). But that median at Lomas makes achieving this much more difficult, politically and otherwise. Moreover, any perceived failure or lack of popularity with this first HAWK means installing more of them around town, anywhere, will be made more difficult. And things like unnecessarily preventing left-turns will do that.

One can, especially if admittedly contrarian, foresee a year 2025 in which the HAWK at Alvarado/Lomas is STILL the only HAWK in Albuquerque.  And as the only such signal, compliance will be low because only daily Lomas/Alvarado users will have any idea what the Hell to do when the HAWK starts flashing, handy-dandy tri-fold brochure available from the city or not.

In conclusion, my proposed solution is to remove the median at Alvarado and Lomas, an act whose mere mention probably has many cyclists gathering sewing materials and other equipment in order to create an hanging worthy/burnable effigy of your, admittedly contrarian, blogger. “And lose just about our very first green paint? Where’s that sewing needle?” Fortunately, hanging/burning will not be necessary, as the median’s removal would seem to be an impossibility. Unfortunately, it’s my sense that installing more HAWKs around town is, at least for now, similarly impossible.

6 thoughts on “Some Improvements Make Things Worse: A Case Study

  1. Without riding out there, can you tell me what a hawk is? Is it just like all the other flashing crosswalks all over town around schools, that drivers currently uniformly ignore (well maybe they slow down, but they certainly don’t stop – the worst of both worlds because it eliminates the gaps in traffic for a safe mid-block crossing) unless confronted with the necessity of running down a crossing guard, or do they get an actual red light they must stop at?

    Love your blog BTW.

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  2. Biliruben: Thanks for the kind words. As for what a HAWK is, yeah there is a red light and compliance in other cities is actually quite good. Cities with only one or two HAWKs, not so good.

    Here’s the CABQ explanation of how the one at Lomas/Alvarado works: https://www.cabq.gov/municipaldevelopment/documents/hawk-trifold.pdf

    There are actually quite a few variations elsewhere. As King of USA, HAWK Division, Tucson has several of those variations: https://www.tucsonaz.gov/tdot/pedestrian-traffic-signal-operation

    – Scot

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  3. Nice. If so, then I agree the median is superfluous. But only if the button is immediate. If there is a delay of more than 10 seconds after pushing the button, the majority of folks will just go for it, and use the refuge.

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  4. Biliruben: I was going to answer the “immediate” question, then remembered that I don’t remember. Sounds like a good excuse to ride out to Lomas/Alvarado tomorrow and do a bit of research.

    – Scot

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