Crosswalk Question: What do bicycles do?

I recently got this question from a member, and it touches on what I think is a poorly understood but very important traffic safety concern:

Dave,
I noticed this crosswalk law mentioned in a story and wondered what it means for bicyclists? Are you familiar with this law?

“Wisconsin’s pedestrian “right-of-way” law, or Statute 346.24 reads, Crossing at uncontrolled intersection or cross-walk.  (1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right−of−way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility de-vice in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the cross-walk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

(2) No pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.

(3) Whenever any vehicle is stopped at an intersection or crosswalk to permit a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device to cross the roadway, the operator of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.”

As part of the Bike Fed’s statewide Share & Be Aware Program, our staff work with driver education instructors from around the state and do direct outreach to educate people about the rules of the road regarding the interaction between different road users: people walking, bicycling and driving motor vehicles. Through that experience, we have learned that some of the least understood laws are those regarding sidewalks and crosswalks, particularly when it comes to definitions and right of way.

The state makes almost all of the rules of the road, but allows local municipalities to determine if and when it is legal to ride bicycles on sidewalks. In most (but not all) urban situations, or in suburban areas with high traffic volumes and lots of turning movements (like highways near big box stores and strip malls) it is less safe to ride on the sidewalk than in the street, so bicycles really shouldn’t be in the crosswalk. Sometimes however, on streets without bicycle facilities, people feel safer on the sidewalk and municipalities allow it, even if it is statistically more dangerous. In those situations or in situations where a person on a bicycle needs to make a pedestrian style turn, bicycles will be in the crosswalk.

Bicycles will also be in crosswalks where multi-use paths intersect with streets. The Hank Aaron State Trail does this at a number of marked and unmarked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections in Milwaukee. The Glacial Drumlin crosses a number of rural roads with unmarked crosswalks and no traffic control.

It sounds basic, but let’s back up and remind ourselves what a crosswalk is, where we find crosswalks and how they vary. To help, I had the diagram below created. In it you can see marked crosswalks, unmarked crosswalks and people in crosswalks at different points of crossing.

Some crosswalks are marked and others are not. Some have right-of-way controls, like stop signs or traffic signals, others have none.

A crosswalk is defined  in statute 340.01(10):

(10) “Crosswalk” means either of the following, except where signs have been erected by local authorities indicating no crossing:
(a) Marked crosswalk. Any portion of a highway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs, lines or other markings on the surface; or
(b) Unmarked crosswalk. In the absence of signs, lines or markings, that part of a roadway, at an intersection, which is included within the transverse lines which would be formed on such roadway by connecting the corresponding lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of such roadway or, in the absence of a corresponding sidewalk on one side of the roadway, that part of such roadway which is included within the extension of the lateral lines of the existing sidewalk across such roadway at right angles to the center line thereof, except in no case does an unmarked crosswalk include any part of the intersection and in no case is there an unmarked crosswalk across a street at an intersection of such street with an alley.

The designs and patterns of paint, colored pavement or pavers varies for marked crosswalks, but most crosswalk are unmarked, with no paint, like most residential side streets in cities, towns and villages. The most important take-away from this is that a crosswalk exists between two sidewalks on any street is crosswalk, whether it is marked with paint or not.

Crosswalks can be found at controlled intersections (those with stop or yield signs or traffic signals) or at uncontrolled intersections with no signs or signals to define right of way. At signalized intersections, of course people are required to obey the signal. The confusion comes in at uncontrolled intersections. I’ll try to answer the most common questions below, and how they relate to people on bicycles as well as people walking.

 

When can a person start crossing the street at an uncontrolled intersection? As statute 346.24(2) states, “suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.” What that means is that you can begin crossing a street at a crosswalk as long as approaching vehicles have time to stop. On an urban street with posted limits of 25-30 miles per hour, you can safely begin to cross the street if the approaching vehicles are about half a block away. At 25 mph, the stopping distance (including thinking time to recognize the need to stop) is only 25 feet. A city block is about 300 feet long, so if you start crossing a typical 50ft wide arterial street with approaching traffic 150 feet away, you have every reason to assume they will yield the right of way to you, whether you are on a bicycle or walking.

When is a person in a crosswalk if there are no lines? A person is in a crosswalk as soon as they put a foot off the curb or their bicycle wheel breaks the plane of the vertical curb face. That means that if someone is standing with one foot in the road and the other on the curb, approaching motor vehicle traffic is required to allow them to cross, which may involve slowing or stopping.

The problem is that many people walking or riding bicycles wait until the road is completely clear of traffic rather than begin crossing when they can safely expect oncoming traffic to yield. This is a problem not only because at peak hours or on high-volume roads, this can mean a long wait at the curb, but because it conditions people in motor vehicles that they don’t have to let people cross the road. Sometimes when I stop for someone waiting in the crosswalk, they even wave me on. While that is their right to wait, again, it sends the wrong message about  each of our responsibilities to obey the law and share the road with other users. Because so many people are timid pedestrians, we have developed a driving culture in Wisconsin in which the norm is people don’t yield to pedestrians. That is not the case in other places, like Seattle or even car crazy Los Angeles.

These results from traffic studies done in Milwaukee show that the percentage of people who yield to pedestrians at crosswalks is very low. At some crosswalks, nobody will stop.

We would all be safer and better off if everyone obeyed the rules of the road, and people at crosswalks were cautiously assertive. Here is how I cross a street, whether riding a bicycle on the Hank Aaron State Trail on my way to a meeting or walking to a restaurant in my neighborhood. I make a point to look for cross traffic well  in advance of the crosswalk and if it appears that approaching vehicles in both directions have adequate time and distance to stop, I keep my forward travel speed consistent. I don’t hesitate at the curb, and enter the crosswalk very purposely. At the same time I keep an eye on approaching traffic in case vehicles don’t appear they are going to yield.

This technique works very well, and I rarely have problems crossing a street. I also think it is more fair to people in motor vehicles because my behavior is clear and consistent with the rules of the road. When people do have to slow or stop to let me cross, I smile and wave thanks to them. On the rare occasion when someone in a car honks at me, I motion with both arms at the crosswalk between the two sidewalks and keep moving.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side of course. You shouldn’t have to be a daredevil to cross the street when state law is very clear.

On a very few occasions, I have even been honked at when crossing by one of the in-street signs that says “State Law: Yield to Pedestrians within Crosswalk,” so if it happens to you, don’t get mad. Our culture of  driving in the midwest is changing, but there are still a lot of people behind the wheel who get angry any time they have to use their brake pedal. You can help that culture continue to improve by taking a cautiously assertive approach to crossing streets at crosswalks.

Remember, it is nice to be right, but you don’t want to be dead right.

To request a S&BA Ambassador to come to your community and teach a pedestrian class, visit http://wisconsinbikefed.org/for-your-community/share-be-aware/

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

16 thoughts on “Crosswalk Question: What do bicycles do?

  1. “That is not the case in other places, like Seattle or even car crazy Los Angeles”
    Can you substatiate that claim? Particularly in LA?

    • There are a number of cities in the US typically cited for their higher compliance rates at crosswalks, and Los Angeles is surprisingly one of them. The Bronx in NYC is another. I personally experienced this about 10 years ago this while visiting Seattle, when my passenger, a friend who moved there, yelled at me for not stopping to let someone cross the street. I said the person was not trying to cross, and he said people in Seattle expect cars to stop for people waiting at the corner.

      I will look for that information and update the comment though Casey. For years I have been repeating that information that I heard at a Pro Walk/Pro Bike pedestrian safety seminar, but I have never taken the time to find the studies. Bad form on my part, as I always harp about data!

  2. I used to live near KK and Holt and my experience at that marked but uncontrolled crossing was that drivers consistently yielded to me. I am not a timid pedestrian but I also have a solid sense of self preservation. Interesting the table showed 0% stopping… That was not my experience for the 6 months I crossed there…probably got 75% yielding to me.

    • Kristin,

      Ask Bob about those old study results. If my memory is correct, he participated in them. Perhaps compliance rates are up across the area. It might be nice to do another set of studies at the same locations.

  3. My concern is with “controlled” intersections. Madison has several bike paths that cross 4-lane roads that have a meridian. If you’re familiar with Madison, the Southwest Bike Path crosses Midvale Avenue, one of the major roads in town. There are stop signs on the bike path, so I would call this a controlled intersection. I wait for a clear opportunity to cross into and out of the meridian. Most cars do not stop, and I don’t expect them to. But some do stop and I try to wave them on. There are near rear-end collisions with other vehicles, or a vehicle in the other lane doesn’t stop. I want to tell the drivers who stop, “You wouldn’t stop for a car on a cross street with a stop sign, so don’t stop for a bike on a “cross street” with a stop sign.” Thoughts? Thanks.

    • Excellent question Jim. I agree that intersection is controlled and properly so. Midvale is a major arterial that probably has significantly higher traffic counts than even the heavily used Southwest Path. As the minor leg of the intersection, it is appropriate that the path get the stop signs. Sometimes paths get stop signs where they cross minor local streets, and in those cases I don’t think stop signs should be used, but in this case I do. Given the traffic on the path is required to stop, the traffic on Midvale would not be required to yield. Cars that do yield when not required (we have all experienced this somewhere) could cause back-ups, but remember that we are required to stay a safe stopping distance from the cars in front of us, so that should be less of a concern.

      All that said, because I am not personally familiar with the intersection, I will ask Arthur Ross to comment here. He is the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Madison. He is not only extremely knowledgable about traffic law, he might have designed those intersections. I will also ask Chuck Strawser, former Bike Fed staffer in Madison. Stay tuned.

    • Hi again Jim, I did not hear back from Arthur, but I did hear back from Chuck Strawser. Here are his comments:

      Generally, I agree with the commenter. that’s a classic “multiple threat” situation, and it’s bad news. I think every crossing like it should have a call button activated signal to stop the traffic on the major street so bikes and peds can get across safely. that’s exactly what UW has planned for where Campus Drive bike path crosses Highland Ave (four lanes with a small median at the bike path crossing.

      A DNR employee was seriously injured at a different location, but same situation – four lane divided road crossed by path with median (not “meridian”) because one MV stopped and waved him across, but an MV in the lane behind the first one changed lanes and sped up, hitting the DNR employee as he cycled across.

      • Thanks for the updates Dave. I will continue in my quest to educate drivers and wave them on. (And thank you to Chuck for the median correction…) Jim

  4. I am a little late to the discussion, but I find the subject of crosswalks to be one that really tells us a lot about our culture. What should bikes do? I agree, not much in a crosswalk. When it comes to cars and pedestrians in crosswalks, though, I think back to some time I spent in Spain. I stood out, unfortunately, as an American, because I did not walk right out in front of cars. In America, doing so would get me killed. In Spain, they yield and are happy to do so. In fact, I felt as if I was insulting the Spaniards on a couple of occasions. Not only was I taking up their time, by standing there scared until they stopped, but I was insulting them by insinuating they would not be polite enough to stop. I received impatient looks for NOT going into the crosswalk. Yet, they still waited. The difference could not be more stark.

  5. Hey Dave,

    Thanks for the great article. One important clarification is that the presence of a Stop sign on a multi-use path doesn’t change the right-of-way expectations defined in 346.24(1). It applies to all crosswalks “where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals”. I’m not an expert on this, but I believe that a Stop sign is considered a traffic control device, not a signal. Here is an excerpt from MUCTD that I think reinforces that concept: http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009/part4.pdf

    What a Stop sign on a MUP does do, is require a vehicle operator (person on a bike) to stop and yield the right-of-way to vehicles approaching the intersection.

    346.46: Vehicles to stop at stop signs and school crossings.
    (1) Except when directed to proceed by a traffic officer or traffic control signal, every operator of a vehicle
    approaching an official stop sign at an intersection shall cause such vehicle to stop before entering the intersection and
    shall yield the right-of-way to other vehicles which have entered or are approaching the intersection upon a highway
    which is not controlled by an official stop sign or traffic signal.

    So the vehicle operator on a road that is not controlled by a signal needs to yield to peds and bikes in a crosswalk, but a vehicle operator (cyclist) on a road (MUP) at a Stop sign needs to yield the right-of-way to cross traffic when that traffic has no stop sign or signal. Needless to say this approaches a catch-22 and helps explain why there may be confusion by operators of motor and non-motor vehicles.

    Of course, the Stop sign on a MUP doesn’t apply to pedestrians since they’re not operating a vehicle, so they are legally permitted to enter the intersection as long as they don’t make it “difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield”. So if you want to legally cross a busy intersection like the one at Midvale/SW Commuter (or North Shore or W. Washington intersections on the same path) without waiting several minutes for traffic to completely clear, you should dismount and become a pedestrian to enter the crosswalk. Once you’re in the crosswalk you could theoretically get back on your vehicle and continue through the intersection.

    I know this all sounds a bit esoteric, but it proves the point that this is an incredibly confusing situation for motor vehicle, bicycle vehicle, and pedestrian traffic. I whole-heartedly agree with Chuck that a Stop sign for path traffic is a poor solution for both peds and cyclists at busy intersections like the one described. The SW commuter path is not a minor roadway in any sense of the word; it is the most (or second-most?) used path for cyclists in Madison and giving Midvale Blvd. (or North Shore or W. Washington) traffic unfettered right-of-way is ineffective.

    • Hi Grant. Thanks for your clarification as well. I think most Madison drivers are good with the pedestrian crossing and confused with the bikers. I like your idea of getting off of the bike if need be. But I’m still going to wave drivers along and hope that there are no rear-end collisions.

  6. I live in Glendale, and in general in the north shore areas where I ride folks seem fairly considerate of cyclists. A helmet and a mirror are the main ingredients for safety. I always remember the old vehicle safety slogan, “Watch out for the other guy. ”
    Lance’s comments on Spain are interesting. Wouldn’t it be nice if we enjoyed that here in the USA.
    I ride all over the Milwaukee area and beyond. I’d say maybe 20 % yield to me when I’m legally, by definition, in a crosswalk, and even fewer yield in an unmarked crosswalk.

  7. Another thing to remember when it comes to bike path road crossings is the fact that the trail user does not always go across. Sometimes, the person turns onto the road. If I have a stop or yield sign in that situation, I prefer to wait for a break in traffic before entering the road so that I don’t immediately have deal with traffic.

  8. The definition of a crosswalk, particularly the unmarked crosswalk, is a bit confusing. The statute speaks of the “lateral lines of the sidewalk”. Does this mean that if there are no sidewalks present, there is no crosswalk unless it is marked?

    • TA, I believe your interpretation is correct. There is only a crosswalk where one is marked or where there are walkways. So no rural intersections without a sidepath, trail, or sidewalk would have crosswalks.

  9. Here is a good one, multiple lane highway crossings like these examples: New Berlin Trail crossings@ Moorland or @Hwy 164 in Waukesha, or Oak Leaf Trail crossing@Hwy 100 in Greenfield-no one ever stops and yields too cyclist or walkers. How is that problem ever get corrected. At these crossings it can be 5-10 minutes at high traffic times to safely cross the road-no one whats to yield, they just follow the car in front of them like blind rats. Is it the communities responsibility in those areas to enforce that law. I’ve had those communities police cars pass in front of me at times without stopping.What will it take?

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