Shortly after World War I, a marvel of the modern age first appeared at Kansas City intersections, and city officials thought it necessary to instruct the public on the basic operation of traffic signals.
Green meant go. Red meant stop. Yellow, well, the caution signal had yet to make its entrance onto the motoring scene.
Nearly a century later, city officials assembled Friday morning to give instructions for another advancement in traffic control, the city’s first-ever bicycle signal downtown at Main Street and Petticoat Lane.
Attached to its own pole to the right of other traffic lights, the signal gives westbound cyclists and pedestrians a 25-second head start on other traffic.
If this pilot project is successful, Public Works director Sheri McIntyre said, more bike signals will be installed along Grand Boulevard and other locations yet to be named.
Main and Petticoat Lane (same as 11th Street) was chosen for the trial run for two reason. First, because bike signals are normally coupled with bike boxes, which are green-painted sections of the roadway at stoplights. The boxes are for bikes only and keep them in front of other traffic.
The only bike box in Kansas City so far is at that location, although others are to appear on Grand once the bridge over Interstate 670 is rebuilt and Grand is re-striped.
Second, it’s a corner where cyclists could use an advantage because of its layout and heavy traffic.
“It’s kind of a complex intersection,” said Darin Lutz, an officer with the Kansas City Police Department’s bike patrol.
Much of the traffic on one-way Petticoat turns left, after which there is an immediate jog to the right. There’s a lot of two-way traffic on Main, including buses and streetcars.
Cyclists who tried out the new light Friday were pleased to have a head start.
“But it could still use some tweaking,” cyclist Mitchell Williams said.
For instance, the green outline of a bicycle goes red when the rest of the traffic behind the bike box gets its green light. That shouldn’t happen, said Deb Ridgway, the city’s active transportation coordinator. Cyclists should be allowed to proceed with other traffic if they weren’t fortunate enough to be at the front of the line.
Lutz also worries that motorists will see the bike signal flash green out of the corner of their eye and not realize it’s meant for cyclists only.
“We’ve been watching and seen that happen,” he said.
It may take a while before the kinks are worked out, but Councilman Dan Fowler, an avid cyclist, said the new signal is another example of the progress he’s seen in the 12 years he’s been riding on the streets.
When he started, he remembers reading that Kansas City was one of the worst cities in the country for cycling.
“Since then, we have been on a steady course to change that,” he said.
Kansas City remains far behind the likes of Denver, New York and Portland, Ore., which have had bike signals for years and are more aggressive in promoting cycling on city streets.
But Fowler and Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who took a test ride through the intersection Friday, are hopeful that Kansas City can catch up.