Dear Dr Dynamo

This article was published in 2001, in Newsletter 39.

Dr Dynamo

Signalled cycle crossings

Got a question about cycling? Write to Dr Dynamo!

Dear Dr Dynamo,

I’ve got a question for you about those signalled crossings you sometimes get when a cycle path crosses a road. Are you breaking the law if you cycle over them without waiting for the green bicycle to light up? The lights often take so long to change, even if there’s no traffic around, and I get so impatient.

Yours, Philip D, Petersfield

Dear Philip,

That’s a very good question. Cycle crossings are getting quite common around Cambridge, and quite a few people have been asking me whether it’s legal to cross over them when the signals show red. Obviously, this is only something you would want to do when there’s no traffic around – late at night, for example.

The answer is that it depends on what type of crossing it is. There are two types of cycle crossing: cycle-only crossings and toucan crossings (of which there are two variants).

Cycle-only crossings

Let’s discuss cycle-only crossings first. The term ‘cycle-only crossing’ comes from rule 66 of the Highway Code, which says:

66. Cycle-only crossings. Cycle tracks on opposite sides of the road may be linked by signalled crossings. You may ride across but you MUST NOT cross until the green cycle symbol is showing

So what is a cycle-only crossing? As the name suggests, it’s a crossing for cycles only, not for pedestrians. There is usually a separate pedestrian crossing alongside, though not always.

The easiest way to spot a cycle-only crossing is by the signals that face you when you use it. They look similar to ordinary traffic lights, with red, amber and green lights, with the difference that the amber and green lights (but not the red light) have cycle symbols.

Image as described adjacent Image as described adjacent
Traffic signals at a cycle-only crossing. Cycles must stop.
Image as described adjacent
Cycles may ride across.

As the Highway Code says, you ‘MUST NOT cross until the green cycle symbol is showing.’ The words MUST NOT mean that this is the law (in this case, the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions 1994). So when you use a cycle-only crossing you must, Philip, be patient and wait for the green cycle symbol.

If there is an adjacent pedestrian crossing, there will be a ‘no left turn’ or a ‘no right turn’ sign as well, to stop you from turning into the path of pedestrians when they are crossing.

There is a small number of cycle-only crossings in Cambridge, including

  • Gonville Place at Gresham Road
  • Regent Street at the corner of Parker’s Piece
  • Fen Causeway near Lammas Land
  • Newnham Road at the Barton Road junction (this does not have an adjacent pedestrian crossing, and hence permits left and right turns)

Toucan Crossings

Now let’s talk about toucan crossings, and start by seeing what the Highway Code says about them:

65. Toucan crossings. These are light-controlled crossings that allow cyclists and pedestrians to cross at the same time. They are push button operated. Pedestrians and cyclists will see the green signal together. Cyclists are permitted to ride across.

So what’s a toucan crossing? The answer lies in the name – ‘two can’. At a toucan crossing, both cyclists and pedestrians cross in the same place.

You can easily spot a toucan crossing because the signals are quite different from those used at a cycle-only crossing. It looks, in fact, much like an ordinary pedestrian crossing, with red and green man symbols facing you on the opposite side of the road. Next to the green man, however, is a green cycle symbol.

Toucan crossings don’t have the red traffic light seen at cycle-only crossings. And this is significant: at a toucan crossing, the red pedestrian symbol is advisory, and you’re not breaking the law if you decide to ride across anyway.

Image as described adjacent Image as described adjacent
Traffic signals at a toucan crossing (normal type).
Cycles are advised to stop, but it is not an offence to ride across. Cycles may ride across.

There are now quite a lot of toucan crossings around Cambridge. Our local councils prefer them to cycle-only crossings because they’re much cheaper to install. For example, toucans have, in recent months, been installed at:

  • Elizabeth Way (two crossings, north and south of the Chesterton Road roundabout)
  • Trumpington Road at Brooklands Avenue
  • Madingley Road near Storeys Way
  • Newmarket Road near the Park and Ride site

Image as described adjacent Image as described adjacent
Cycles are advised to stop, but it is not an offence to ride across. Cycles may ride across.
Traffic signals at a toucan crossing (alternative type).

There’s an alternative, less common, type of toucan crossing. Instead of signals facing you on the post opposite, the box with the push-button has red and green symbols that tell you when to cross.

As with the normal toucan, these symbols are advisory only.

There’s only one toucan crossing like this in Cambridge, though it’s one of the most important in the city: Maid’s Causeway near Fair Street.

New regulations

I can see that you’re an honest fellow, Philip, and want to be sure that it’s legal to cross a toucan crossing at any time, irrespective of whether the red or green man is showing.

I agree that the Highway Code is a bit vague. However, I think it is significant that although the Highway Code explicitly tells you it is an offence to ignore a red signal at a cycle-only crossing, it doesn’t say anything about you needing to stop at a red man on a toucan crossing. In the end, you must decide for yourself. I’m not a lawyer. (Nor am I a real doctor, now you mention it!).

And it seems that the government has also spotted that this area could be clearer. The law on pedestrian crossings is defined in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, 1994 . The government has recently announced an update to these regulations, and I’ve had a look at the new draft regulations. These state that:

The red pedestrian signal in diagrams 4003.5 [an illuminated red man on the far side of the road] and 4003.7 [an illuminated red man above the push-button unit], and the red cycle symbol in 4003.7 [an illuminated red cycle above the push-button unit], are advisory rather than mandatory for both cyclists and pedestrians. Proposed revision of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, 1994, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, September 2001.

Please note, Philip, that I’m not suggesting when you come to a toucan crossing you should ride across the crossing without regard to whether the lights are red or green. In most cases, you simply won’t be able to cross safely until the lights change to green. You should stop and make sure that it is safe to do so before riding across. But if there’s no traffic, you can cross without worrying about breaking the law.

Incidentally, if you come across a toucan when riding along the road (rather than along the cycle route that crosses it) then you will see a standard set of traffic signals, with the normal red, amber and green lights. The usual law applies here, and you must never pass those signals when they are at red.

So to answer your question, Philip: if you find a standard red traffic light facing you then you must always stop. If you come across a red man, or illuminated symbols on the button box, then, in my view – and in the Government’s – you are allowed to make your own choice as to whether to stop or not.

Hope this helps, Philip. Happy Cycling!

Dr Dynamo

If you have a question about cycling, ask Dr Dynamo and he’ll try to answer it.