Example of one of several signs allowed to indicate bicyclists may travel straight through a right-turn-only lane.
Example of one of several signs allowed to indicate bicyclists may travel straight through a right-turn-only lane.

BY NATALIE IWASA – The state Department of Transportation (DOT) completed a project in Hawaii Kai last year to add a dedicated right-turn lane from Keahole Street onto Kalanianaole Highway. Some have misunderstood that this would be a free-turning right lane, i.e., no stop would be required. Others are upset that the lane hasn’t resulted in the expected ease of traffic flow. While it might be argued that we spent about $4 million1 for improvements that have not materialized for motorists, the situation for two groups is now actually worse because of the change, and the state has said “no” to suggested improvements.

Bicyclists are not allowed to go straight through right-turn-only lanes (RTOL) unless specific markings or signage is in place. At the intersection of Kalanianaole Hwy. and Keahole that means bicyclists should be in the through travel lane if they do not want to turn onto Keahole Street. When they finish crossing the intersection, they end up in the middle lane and must cross the new lane to get into the bike lane. Based on my experience, this is an awkward transition at best and quite dangerous in many instances.

Several times while going through this intersection the “proper” way, motorists behind passed me illegally on the right. Other times drivers who were waiting on Keahole Street to turn onto Kalanianaole Hwy. did not turn until I’d completely made it through the intersection, even though their lane was open.

A few times drivers turned and then drove slowly, presumably so that I could merge into their lane in front of them and then get into the bike lane. It is very difficult for bicyclists to see drivers from this angle (over the right shoulder looking back), however, and they should usually not attempt to pull in front of motorists in this situation. Most recently, a motorist passed me by going straight through the right-turn-only lane.

In addition, it is my understanding that bicyclists traveling in this manner break the mandatory bike lane law (HRS 291C-145). The alternative is for bicyclists to go straight through the RTOL. Prior to the addition of the new lane, most bicyclists did this with little to no impact on motorists (although they did break the law doing so).

The diagram shows the proper movement for bicyclists when they encounter right-turn-only lanes that do not have exceptions for bicyclists. Add lanes on each side of the white car to get an idea of the intersection of Kalanianaole Hwy. and Keahole.

While no solution is going to be ideal, the situation can be significantly improved by allowing bicyclists to travel straight through the RTOL. The cost to make this change is minimal – all that’s required is a couple of signs and some paint. The DOT has stated they do not want to allow this exception because they don’t want to “create confusion” between motorists and bicyclists, and they want to maintain the integrity of the right turn from Keahole. As noted above, however, traffic isn’t moving the way it was intended anyway.

The state and county have done a good job of talking about improving the environment for bicyclists by passing the Complete Streets law, approving the Oahu Bike Plan and mandating reduced oil consumption, but when it comes to actual improvements, they are few and far between. In this case, the state is apparently willing to take on the added risk that someone will get hurt. (As added background, it should be noted that I brought up my concerns regarding this turn lane many times over the past six years.)

The other group that is at increased risk of being hit is pedestrians. Rather than improve the situation for pedestrians by adding a pork chop island to Keahole Street, the state did nothing. As motorists get used to going through the intersection and realize that most of the time, with the exception of bicyclists or bus drivers who are disobeying the law, traffic will not be coming from the left into their new lane, and they will stop looking to their left.

I urge the DOT to follow through with the “talk” of supporting Complete Streets and energy sustainability sooner rather than later by improving the environment for bicyclists. Every RTOL on Kalanianaole Hwy. should include an exception for bicyclists.

The cost of the Keahole right-turn lane has been reported several times over the past few years as just under $2 million. When the issue was pursued at a meeting of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, a state representative reported November 30, 2010, that the cost included the following: $1.9 million contractor cost, right-of-way $88,000, electrical rerouting $811,000, construction engineering $391,000, and DOT administrative and inspection costs ~$400,000. That does not include the fee for the environmental assessment or change orders made after that date.