Dark Bollards, Dangerous Bollards

A bollard, for those who don't know the term, is one of those posts used to keep motor vehicles off of trails, sidewalks, and other non-motorized facilities. Many trail systems use them, but many use them badly, sometimes with tragic results. When a bicyclist moving at reasonable speeds runs into a bollard, common outcomes include serious injury, destruction of the bicycle frame, or even death.

If we were discussing a roadway, no competent traffic engineer would consider placing unmarked telephone poles between the lanes with no additional clearance or warnings. The results would be too obvious. Yet some of these same engineers will suggest placing bollards in the middle of bicycle trails with essentially no warning for the bicyclists. 

Here, for example, are three unpainted wooden bollards in a 90-degree turn.  On a dry night like this, they show up just in time to avoid hitting them.  In rain, the wood is almost as dark as the pavement.

dark bollards on Interurban Trail

This is not usually done with the intent of maiming bicyclists, even though that is the natural outcome. Instead, the people designing these bollards simply have not thought of them as obstructions in a roadway. Worse, sometimes the bollards are positively hidden, by designs intended to blend into a park-like setting, such as bollards made of unpainted wood, or of metal painted soothing dark blues or greens.  For people who think of bicyclists as essentially rolling pedestrians, it's easy not to think of a bicycle as a vehicle moving 15-20 miles per hour, with the sight lines and clearances that demands.

It's up to cyclists to point out the error of these hazardous installations if local authorities are in the rolling-pedestrian school.

It's easy for a lone cyclist to be dismissed as a whining malcontent, especially if the official in charge is predisposed to see cyclists that way. To avoid this, it helps to present the issue on the right terms, as a well-documented traffic safety concern.

First, let's look at two nationally-known design standards. While these do not have the force of law, they are authoritative references that are often incorporated into legal design standards.

In contrast to the hazardous bollards above, here's a bollard that meets modern conspicuity standards.  Note the pavement striping, bright white paint, and large, round amber reflector -- this is a bollard that's easy to spot even on a dark, rainy night.

Well marked bollard

Draft language from the Federal Highway Administration goes even further on the hazards of bollards:

Some trail managers install bollards, gates, or other barriers to restrict unauthorized use. Trail managers should question whether bollards, gates, fences, or other barriers are needed at all. For the purpose of the bullets below, “bollard” includes bollards, gates, fences, or any other barrier constructed or installed next to, within, or across a trail presumably to restrict unauthorized access.

If installed, bollard, gates, fences, or other barriers:

In short, it's clear that multiple national agencies and organizations responsible for design standards and engineering have recognized bollards as a potential threat to public safety and a potential source of liability to public agencies that install them. But that doesn't necessarily mean your local jurisdiction is familiar with those findings, or has adopted standards that address them.

So What Standards Apply in My Case?

AASHTO and FHWA standards are respected nationally, but your local authority may have its own design standards. You may need to ask what design standards apply to a particular project and do more research. For example, in Washington State, the WSDOT Design Manual Chapter 1020 - Bicycle Facilities addresses these issues for state-funded projects, saying

Install bollards at entrances to shared-use paths to prevent motor vehicles from entering. When locating such installations, ensure that barriers are well marked and visible to bicyclists, day or night. Do not use bollards to divert or slow path traffic. (For bollard designs, see the Standard Plans, and for pavement markings at bollards, see the MUTCD.)

This tells you that the MUTCD pavement markings apply, but you also need to find the Standard Plans to see what standards the bollards themselves must meet. In this case, WSDOT's Standard Plans call for a bollard made of 3-inch nominal steel pipe, 2'6" tall, with the top capped for safety, and four stripes of 1/2" retroreflective tape spread over 4 inches, starting 2 inches from the top of the bollard.

Presenting Your Case

Once you have this level of specific, local detail, it's much harder to dismiss you as a whining malcontent. Instead, you're a concerned citizen pointing out a design oversight that could expose the city to bad publicity or even liability.

Try to present your request calmly and rationally, even though you're dealing with a situation that could have killed you or your children. The bad design was almost certainly not installed with the intent of injuring anyone, and it doesn't do anyone any good to make the officials involved defensive. (Let them save their defensiveness for when someone gets hurt and decides to sue after the design isn't improved.)  Simply point out the deficiency, explain that it's a hazardous, non-standard installation, and that you're concerned about the hazard.  Usually, that's enough to get the ball rolling.

Guerilla Bollard Upgrades

If local officials refuse to remove hazardous bollards or upgrade them, you may be tempted to make improvements on your own.  Be aware that this can backfire -- your safety improvements may be painted as vandalism by park officials who think unmarked bollards are more attractive as design features.  But if local officials are friendly to volunteer upgrades, a few options include:

Reflective safety striping tape, for day and night visibility.  Expensive, but very effective.

Diagonal safety striping tape -- conspicuous in daylight, not reflective at night, but much less expensive.

Nail-on or stick-on reflectors, depending on whether your bollards are wooden or metal. These are good for bollards that are conspicuous in daylight but hard to see at night.

Pavement striping tape.  Typically used for temporary pavement striping at construction sites, on a bicycle trail this can provide longer-lasting striping ahead of bollards or other hazards, and can also be wrapped around wooden or metal bollards for day and night visibility.  But it's expensive, more than $100 for a 150-foot roll.

You may note I didn't mention any sort of paint.  First, it's a messy thing to carry paint in a jersey pocket while riding.  More important, paint of any sort is much more likely to be reported as vandalism, no matter how carefully or appropriately applied.

This page written by Josh Putnam. Please feel free to email questions, comments, corrections, etc.

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