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A bike box renaissance in America?

Posted by on January 10th, 2008 at 11:22 am

Freshly installed bike lanes
and bike boxes in New York City.
(Photo by Clarence Eckerson)

For years, several U.S. cities have dabbled in an intersection treatment that is ubiquitous in many European cities: the bike box. Unfortunately, most of these boxes, including the one in Southeast Portland, have been more of a forgotten experiment than a clear sign of a new paradigm in how traffic engineers and road users treat bikes at intersections.

The intent of a bike box is to provide a safe-haven for bike riders at intersections. Cars must wait behind the box, thus allowing bikes to come to the front of the intersection. When the light is red, cars are not allowed to turn right. This gives bike riders greater visibility, a head start through the intersection, and eliminates much of the risk of the dreaded “right-hook”.

But there are still many people don’t know what a bike box is because there has never been a coordinated education effort around them. Portlanders that pass by the bike box at SE 39th and Clinton report that only about half of motor vehicles stop behind it (which they should do). Others, like this one in San Francisco, lack the clear marking and necessary upkeep to keep them effective.

But there are signs that this lack of respect for bike boxes is about to change. Yes, 2008 might be America’s year for a bike box renaissance.

By this spring, 14 Portland
intersections will look like this.
(PDOT graphic)

Almost simultaneously, New York City and Portland are embarking on serious bike box campaigns that will change the face of their city streets.

New York City, with its very bike-friendly commissioner of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, has undergone a sea change in its approach to improving bike safety.

Filmmaker and activist Clarence Eckerson of New York City has been covering all the developments. He posted a film on Streetsblog yesterday on how to use a bike-box and earlier this week he snapped photos of a New York City intersection that has been striped with two bike lanes (on each side of the one-way street) and bike boxes.

According to Eckerson, the NYC Department of Transportation has already installed 60 bike boxes around the city.

And closer to home, the New York Times published a story today about Portland’s impending bike box campaign, which calls for PDOT to install fully painted bike boxes and new signage at 14 major intersections by this spring.

The bike box, much more than just bike lanes, will send a clear message to all road users that bikes are not only welcome on city streets, but that real measures are being taken to improve their safety.

Will bike boxes improve safety, increase bike use, and lead to a paradigm shift in traffic engineering in this car-centric country? That might be a tall order for a square, painted box — but I see them as just one of many small steps in a larger revolution that is brewing in Portland, in New York City, and hopefully in many other cities across the country.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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[…] this article, which got me to this article. Pretty cool. By allowing cyclists to wait in front of motorized traffic, the bike boxes are […]

Pybent
Guest
Pybent

So I read this article and I still do not know what a bike box is or what it\’s purpose is.

Jonathan Maus (Editor)
Guest

\”So I read this article and I still do not know what a bike box is or what it’s purpose is.\”

Pybent,

I have added some information about bike boxes in the second paragraph of the story.

–Jonathan

BURR
Guest
BURR

The video from NYC indicates that the bike boxes are intended to facilitate right turns (from the bike lane on the left side of the street).

Major Flaw in the Portland Design: As shown, as soon as the light changes all the cyclists going straight need to immediately get back over to the bike lane on the far right. That doesn\’t make any sense at all. A better design would be to place sharrows instead of a bike lane downstream from the box, and have the bicyclists merge back into the bike lane on the far side of the intersection.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

What about the NYT\’s criticism that bike boxes do not prevent right hooks from occuring while traffic is in motion?

Clarence
Guest

BURR,

That is a correct assumption. Many (if not most) the dozens of NYC bike boxes I have seen and used are on one way streets to facilitate right hand turns. For example, you will not see them if the bike lane we used (21st street. left hand side lane) intersects with an Avenue that you turn left on to.) I haven\’t seen that specifically written or said as a policy statement form our DOT, but the evidence is overwhelming.

I think there is merit to the Portland design especially since it will make the boxes colored, raise the awareness of drivers, and not allow a right on red. But I am sure they are considering all design questions and people should weigh in.

Jonathan Maus (Editor)
Guest

\”What about the NYT’s criticism that bike boxes do not prevent right hooks from occuring while traffic is in motion?\”

That\’s not a criticism, that\’s a fact. Bike boxes are only functional during stopped situations. However, the Portland plan calls for colored bike lanes and boxes, which will make the bike travel lane more visible.

Atbman
Guest
Atbman

Anonymous, the criticism that they don\’t prevent right hooks, while the traffic is in motion, criticises them for not doing what they\’re not designed for. Their only purpose is to allow riders to position themselves ahead of motor vehicles while the signals are at red.

This places them in drivers\’ sightlines if the driver is turning right. The rider has those few yards of visibility and, just as important, those few seconds to be ahead. Drivers goin straight on also have those vital few seconds to adjust their line of travel to safely overtake the cyclist.

Advanced Stop Lines ASLs/BBs are simply one more tool in the highway/traffic engineer\’s toolbox and address one specific area where cyclists are vulnerable.

Of course, it will require a pretty concentrated effort on the part of the city authorities to publicise BB\’s purpose and how to behave at such junctions. They will also require the banning of right turns on red at such junctions – something which will probably take some time to get thro\’ to Portland drivers\’ heads.

Mitch
Guest
Mitch

To protect the abundance of pedestrian traffic at intersections, it is illegal to turn right on red in New York City. Education and strict enforcement result in widespread adherence to this counterintuitive law by local motorists– even by taxis.

Shane
Guest
Shane

It\’s been almost 10 years that Eugene has had a bike-box on the corner of 7th & High. It\’s on a one way street (High) that travels North to South. The bike lane is on the left hand side of the road. After crossing 7th street cyclists need to merge to the right side continue straight. While traffic is in motion they can do this between 7th and 6th streets (there are signs informing motorists of \”Bicycles Merging\”. While traffic is stopped at the red light at 7th & High they are not allowed to turn on the red and there is a bike box set up for cyclists to \”pre-merge\”. Once the light turns green they are now on the \’correct\’ side with the bike lane on the right hand side of the road.
I think the city has had mixed reports on the effectiveness of the bike box. I use it often and like it a lot.

John Reinhold
Guest
John Reinhold

I also think that more common use and placement of bike boxes will increase overall awareness.

There is a lot of evidence that the more people bike, the more they are seen and expected to be there. As a result auto traffic operates more aware of bicycles (pedestrians have the same impact). When drivers expect bikes they look for bikes…

So more visible and common bike infrastructure reinforces that pattern. More drivers will be aware of and see more bicycles.

In addition, more people may see it as signs that there is more safety and infrastructure for bicycles and start riding. As more people ride more autos see them.

And finally, as more people become riders they are generally better at looking for and seeing bicycles when they are themselves driving autos.

It is all tied together, and slowly has very big impacts. Culture shifts do happen, and the more places you see evidence of the shift the more they accelerate.

Bike boxes can be highly visible evidence of the ongoing shift.

Just this week my family has begun a shift to car free weekdays, which is a tough shift to make. As the weather improves the \”less hardy\” member of the family will most certainly be on bicycles for some of their trips. Between bicycles and transit it is not impossible. And if you had asked me 10 years ago I would have thought you to be crazy.

Little things do add up, and I think that bike boxes are a good start.

Zach
Guest
Zach

You\’re so modest, Johnathan – the other blog I read regularly (www.jalopnik.com) published a whole article about getting a small mention in The Lede today…

Thanks for keeping up the site.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

I have frequently used bike boxes in Europe and like them as a bicyclist and as a pedestrian (it reduces cars creeping across the crosswalk and reduces right turns on red). I have used a few in North America (PDX, VAN BC, LA, etc.).

The one thing that makes most US bike boxes less than effective (vs. Euro installations) is the poor placement of the signal heads in a conventional [North American] manner – far side placement.

The signal heads should be dialed in so that drivers cannot creep across the bikebox and crosswalk…but this very hard to do with far side traffic signal placement. In the Netherlands (and other places) they place the signal head nearside. And this helps them to be just about self enforcing.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/15235675@N07/1801025013/

This is also why they install the little traffic signals for bicycles…so you can see the signal phases while waiting in the bike box.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/15235675@N07/1594161285/

For the wonks out there:
The bike \’streaming space\’ (queuing space) has 600% more vehicle capacity than the same amount of streaming space for motor vehicles. CROW pg. 203

Cøyøte
Guest
Cøyøte

I use a bike box most every night on the ride home. It works well, but most cyclists do not use it. This particular box facilitates the the transition from a left-hand bike lane to a right-hand bike lane on a multi-lane one way street. (aka the death merge.) At the intersection of the bike box, 90% of the car traffic is making a right turn, while most of the cyclists are going straight. This box was built in the 70\’s, and has a few limitations, it is too shallow, and it is not well maintained, with the paint wearing away quickly.

The scary bit is deciding whether there is enough time left on the light to make sure you get to the right most lane.

Seeking Clarification
Guest
Seeking Clarification

Please help me understand when I \”should\” use the portion of the bike box in front of the motor vehicle stop line and when I \”may\” use it.

It seems that I \”should\” use it when I\’m turning left from a two-lane street, but what if I\’m going straight?

If I \”should\” or \”may\” use the portion of the bike box immediately ahead of the motorist and I\’m the first of three bikes coming to the intersection, should I move to the left side of the box, allowing the cyclists behind me to come up on my right? Or should I stay to the right, allowing the following cyclists to come up on my left?

If we \”should\” use the portion immediately in front of the motor vehicles when going straight, what\’s the expectation as the cyclists proceed across the intersection? Do we simply sprint for the far side, sorting ourselves out and merging back into the bike lane according to how quick we are? Must our transition to single file occur before we get to the far side of the intersection?

If the portion of the bike box immediately in front of the motor vehicle lane is only to be used for making left turns, is the use of the bike box mandatory? Specifically, may I merge with motor vehicles in advance or must I stay in the bike lane until I get to the bike box? Coming off the Hawthorne Bridge eastbound, I regularly see cyclists merge across lanes to end up on the left side to make left turns at 7th or 8th. If the new bike box at 7th extends across both eastbound lanes, is use of the bike box one option for transitioning to the left side of Hawthorne or the only option?

Vance
Guest

Bike boxes prevent right-hook accidents? Oh really now? Did you ever consider that there wouldn\’t be a right-hook situation without a bike-lane mandating that riders pass turning motorists on their right? Bike lanes are so unsafe that the addition of these bike-boxes is required to mitigate this lack of safety.

Bike lanes are unsafe. Bike boxes prove this. But you all enjoy your beads, and trinkets. Shinny, shiny, shiny beads and trinkets. You\’re so special.

Vehicular Cyclist
Guest
Vehicular Cyclist

The whole operation of these things makes no sense, even if they\’re supposed to prevent right hooks or increase visibility. So say you\’re rolling up to one of these fancy painted bike boxes. The light\’s green, so to turn left and use the bike box you have to wait for the light to turn red, then shuffle over then wait for it to turn green again.

Now say you approach it on a stale red. How do you know when the green will come? If you decide to gamble, you risk getting run down if you move into the box just as the light turns green. If you play it safe, you have to wait for the green to come, then the red, then move over, then wait for the next green. That\’s a lot of waiting!

Of course, a vehicular left turn is the fastest and perfectly safe with some practice, but even the box turn (pedestrian style) is faster by a half of signal phase if approaching the light when it\’s green. So even for people that are afraid of negotiating and merging for a vehicular left (and I can understand this fear, but with practice it can be overcome) get no benefit from this intersection treatment. It makes no difference going straight either, take the lane (safest) or use the bike lane (risk right hook), and the box does nothing. Right turn, same deal. At best, a waste of pavement space.

The straight fact is this intersection contradicts established traffic laws/principles and introduces conflicts (I predict this will encourage more cyclists to turn left from the bike lane, very dangerous). PDOT is going to have to mitigate these conflicts somehow. Telling motorists to simply yield is not going to work, yielding to fast-moving cyclists overtaking on the right in a bike lane is hard enough, if not impossible in some cases because of the extreme contradiction to speed positioning. This setup is just too complicated. PDOT will have to provide separation either in time or space to mitigate the conflicts. Since this is grade-level, obviously spacial separation won\’t work, so some expensive bike/car-specific traffic signals will be required, which will increase delays for everyone, and it will be interesting to see if motorists would allow such a thing (on the other hand, motorists will likely be favored in time allocation, because, yes, they are the majority).

I\’ll probably get grilled for being \”anti-bike\”, but this isn\’t rocket science. This design makes no sense, and even the Dutch and Germans never applied any engineering knowledge, they just used \”common sense\” (exact quote from one of the Dutch bicycle planners at one of the Euro velo conferences). They\’ve only recently started conducting accident studies (we did this in the 70s), and they had to mitigate the problems with bike boxes with advanced green signals for cyclists. But the cyclist green phase doesn\’t come any sooner, it just makes motorists wait longer (which to the anti-car activists is an improvement).

All the paint and lines in the world you throw on the streets won\’t improve safety if the system introduces conflicts that aren\’t mitigated and the users aren\’t expected to use normal traffic negotiation skills (and it contradicts established traffic law). I really hope PDOT is considering this and all the problems this can cause, simply trying it out and seeing what happens is not acceptable. They better carefully work it out on paper, or there will be casualties. This is engineering ethics 101, nothing more. Otherwise you\’re rewriting existing traffic laws in blood.

And by the way, New York does not have the best safety record with it\’s Dutch-style bike facilities. They tried physically-separated bike lanes back around 1980, and aside from the usual intersection accidents associated with them, they had a rash of bike/ped accidents that killed two cyclists and a pedestrian (yes, bike/ped accidents can be very serious, bicycles are vehicles, pedestrians are pedestrians, they don\’t mix well). Apparently they\’re back at it again, it will be interesting to see if they can make them reasonably safe. Also notice the bike lanes in the picture, door-zone. They have a habit of doing that too, despite over 30 years of cycling safety literature advising to ride outside the reach of parked car doors (Portland is guilty of this too). I think the correct perspective as far as Dutch facilities goes is that they can get away with fundamentally unsafe designs because they\’re bicycle traffic is slow (akin to a fast walk), but people seem to keep confusing correlation and causation and coming to the conclusion that their facilities must make cycling safer. The Dutch are also way behind with their accident reports, nothing close to the Ken Cross national study here in the US published way back in 1977.

The only thing I see this doing is producing conflicts between motorists and cyclists, both operational and social. And of course the cyclist always loses in a collision. For these reasons, I will choose not to use them. I advise anyone who chooses to use them to use them with extreme caution. With all the money thrown at facilities, is there really no money for education or Road I/II/III courses?

Scott Graham
Guest
Scott Graham

My first reaction is, over $10,000 per bike box is too much (even assuming the city sticks to it\’s estimated budget of $150,000)
That seems a ridiculous boondoggle.
Maybe there is more to it than splashing some paint in an intersection, but I guess I don\’t know what that might be.
I think the 150,000 would be better spent researching broader solutions to bike safety.

Bob Shanteau
Guest

On a freeway, slower traffic is supposed to keep to the right. But exits are located on the right side. Does that mean that a fast driver is supposed to take an exit directly from the left lane? No, you can get a ticket for that. Instead, a fast driver is required to merge into the right lane first, then exit, even if he has to slow down to match the speed of traffic in the right lane. That is exactly what the California bike lane law requires of drivers turning right from a street with a bike lane.

From what I can tell, both bicyclists who were killed recently in right hook accidents in Portland had pulled up to a red light next to a stopped truck. They were following what I have been told is the bike lane law in Oregon, which invites such right hook accidents. The Oregon law would be like expecting fast drivers on a freeway to exit directly from the left lane, being careful to yield to drivers in the right lane. Such an expectation is clearly unrealistic, so it is not allowed. Why should we expect a similar maneuver on a street with bike lanes to be reasonable or safe?

It is the fact that bike lanes to the right of right turning vehicles violate a basic principle of traffic and thus violate a driver\’s expectation that is the problem, not the failure of such drivers to yield to bicyclists in the bike lane.

Bike boxes are a \”solution\” to a problem that should not exist in the first place.