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A bike box renaissance in America?

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

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.