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Ask BikePortland: As a driver, what does all that green mean?

Posted by on April 14th, 2015 at 10:03 am

Ride Along with Ali Reis-22

(Photo J Maus/BikePortland)

We get a lot of interesting emails here at BikePortland (and phone calls for that matter). And because we’re easy to find in search engines and we’ve been around for a decade or so, a lot of those emails come from people who aren’t daily readers or loyal fans. We often hear from people don’t even ride bikes and who just have something about cycling they want to get off their chest.

The question I want to share with you today comes via an email from David J., someone who identified himself as a driver. The subject of his email was “Autos and bikes”:

So…I want to be a good and kind driver wrt [with regard to] bike riders. The rub is that I have no idea what the green street markings mean. I get bike boxes. But what do the solid and the stripped green lanes mean? Can I drive in or over them as I proceed, keeping bikes in mind? Are there laws? Are things just being made up? Are there resources so that I can learn what is expected? Why don’t I, as a generally informed citizen, know?

David’s email caught my eye for several reasons. First, I love that he wants to be a more informed and capable driver around Porltand’s many bike riders. (Thanks David! We need more people like you!). And second, it reinforced my opinion that we can’t rely solely on paint if we want to create a safe, predictable, and easy-to-use transportation system.


I have a strong hunch that if we had more protected bicycle infrastructure — with physical separation from drivers and walkers, separate signals, and so on — people like David would have a much easier time driving around people riding bikes. (That’s not the case in our lead photo, because it’s in an intersection.)

As for the answers to David’s questions; the solid and striped green that’s popping up in bike lanes all over Portland these days are simply a way of highlighting caution areas. They don’t change the legal standing of a bike lane — which means, no, you can’t drive in or over them. There are a few exceptions to this, such as when you are accessing a parking spot, turning, and so on. But as a general rule, bicycle lanes are for bicycling only.

And I’m happy to report that agencies using green color in bikeways are following clear federal guidelines. A few years ago when Portland first started going green, they were indeed just “making it up” but those days are behind us now.

David’s question about why he doesn’t know brings up another important issue. In Oregon (and in America in general) we don’t get nearly enough education and training with our driver’s license. If we were required to make more frequent visits to the DMV and pass harder driving tests, we’d all be better off.

What advice do you have for David?

Read more from our Ask BikePortland series If you’d like to ask us a question, please use our contact form.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the design of Portland’s green bikeways did not always follow national guidelines. That was true a few years ago, but is no longer the case. Green-colored bike lanes are now accepted by the FHWA and local engineers and planners follow established guidance.

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

  • ricochet April 14, 2015 at 10:13 am

    “Porltand’s “

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  • Peter Michaelson April 14, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Related to this, I’ve been wanting to know, do sharrows have any legal meaning wrt traffic laws?

    If not, what exactly is their purpose? Should motor vehicle drivers modify their behavior when on a sharrowed street, and if so, how?

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    • naess April 14, 2015 at 10:39 am

      i asked about this during the 50’s build up. iirc in some states they indicate where a bike is allowed to be in regards to the street in question, but in portland they are just more useless green paint intended merely to inform people that there might be a cyclist around, and to direct cyclists towards the least (at least at the time of construction) conflicting route.

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      • paikiala April 14, 2015 at 11:54 am

        You do know sharrows are white, yes?

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        • Naess April 14, 2015 at 1:10 pm

          And… You do realize that was in reference to the original articles subject, yes?

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          • matt picio April 14, 2015 at 8:44 pm

            Some might, but some might not – you replied to the sharrows comment and not the original article. It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to assume you were referring to sharrows.

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    • Gary April 14, 2015 at 10:49 am

      I’ll take stab: 1)No. 2) Awareness. 3) Yes, by being more aware. (Although if drivers always exercised the appropriate level of caution and awareness, I suppose the answer to #3 would be “no.”)

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    • Chris Anderson April 14, 2015 at 11:24 am

      I think they are supposed to mean “if you think that bicyclist is holding you up, you are on the wrong street.”

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    • pdx2wheeler April 14, 2015 at 12:49 pm

      Sharrows are an indicator to a person riding a bike where they should position themselves on the road to avoid hazards like opening car doors, etc… I always try to ride directly through the middle of a sharrow. They should also indicate to people driving cars that people on bikes will be sharing their lane of travel, so be cautious!

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      • soren April 14, 2015 at 1:07 pm

        Despite the fact that they are printed all over our roads, sharrows have no statutory meaning in Oregon. And to add to the confusion even PBOT cannot provide a consistent answer about what sharrows “suggest”. Some PBOT staffers have suggested that they are “wayfinding” symbols while others have suggested that they indicate positioning of cyclists.

        It would be nice if the city clarified the meaning and/or legal status of this ubiquitous symbol because, right now, everyone, including PBOT, is confused.

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  • canuck April 14, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Portland loves to paint. Used to be blue now it’s green.

    The just making it up is the issue, if there were national standards then you would see the information in drivers ed classes in the DMV manual and in the DMV test.

    When the designs are regional then the locals may have some idea what it means, but those from out of town are at a complete loss as to what it means.

    Push for a national standard.

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    • Jim April 14, 2015 at 11:10 am

      Absolutely agree, and often it’s even more specific. SF created some new bike lane and color designs, and while I live just an hour away, I had no idea what they meant. I hate driving in SF anyway because it’s chaotic, but then add a new gimmick that isn’t clear about its meaning, and it’s a bit of a disaster recipe. Also, cities regularly drop the ball getting word out about these kinds of things. News sources are now so diverse you can’t rely on learning anything, and it’s probably over the top to expect a local government to send a mailer to every resident about bike lane changes.

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    • paikiala April 14, 2015 at 11:55 am

      Blue was what Portland adopted before there was a national standard. Green is the national standard color for bike lanes in the US.

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    • gutterbunnybikes April 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      I’d disagree, those markings are now part of the US Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Those markings have a very specific meaning, despite what PDOT might say.

      I know that we do have some local jurisdiction on traffic laws, but traffic signs need to have some collective meaning across all jurisdictions. To use these markings and say “oh, no they don’t really apply” isn’t really very fair to the 300,000,000 Americans (or how many billions world wide) who don’t live in Portland that might visit and use these streets.

      Personally I find it hard to believe that PDOT would take the stance as they have. There is a national precedent on what those symbols mean. Though not likely, (but we are a litigious society now) I could see them getting sued over an incident that might occur as a result of allowing the symbols to be applied, but not with the proper intent as outlined by the USDOT.

      But really I think this is just another example of PDOT still more concerned and prioritizing automobile use over bicycles.

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      • gutterbunnybikes April 14, 2015 at 12:39 pm

        oops sorry this one was a reply on the sharrows above.

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      • caesar April 15, 2015 at 12:02 am

        To use these markings and say “oh, no they don’t really apply” isn’t really very fair to the 300,000,000 Americans (or how many billions world wide) who don’t live in Portland that might visit and use these streets.

        Wait, what? Not everyone lives in Portland?!? Who are these people?

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  • Peter Michaelson April 14, 2015 at 10:20 am

    In regards to the education theme here, I’ve found that many drivers are simply unaware of or forget the intent of certain traffic regulations.

    If we’re not going to actually enforce laws, I would think public service announcements / billboards would go a long way to reducing infractions. Just putting certain issues in peoples’ heads – like yielding right of way to pedestrians, turn signals, not blocking bike lanes or sidewalks, ad infinitum.

    In the absence of enforcement, what is the mechanism to keep everyone aware of the rules? Seems like word of mouth is about it, these days.

    We all can sit at any busy intersection and count at least 100 infractions per hour. If there’s no one telling people otherwise, then they tend to think it’s ok, reasonably enough.

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    • SilkySlim April 14, 2015 at 10:55 am

      Couldn’t agree more! I’d love to see some clever billboards to get everybody back on the same page. Something clever and fun and Portlandy (vs. strict and dry) along the lines of “Turn Signals – Follow Them to The Latest Pop Up Restaurant”.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 14, 2015 at 11:02 am

      What people often forget about in this education discussion are police officers. Unfortunately they too are often ignorant of the laws. I’d like to see more efforts to keep them up to speed. I was pulled over recently by an officer who wasn’t aware of several laws pertaining to bicycle operation.

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      • eli bishop April 14, 2015 at 11:26 am

        i hope we hear more about this incident.

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      • encephalopath April 14, 2015 at 11:37 am

        Did you write about this law enforcement encounter?

        I would like to hear this story in more detail.

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      • John Lascurettes April 14, 2015 at 2:33 pm

        Some officers are woefully ignorant.

        I had an argument, or “debate”, with a police officer several months ago when he said that there is not a bike lane extending the length of westbound and southbound Broadway. This was after he pulled me over for simply giving a driver the stink eye for making a right turn from a bike lane (i.e., driving within it for the length of a block) at NE Davis (seriously, he pulled me over to “educate me”). First he was ignorant of the yield to bike lane laws, and then he tried to claim it wasn’t even a bike lane.

        I told him that, aside from the MUP path of the Broadway Bridge itself, there is no block of Broadway from NE 39th to SW PSU that does not have a marked bike lane (yes, there are breaks in the lane for shared turn spaces, but the corner in question was not a shared turn lane).

        He pointed out that there are not bike symbols on every block or signs for such. I pointed out to him that all three items are not needed to designate is as so, that the line is a more or less contiguous 8″ white line and that designates it as a bike lane (a fog line or shoulder line is 4″) especially since it is established on nearly every block with a bike symbol. When I asked for his card so I could send him the appropriate info he was “all out” so I gave him my info so he could contact me. I never heard from him again.

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    • Pete April 14, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      When I lived in Oregon, they changed the laws regarding pedestrians crossing the street three times in two years. At first you had to wait until they pedestrian was completely across the street, then there were exceptions based on the number of lanes in the street, and then I think it went to something like a 6′ physical clearance behind the pedestrian. I had read a little about it in the newspaper (remember those?), but I certainly didn’t have to pass an annual exam with these questions on it. Honestly I don’t think I could quote the current Oregon law at this point, I just know to be cautious and avoid hitting them.

      FWIW, the one question I got wrong when I took the CA driver’s exam was that you have five days to inform the DMV of a car sale. Fortunately the test didn’t include any of that less important stuff like safety around bicyclists.

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      • bendite April 15, 2015 at 10:43 am

        the six foot rule applies to crosswalks that are signaled. The ‘wait until there across the adjacent lane’ applies to crosswalks with no lighted signal.

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  • Adam H. April 14, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Build more curb-separated bike lanes. No question about driving over them.

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    • Eric April 14, 2015 at 11:27 pm

      Continue curbs through intersection? Required 2-stage left? 30kph speed limits?

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  • 9watts April 14, 2015 at 10:41 am

    “you can’t drive in or over them. ”

    But right turning traffic and cross traffic (in the photo) above surely would have to drive over them.

    And speaking of color, if I am not mistaken, in Western European countries don’t they use red bricks or something similar to denote where bikes are expected? I have to assume that using a naturally occurring material for the surface has to be more cost effective in the long run than all this thermoplastic that doesn’t seem to have a very long service life. If, as we seem to always be, out of money, why aren’t we copying ideas/materials/colors that have stood the test of time in other places?

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    • Brad April 14, 2015 at 11:35 am

      Build it cheap now and someone else will take care of it later. It’s the American way.

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    • paikiala April 14, 2015 at 11:59 am

      brick work is labor intensive, therefore costly. Asphalt and paint can be applied by machines.
      Can you show me a ‘brick’ red bike lane that isn’t just printed asphalt?

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    • Pete April 14, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      Where the solid green paint turns to stripes is where you aim your car and accelerate when you see a bicyclist…

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    • Adam H. April 14, 2015 at 12:55 pm

      Copenhagen uses blue-painted bike lanes, though.

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    • El Biciclero April 16, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Whoa—but you’re talking permanent there. All Portland bike infra is “experimental”, being used on a “trial basis”. Using actual brick or colored (not painted) paving material would be too much like commitment.

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  • Gary April 14, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Peter Michaelson
    In the absence of enforcement, what is the mechanism to keep everyone aware of the rules? Seems like word of mouth is about it, these days.
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    Joseph Rose columns, of course!

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  • ac April 14, 2015 at 11:31 am

    drivers have no idea what to expect (especially those from other cities)…part of the problem is the lack of standardization in the bike facilities. some extremes for example (compared to the relatively common simple bike lane w/ white line & bike logo):
    – b’way by psu
    – n williams
    – bike boxes (& also those w/ color vs those without)
    – sharrows

    part of this is we’re just learning as we go…hopefully, we’ll get a chance to start cleaning up the disparities with some consistency

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    • 9watts April 14, 2015 at 11:36 am

      “part of this is we’re just learning as we go”

      I guess, but the part that I don’t understand is the thinking behind inventing all this new stuff. Are our experiments with untried stuff around town really a better bet than just adopting what has been tried and found to work in other (non-US) places? I’m all for innovation if it makes sense, if there’s something special about our traffic patterns that means a straight-across copy of something in den Haag or Copenhagen or Berlin wouldn’t work, but often I get the sense that PBOT just likes to play with green paint.

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      • Jon M April 15, 2015 at 10:47 am

        I see, so we ought to seek your approval before attempting to be innovative… just so we’re sure it makes sense to “innovate’. Got it…

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        • El Biciclero April 16, 2015 at 12:56 pm

          I don’t see anything about “seeking approval” in 9watts comment. Nothing wrong with suggesting we look around and see if anyone else has solved the problem we’re trying to solve, and finding out how they did it. If 9watts makes any faulty assumption, it is that we are indeed trying to solve the same problem that has been solved elsewhere, or that we have the same concept of what the problem is. Solutions from other parts of the world have worked due in no small part to a shift in priorities. In our part of the world, we seem to frame the problem as “how can we find a cheap way to make things appear safe, while continuing to prioritize single-occupancy motor vehicle use above all else?”

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    • paikiala April 14, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      Portland’s bike boxes, both colored and uncolored, are part of an FHWA experimental evaluation. This is one way the Federal Government approves new stuff in the US, experiments paid for my applicants. Another method is simulator experiments.
      If the FHWA endorses a design document or guideline, like they did for the NACTO bike design guide, then an experiment does not need to happen for FHWA approval. The Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons and Rapid Flash beacons were all approved via the experimental process.

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      • canuck April 14, 2015 at 1:37 pm

        Yes but bike boxes without an advanced left green as they have in the EU is a half solution or basically no solution. Much like you say we kinda sorta do it the same way but with our own PDX flair.

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  • Joe April 14, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Oh it means ride safely to me ;), if I see car tire skids in green bike box really makes me think about merging issues. example Wilsonvile Rd and I-5 interchange. scary! most cops in City have no idea about human transport rights! * lotta riders get pushed around so most take sidewalk to stay clear of being run down. :/

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  • encephalopath April 14, 2015 at 11:46 am

    It’s somewhat unsettling that we have so many people operating powerful multi-ton machinery in the public right of way who don’t know what the rules are and are just out there winging it.

    Even if they want to know the rules like this person, we don’t have the resources available for them to actually figure it out.

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  • Joe April 14, 2015 at 11:48 am

    encephalopath: wild how some think roads are just ment for cars and anything outside the box is open season to get out of my way mental thought.. smh

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  • Doug Klotz April 14, 2015 at 11:56 am

    I have said before that at new installations, there should be an explanatory sign maybe 4′ x 6′,with a simple diagram, installed next to each new installation of, say, a bike box. Leave them up for a year, and then move them to another location. To help out of towners who drive into Portland, perhaps a series of freeway signs, including on airport way. I know. Thats a lot of signs….

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    • Psyfalcon April 14, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      Between the bikes and the one way streets, a lot of out of town drivers are afraid of Portland. Also, which train tracks can you drive on…

      A brochure in the airport “How to drive in Portland” might be a good idea. You could fit all the major ideas in a standard tourist trap sized fold out.

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      • soren April 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm

        “Between the bikes and the one way streets, a lot of out of town drivers are afraid of Portland.”

        Good. Fearful drivers make for safer everyone.

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        • Dan April 14, 2015 at 1:27 pm

          Except when being afraid causes them to blow through red lights in their box truck. But generally, yes.

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      • Adam H. April 14, 2015 at 12:57 pm

        How to drive in Portland: drive to one of the park-and-rides and take MAX into the City Center.

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        • Psyfalcon April 14, 2015 at 8:59 pm

          You can hope, but they still go get the rental cars. They want a downtown hotel but then want to drive to the coast or gorge or MSH.

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  • Joe April 14, 2015 at 11:59 am

    I really wish the amount of car traffic downtown would stop… 🙂

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  • Joe April 14, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Amazing how some places go from massive infra to very little or non..
    oh make sure you stop at every signal and wait for the car green light 😉

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  • soren April 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    “They don’t change the legal standing of a bike lane — which means, no, you can’t drive in or over them.”

    Except that many of these facilities are in areas where motorists are expected to drive “over” them. Moreover, since most of the green zones are striped or hatched I question whether they are legally considered to be a bike lane. In other words, I doubt they offer the same legal protection (dubious as that might be) as a bike lane.

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  • Electric Mayhem April 14, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    People should be required to take a class and pass a test every four years to renew their license. Laws are added and amended every year, but how can they be effective if nobody knows about them?

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    • paikiala April 14, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      One point of attack in a successful Vision Zero program – better road users.

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  • Pete April 14, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    “I have a strong hunch that if we had more protected bicycle infrastructure — with physical separation from drivers and walkers, separate signals, and so on — people like David would have a much easier time driving around people riding bikes.”

    I know this a popular sentiment here but I’d have to caution on jumping to conclusions. Not that I’m against physical separation – some of my best friends ride bikes on separated bike paths ;0 – but the conflict areas are still going to be the conflict areas, and with physical separation you run the risk of moving the bicyclist even further out of immediate view / flow of drivers (and possibly impairing the cyclist’s options / movement timings to react to an impending collision).

    One of my favorite cities is Vancouver, BC, which has quickly become my least favorite city to drive in. I primarily travel there by plane and use the great public transportation, but more recently I’ve driven there and navigated the downtown to get to our corporate hotel. Mind you I’m a veteran city driver, but one of the things I find most challenging is taking certain right turns there because while I’m watching the flow of pedestrians in both directions in front of and behind me, there is a separated cycle track inside of them spitting out cyclists at a higher rate of speed that I can’t see beyond the crowd. You might time a safe break in pedestrian traffic, only to come around the corner in front of a bicyclist being spit out of the cycle track that you didn’t see. I think your point about separate signals is important, because this one particular intersection didn’t have them and I believe it would make all the difference there. (No, I don’t remember exactly where – I was having a hard enough time ignoring Google’s repeatedly telling me to drive the wrong way up one-way streets).

    Strategically planned separated facilities that reduce the number of intersections and merge cyclists safely into traffic flow make perfect sense, but physical separation as a characteristic alone does not necessarily imply safety and convenience for all.

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    • Adam H. April 14, 2015 at 1:00 pm


      Also, Vancouver BC has two-way cycle tracks, which have fallen out of standard in Denmark and The Netherlands for the reasons you described above.

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  • Bald One April 14, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Green stripes and sharrows seem to have many different meanings to different folks (kind of like red lights, red arrows, and stop signs; crosswalks that are unmarked, striped, or signalized – either with a red/green light or with a flashing amber beacon). What does it all mean?

    For example, sharrows on the St. John’s bridge in the middle of the travel lane, sharrows with funny hats and capes, sharrows on bucolic residential neighborhood streets, sharrows inside of bike lanes, etc.

    Green stripes also seem to have many meanings – bikes go here, don’t cork the bike lane during rush hour, don’t right hook the bikers at a right turn lane, beware the bikers in the intersection, peds stay on the yellow, bikers on the green, etc.

    IMO, city seems to like to put out many undefined traffic markings, and at the same time, they seem totally unwilling to educate the public about what they are doing (unless you are a traffic/urban planning wonk who can appreciate the subtleties of the process as explained at professional meetings, etc). It all sort of seems like a testing laboratory – let’s see what works (if it doesn’t work, it will stay in place for 20 years due to lack of funding to modify). The city makes an effort to try to keep their head down and not draw attention to any new “rules” or suggestions they may be trying to create by use of street markings. Public explanations, if at all, seem to be deliberately vague and non-committal – just promoting safety and visibility. I guess this is so they don’t cause a media storm and since they can’t actually re-write the laws/ordinances of the state – and as we all know, any traffic infractions are only disagreements generally not enforced by cops except during publicized sting operations, unless it is an injury accident, car vs. car or DUI. It might be nice if the city actually came out and told drivers, “don’t do this” with a posted notice about a specific set of traffic markings. I don’t know, I guess IKEA can put out assembly instructions using a cartoon of a person assembling a shelving unit with no words whatsoever, so educating the American driving public with green paint and no words maybe has some precedent.

    There is not a lot of visible traffic law enforcement in this city – if you call for enforcement at an unsafe area, they’ll come out and park their police car and play candy crush or file paperwork for 2 hours, but they won’t ticket anyone unless it’s an organized public enforcement/sting like to get stop-sign scofflaws in ladd’s addition or crosswalk violators on E Burnside with the mayor acting as bait.

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  • RM Hampel April 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Don’t forget that cyclists need some basic level of education and common sense wrt using our bike facilities here. Exhibit #1; the corner of SE 21st and Division St – part of Seven corners – is a right hook just waiting to happen. Every weekday morning up to 15 cyclists wait to cross Division St and make a slight right onto SR Ladd heading NW. The bike box is a busy place at a red light. But it’s at the green when things go pear-shaped. Motorized vehicles are behind the cyclists and many want to make the left-right jog over to the continuation of SE 20th heading north. But most of the cyclists hug the curb and there’s a daily game of chicken where cylists who want to go onto SE Ladd cross in front of motorists turning hard right onto SE 20th. The result will someday, sadly, be a serious right hook accident. Why oh why don’t the cyclists take the lane here and completely eliminate the risk of an ugly hook collision? They only need to be ahead of cars for 30 yards at most. Part of the problem is us – we who ride on two wheels. Sharing the road with multi-ton vehicles is never as easy as being on a protected bike lane or path. I don’t mean to imply that vehicle operators are helpless in this regard, only that they’re not Devils in rolling death cages either. No sane person wants to hit another road user.

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    • Charley Gee April 14, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      A big problem at that location is the motor vehicle operators trying to turn onto SE 20th are trying to turn right from the left-hand lane of SE Division. They jump the gun, turn left into the left hand lane, and then wind up sitting and blocking traffic as the traffic in the right hand lane proceeds straight to turn right on to SE Ladd.

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      • RM Hampel April 14, 2015 at 4:31 pm

        I respectfully disagree. If you want to nitpick about lanes, then both cyclists AND drivers are using the intersection incorrectly. You are right about the motorists, but the cyclists are turning left and ending up in the right lane (from a one lane street, they should go to the left most lane) without signaling that intention. They are equally to blame for the cluster**** that is that intersection.

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        • Psyfalcon April 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm

          But we’re supposed to be to the right. How long can I stay in the left lane without someone screaming by on the right?

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  • Fred April 14, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Those green stripes mark Portland’s mountain bike trails.

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  • Joe April 14, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Portland hates bad drivers.. haha

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  • Terry D-M April 15, 2015 at 12:32 am

    All these comments and no one, including the author called these “Green stripes” by thier name. It is “Crossbike.”

    Or a crosswalk for bikes, meant to indicate a conflict zone, just like for pedestrians at intersections. It really is that simple in this case.

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    • Pete April 16, 2015 at 9:25 am

      I thought a cross bike had caliper brakes, “Brigade” stickers, a 46T big ring, and a handlebar-mounted beer cozy?

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    • El Biciclero April 16, 2015 at 10:31 am

      Can we get a “crossbike” at Sylvan? Maybe we could get some green-painted retractable bollards that pop up on the red light for SB traffic on Skyline.

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