Let’s talk about bike boxes

The line at a bike box on N Interstate this morning.(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

On a ride into downtown this morning I came across a common sight: People on bikes waiting for a red light in a single-file line at an intersection that has a bike box. The bulk of the bike box — a large green space at the front of the intersection intended to make auto users to stop further back — was empty.

This has always puzzled me for several reasons. Whenever I come upon a bike box at a red light I’ve always thought it best to fill the box. That’s why it’s there right? So, in an effort to spread the word, I posted a photo and message about it to Twitter.

The many replies to that post surprised me. It turns out people have a lot of different opinions about bike boxes and how best to use them.

One of our friends on Twitter said the only reason to be in front of an auto user is to turn left. I disagree with that. In Portland the standard practice for turning left is to use what the Portland Bureau of Transportation calls a “left turn box” to do a “two-stage left turn” (a.k.a. “a Copenhagen left”). Stage one: If you’re headed north and want to turn left (westbound) you wait for green and roll to a green colored box in the intersection on your right. Stage two: You re-orient yourself 90-degrees to the left and wait for the signal to change before heading west.

Another person questioned the wisdom of filling the bike box if your plan is to simply continue straight and eventually have to merge back to the right to continue in the bike lane. “What good is that?” the person wondered.

Other friends on Twitter worried that waiting in front of auto users would make drivers “pissed”. And alarmingly, two people said they no longer wait in front because of experiences where a driver’s foot slipped off the brake pedal and bumped them. And related to that, others reminded me that some people are too afraid to position themselves in front of drivers and that bike boxes are not adequate for the “interested but concerned.”

The responses to my Tweet were enlightening. They reminded me that not everyone has the same understanding or opinions about how our various facilities are intended to be used. This is not good from a safety or efficiency standpoint.

I don’t need no stinkin’ bike box!


NW Broadway bike box in action.
That’s the way to fill it up!

As for bike boxes, they have many uses: They improve visibility between road users (which can prevent right hooks), they can facilitate turns (when they go all the way across a one-way intersection), they give bicycle users a head-start when the light turns green, and they give more space to bicycle users so that more of them can queue at an intersection and ultimately get through on the green signal.

That last point brings me back to people who line up single-file. Single-file is the least efficient way for bicycle riders to line up at any intersection. Our bikeways will never reach their potential if we’re afraid to bunch up a bit and share the space more efficiently. In high-functioning cycling cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where they don’t need bike boxes because they have an entirely separated lane for bikes), if people lined up single-file the lines would stretch around entire blocks! I know maintaining ample personal space is deeply engrained in our culture; but in my opinion we’d all be safer and happier if we weren’t so afraid to kindly pass others and let others pass when possible. And when there’s a bike box, we should definitely not be spread out way back into the bike lane. Doing so is much less safe and defeats the bike box’s purpose.

That’s just my opinion of course; but it jibes with what the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the National Association of City Transportation Officials think.

NACTO says one of the benefits of bike boxes is (emphasis mine), “Groups bicyclists together to clear an intersection quickly, minimizing impediment to transit or other traffic.”

And when the Portland Bureau of Transportation first rolled out bike boxes it’s clear they intended people on bikes to wait in front of auto users at red lights, as evidenced by the billboard and images below taken from a brochure they handed out in 2008:

What do you think? Are a single-filer or a buncher? Do you wait in front of the drivers at bike boxes? Or do you prefer to stay on the right?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and

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