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"Bike Boxes": A Simple Idea that Could Save Lives
Erica Barnett, 7 Jan 08


It took six deaths to propel city leaders to action, but by April, Portland, Oregon should have 14 new "bike boxes" at busy intersections around the city.

The idea behind bike boxes is simple: Like "blue lanes" and other biker-friendly lane markings, bike boxes (or "advanced stop lines") demarcate a part of the street that "belongs" to cyclists--letting drivers know that bicyclists may be in the area. (Yes, this is an idea that wouldn't mesh well with "shared space," which I wrote about recently, but it is one that would integrate seamlessly into most US traffic-management systems.) The "box" is just a large, brightly-painted area adjacent to an intersection where cyclists are allowed to rest during red lights and where cars are not allowed to go. The boxes make cyclists more visible to drivers, give cyclists the first shot through the intersection, and reduce the likelihood that a driver will turn unknowingly into a cyclist's path. A wide stripe at the back end of the box indicates to drivers where they should stop, and a strip of textured plastic will let drivers know if they enter the box. Additionally, in Portland, drivers at bike-boxed intersections will not be able to turn right on red--a change that could slow traffic a bit but will undoubtedly reduce conflicts between bikes and cars (and in conflicts between bikes and cars, the car always "wins"). Portland's plans represent a significant improvement, from a cyclist's perspective, on bike boxes elsewhere, which include no textured striping and allow drivers to turn right on red.

In Portland, the impetus for installing the boxes was two recent cyclist deaths that involved a "right hook," in which a right-turning driver fails to yield to a cyclist riding on the right side of the road and hits the cyclist. Such crashes are the most common type of cycling accident in Portland.

Bike boxes haven't caught on much in the US--the only ones I'm aware of are in New York City--but they are popular in Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK, where they've been installed throughout Bristol and in other cities with good results. According to a report by the UK Department For Transport, bike boxes can "significantly improve safety for cyclists at signal controlled junctions." In Melbourne, Australia (where, incidentally, nine percent of cyclists ride "straight through" red lights without stopping), installing bike boxes increased the number of cyclists who pulled out ahead of cars to 93 percent, and cars generally respected cyclists' space, stopping in the bike boxes less than a third of the time when no one was in them, and virtually never when someone was. For the US, those are the formulas, but Portland will be the petri dish. If bike boxes work in reducing accidents here--and all the evidence suggests they will--they'll be an inexpensive tool in a kit of badly needed cycling safety improvements.

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Yep they're great and we do have a lot over here in the UK but they're not painted bright colours like the one in the photo so car drivers often stray into them. Make them obvious and the drivers will stay out.

Posted by: Scatter on 7 Jan 08

They're absolutely invaluable here in Edinburgh. Even so, it would be helpful if they came with a large curb or series of spikes to keep the taxis out - I doubt a bright colour would be enough!

Posted by: Dave Morris on 7 Jan 08

Any specific examples of their use in Canada? I've never actually seen one, so I'm just curious. Perhaps in Vancouver..?

Posted by: Wes on 7 Jan 08

These are relatively common -- and extremely useful and welcome -- here in Melbourne.

There are a couple of differences to that picture (quite apart from being on the other side of the road :). Of course it depends on the layout of the specific intersection, but in general:
- they're rather shorter, typically a single bike length
- they're usually out in front of both lanes. rather than using up the first car spot behind the line; so in the picture, the white car would be level with the silver one, and the cyclist just a little ahead (in the unpainted area).
- they're not usually coloured, though some bike lanes are and this is becoming more common as an additional treatment where problem areas are identified.
- they're often in the centre lane, rather than the outer lane as in the picture here, especially where the left lane is only for left turns. This allows left-turning cars through without being blocked by cyclists waiting at the red to go straight. Here, we don't have the default "left turn on red after stopping" rule, but there are often green arrows.

Whatever the specifics and details, they're an invaluable addition that help to ensure cyclists are anticipated and seen, rather than squeezed out (often unintentionally) as lights go green. One enhancement I wish we did have, at least at some intersections, is green for bikes that changed a few seconds earlier than for the cars.

My daily commute is mostly on bike paths, not roads, but I'm surprised by the figure of cyclists running red lights. Some small intersections, maybe its more common, but it's not something I see nearly that often. I wonder what/where they're counting, exactly.

Posted by: uep on 7 Jan 08

The photo at the top of the page is of a bike box here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

It's probably the only full-fledged bike box in Victoria, however...

Posted by: Brian on 7 Jan 08

In theory this sounds like a good idea, but it might not work well everywhere. I live near a large city on the East coast of the USA. There's one intersection I pass through frequently in which the entire right-hand lane is marked as a bicycle lane. As there is no parking near the intersection, there is enough room for a car to stop in the bicycle lane at the intersection. The result is that if a driver stops in the left-hand lane at the traffic light, then tries to turn right, he/she often has a near-miss because some other driver has ignored the bicycle lane, and is using it as his/her personal means of cutting in front of other cars. If a driver should try to stop in the right-hand lane just where the bicycle lane starts, he/she will be subject to horn-honking, verbal abuse, or worse. And to add insult to injury, it is rare in this area to see a bicyclist actually stop at a red traffic signal. I see perhaps one cyclist per year obey the signal.

Personally, I'd like to see some sort of physical barrier between the bicycle lanes and the automobile lanes. That would give all of us more protection from each other.

Posted by: J on 7 Jan 08

I live in a small town in Indiana that is frequently compared to Portland. Here, if a biker is along side a car, it is the biker's responsibility to get out of the way, as bikers are under the same laws as cars (as they should be; all vehicles on the road should abide by the same laws). So, if you ride to the right of a car which turns, you will be hit and possibly sued to repair any damage on the car, the same way that if a car passing a biker were to hit that biker the driver of the car would, as a legal consequence, pay the medical bills.

These bike boxes in Portland sound like a lot of BS. First, you have bikers slowing the flow of traffic by being in front of the cars AND riding many abreast, compounding the danger to both parties.

With all this in mind, how are these helping?

Posted by: Jordan T-H on 7 Jan 08

They have these in Berlin too. The car drivers have a strategy to prevent cyclists getting into them. They stop close to the curb and close together before the bike box so that bikes have to go onto the footpath to reach the box or wait in the exhaust fumes. Some race past you to get into this position. "Humans are an obstacle to traffic". But when you get into the box it is a real advantage. The air is better and the bike lights and pedestrian lights change before the car lights so you get to go first before the cars turn in front of you.

Posted by: neil on 8 Jan 08

They have bike boxes in Vancouver. I can only think of one on the Adanac bike route at Union and Main, but I can vaguely remember a few others too.

Posted by: Chris on 8 Jan 08

There are a couple bike boxes in San Francisco. They are used here to help cyclists position themselves safely as they prepare for a left turn.

Posted by: Mike on 8 Jan 08


I'm wondering if you have a map or listing of streets where these bike boxes are in NYC. I live in Brooklyn and bike to most places. While we do have bike lanes -- few, but better than none -- I have not seen anything like what is in the photo.

Hope this catches on in more places.


Posted by: Neelofer on 9 Jan 08

I can't help but respond to Jordan T-H because I think is misunderstands the concept of all vehicles on the road abiding by the same laws when he states that if you ride to the right of a car which turns, you will be hit and at fault. I ask the question whether, if you are driving in a car in the outside lane of a four lane road (two lanes in each direction) and the car next to you in the left lane decides to turn across your lane to turn right, would you be at fault? Of course not. The car turning right needs to be in the outside lane to legally make a right turn and if he crosses you and hits you, he is at fault. The same concept applies to a bike lane because remember, "all vehicles on the road should abide by the same laws." If a car turns right and hits a cyclist in the bike lane who is trying to go straight, the car is at fault for not yielding to the cyclist. Of course, regardless of where the fault lies, we know who will walk away from that collision and who likely will not as evidenced by the two cyclist in Portland who were killed in such collisions.

Posted by: Wes on 9 Jan 08

As a San Francisco driver, I have to echo one above comment. I am all for any ideas that improve road-sharing between cyclists and drivers--but the bicycle box seems completely useless when cyclists don't bother to stop at red lights.

Posted by: crankin on 10 Jan 08

When I started reading this I was going YEA!!!! What a great idea that wouldn't be too hard to exercise....then I read the comment from the San Francisco post.
I DO get upset with bicyclist that choose to be a pedestrian at one traffic signal or crosswalk, while deciding to be a "vehicle" at the next.
How do we remedy that?
sincerely, Jimmie Beardsley

Posted by: Jimmie Beardsley on 25 Jan 08



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