Month: August 2016

Bike Box

You’ve got to be kidding me

Yesterday, Streetsblog posted a wonderfully toolish video titled “Portland (Green) Bike Box!” Edited by a Clarence Eckerson, Jr., the video features a self-satisfied horde of middle-aged bicyclists chanting …

Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box!

… while Mr. Eckerson hops around like some kind of bizarro boxer. If you haven’t seen the video already, click on this link immediately. You will not be disappointed.

Problem is that Mr. Eckerson, in typical Streetsblog fashion, doesn’t explain how bike boxes accomplish anything more than inducing bicyclists to chant …

Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box!

… and since the video assumes that you, the viewer, already know what the hell a bike box is and why it’s important, some basic questions arise.

For example, Mr. Eckerson announces, “As you can see, bike boxes help people get right through the intersections,” while pointing to a bicyclist who pedals right through the intersection without ever entering the bike box.


Eckerson: “As you can see, bike boxes help people get right through the intersections.” Huh?

This is quite confusing to the non-Streetsblogger. Is the little green strip in the middle of the intersection that the bike is crossing also a bike box? By that logic, the entire bike lane is a bike box.

Bewildered, I searched Google and found a slick, expensive-looking, taxpayer-funded marketing document produced by Portland’s Office of Transportation, titled “Get Behind It: The Bike Box.” It explains what a bike box is, what it’s meant to accomplish, and why we should care.

The “bike box,” as it exists in Portland, is a small green square located in the right hand automobile lane just before a stop light. When the light turns yellow or red, bikes are allowed to move into the bike box. Cars must stop at the white line behind the bike box when the light is yellow or red. They’re not allowed to turn right on red when a bike is present.

The main goal is to prevent collisions between motorists turning right and cyclists going straight. It’s all about visibility and awareness. At a red light, cyclists are more visible to motorists by being in front of them. At a green light, the green bike lane through the intersection reminds motorists and cyclists to watch for each other.

So the purpose of the bike box is to prevent “right hook collisions” at red lights.


This means that a bike box in the right hand automobile lane is only relevant when both a car and bike stop at a yellow or red light – the only time a bike is allowed to move into the bike box. The idea is that the driver sees the bike in front of him and this reduces the risk of him running over the bicyclist if he makes a right turn.

The question therefore is: What percentage of right-turn accidents occur directly after the light turns green, i.e. when the bike goes straight and the driver hooks right?

Logic instructs us that the percentage is probably very small.

A bike is much smaller than a car, and when it stops at a light it is generally flush with the front end of the car next to it. This means that, from the driver’s perspective, the bike is positioned at about 2 o’clock. Unless his vehicle is so big that he has no visibility to the right, a driver can’t help but notice the bike. Moving 3 feet into the bike box doesn’t make much difference.

Also, how fast can a car accelerate while making a right turn? When the light turns green and the bike goes straight through the intersection, the driver would have to literally burn rubber while making the right turn in order to gain enough force to harm the bicyclist. Remember: Force = Mass times Acceleration. How often do drivers peel out while turning right? I’ve been driving in cities for 10 years, and I’ve never seen a car do this.

Compare this to the other right hand turn scenario, which is legitimately dangerous: A car and a bike approach the intersection at substantial speeds, the light remains green, the bike goes straight through the intersection at 20 mph, the car hooks right, the car slams into the bike. In this scenario, which logic tells us causes the greatest number of collisions, the bike box is completely irrelevant.

So if the bike box doesn’t address the core problem of right hand turns, what’s the purpose of it?

In January 2008, the New York Times reported that Portland planned to spend $150,000 on these bike boxes. Judging by the slick production quality of Portland’s “Get Behind It” marketing document, the city is tearing through that money. Other costs would include strategic planning, resource allocation, implementation, advertising, metrics collection, and administrative overhead.

Does Portland have any evidence that these new bike boxes are worth the $150,000 investment? Or is this really about acting on impulse and hoping for the best?

Bike Lanes – Safe or Not?

The Washington Post Express ran an article about bicycle safety. This article comes on the heels of a tragic traffic accident that claimed the life of a young woman on a bicycle.

The article makes the case that as more people begin to ride bikes in the wake of the gas crunch, the rules of the road for cyclists will become more critical. It focuses on the use of bike lanes, and interviews the president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, Allen Muchnick.

Bike lanes, says Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, aren’t always the safest place to be. For one thing, a carelessly opened car door can fell even the savviest biker.

Muchnick, who teaches Confident City Cycling classes for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (, is not always a fan [of bike lanes] — ride on or close to the outer line if you must use them, he says.

I have to admit that, as an occasional cyclist, I’m not convinced that bike lanes are safe. The best lanes completely separate auto traffic from bikes and pedestrians – the George Washington Parkway for example. Lanes that are integrated into the road have always seemed dangerous to me, and though I use them, it’s always with a degree of caution.

The problem with these lanes is that there’s really no good place to put them. They’re either sandwiched between the traffic and parked cars, which can get the cyclist doored or force them to swerve into traffic to avoid it, or they are on the left which lessens the dooring risk, but places cyclists closest to the fastest moving traffic. Both locations cause problems with turns and lead to the type of accident that claimed the life of Alice Swanson last week.

I have seen proposals to put the lanes on the opposite side of the parking lane – so that the road is structured as car lanes – parking – bike lanes – sidewalk. I haven’t actually ridden on a road like this, but I’m not sure this is a wise choice either because it makes it harder to see the bicyclist.

“There’s this mind-set in this country: If you bicycle in front of a motor vehicle, you’re going to get run over,” says Muchnick. “It’s nonsense. It’s the safest place to be. Especially in the cities, where traffic speeds are fairly comparable — in fact, most bicycles are faster than cars downtown.”

WABA executive director Eric Gilliland agrees but adds that [the bike lanes] still show “drivers that you should expect to see cyclists on this road.”

I actually agree with Mr. Gilliland on this point – visibility (along with the accompanying awareness) is the most certain way to prevent accidents. But I’m not convinced that bike lanes increase that visibility. Mr. Gilliland, advocates for bike lanes, but agrees that bike lanes should be taken with a grain of salt.

The important thing, says Gilliland, is for riders to look at those painted lines as guidelines, not barriers. When approaching intersections, a cyclist in the bike lane could end up in the blind spot of a right-turning vehicle. “We tell people to ride the safest way possible: If it’s out of the bike lane, it’s out of the bike lane.”

All of this makes me ask, why are the lanes necessary?

If the leaders of the local bicycle organizations acknowledge that the lanes don’t necessarily guarantee safety, or encourage safe riding practices, why build them?

If the real lesson for bicyclists is to ride in a defensive way on the road, make yourself visible and observe the normal traffic laws, why invest in bike lanes that may cause accidents?

I have seen studies that seem to show that bicycle lanes reduce accidents. The problem with many of the studies is that they set out to prove that bicycle lanes are safe, and don’t look at the addition of the lanes to the roads holistically. For instance – if lanes reduce the incidence of certain types of accidents, but increase the incidence of others – dooring or right hooks – the overall percentage may fall initially, but you could be making a devils bargain as more people are encouraged to ride by the new lanes.

The people on the roads before the lanes are implemented are typically the most experienced riders, so the lanes decrease the risk of their most common accidents, and the experienced riders have enough savvy to watch out for the other risks now imposed on them. But the newcomers are the ones who most need to have a healthy fear of the road and awareness of their vulnerabilities in order to survive, and they wouldn’t normally take the risks that experienced cyclists would take. Thus the accidents that bike lanes prevent may not be common for most new riders. The risk of accidents could simply be switching to different types that new riders may be more vulnerable to, and as their numbers increase, so could these accidents.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of bike lanes is that they encourage bicyclists to behave in a predictable way on the road. The failure to investigate this fully is a major shortcoming of the existing research into bicycle safety, and a reason that I have advocated for more bicycle safety research on this site.

There is a big difference between a bike lane preventing accidents because it makes cyclists more visible or alerts cars to share space, and preventing accidents because bicyclist behavior changes in a way that makes their actions more predictable.

I will admit, there are significant volumes of research on the subject, and I haven’t been able to digest all of them, but thus far, none of the studies I have found have looked at distinctions like this; they stop at the correlation between bike lanes and decreased accidents without actually arriving at true causation.

Understanding the true causes of accidents, or their avoidance, is important because as more people ride, the chances for new types of accidents that bike lanes may amplify increase. We need to truly assess this risk before encouraging people to ride in the bike lanes, which to an inexperienced rider may imply a false security. We also need to understand that if safety is the main objective, which it should be, then we should focus on the most effective way to ensure it. If that turns out to be bike lanes, build more, if it turns out to be bicyclist education on rules of the road, then we need a paradigm shift in the way we view bicycle safety.

Paul DeMaio, bicycle promotions and car-sharing manager at the Arlington Division of Transportation

is not concerned that the coming surge in cycling will mean more accidents. “With more cyclists on the streets, it will make motorists even more aware of them.” He cites a July 2008 Rutgers University study that showed cities and countries with higher percentages of cyclists on the road had lower fatality rates overall.

I searched but could not find the Rutgers study that Mr. DeMaio discusses. This statement seems to run counter to a recent New York City study that found that the city had a higher rate of accidents than the nation as a whole despite being a bike-friendly city. The study also didn’t show a decline in bike fatalities despite the city doubling its bike lane mileage. It is obvious that different people are arriving at different conclusions, which should be our cue to engage in further research.

When it comes to cycling in traffic, says Muchnick, “If you’ve got a driver’s license, you know how to operate a bicycle properly.”

Exactly. That doesn’t involve bike lanes, and could begin saving lives now.

Why So Much Bike Hate?

Plenty of angry cyclists are quick to point out perceived persecution, but you don’t often hear a cyclist take the opposite point of view – that of a rational person who understands the shared responsibilities of the roads and many encourage responsible cycling to get the best commute by bicycle.

On our site, we get labeled everything from bike-haters to car apologists to buffoons for pointing to basic common sense arguments explaining why everything that the bike community advocates should not be taken at face value. Oftentimes, these arguments incorporate pro-bicycle ideas that are undermined by the social irresponsibility of cyclists and their demands. These cyclists may be a minority in their community, but they are by far the most vocal and visible. In their hurry to decry us for speaking truth to the establishment, it tends to go overlooked that two of us are actually cyclists.

In response to the question – why so much hate? – one commenter, who happens to be a cyclist, offered one of the best summaries of the flip side from a cyclist’s perspective that I have ever seen.

This deserves to be quoted at length:

Richard Conroy:
Disclaimer: I’m an avid, lifelong cyclist, daily bike commuter year round (about 100 miles a week), & bike tourist. I work for a bike organization & am a cycling instructor. The reasons why cyclists are so poorly regarded are not hard to understand. This is what I’ve observed about the cycling community, and why I think we invite trouble on ourselves.

In a nutshell, many cyclists want to have it both ways in terms of road safety. They want drivers & pedestrians to act courteously & legally, but many, many cyclists don’t want to act that way themselves. The double standard is glaring, and yes, the non-cycling world notices it. The various blogs, message boards, bike fora, etc. are filled with cyclist stories about rude & dangerous drivers. There are a number of committed cyclists who believe & openly say that cycling on the roads is dangerous. So there’s a lot of finger pointing at others. But on these same message boards, when the topic turns to rude cyclists, obeying the law, stopping at red lights, there is a split in the cycling community. Many cyclists will espouse a “share the road, same roads, same rights, same rules” ethic. Many, many others, however, think it’s ok to blow off the rules, and resent “being told what to do” by other cyclists (note: it’s the state legislature telling you what to do, not other cyclists!).

Even prominent local bike organizations have gotten into the act. One local bike organization can be heard in the press frequently lamenting how dangerous the streets are, that the streets need a better design, yadda yadda (if cycling is so dangerous–why do it? is one obvious question that comes to mind). Yet I know many of the staff of this organization think it’s OK to ride against traffic, ignore traffic signals, & ride on the sidewalk. Sure, their publications urge cycling safely & courteously, but there’s been too many statements from them in the press that preaches a diametrically opposite message. Then we get a prominent local blog, which has twice in the past year, published articles suggesting that traffic law should be amended to allow cyclists to run stop signs & red lights, allowing cyclist behavior that is less predictable, and less in sync with the rest of traffic.

Critical Mass is another case in point, and a glaring example of a supposed bike promotion movement with no leadership, no goals, and no coherent strategy, where the lowest common denominator sets the tone. Some of these people need to study some Gandhi, to understand when law-breaking can be an important part of a social movement, and when it’s just plain mindlessly stupid. “Be the change you want to see in this world” is one statement that seems to be completely lost on the Critical Massers.

In the end, instead of wallowing in self pity, lamenting why cyclists are singled out, maybe the cycling community needs to take a look at itself. Instead of complaining about how dangerous the streets are, let’s talk about what cyclists can do to make themselves safer (thereby making the streets safer as well). Instead of asking for special exemptions from traffic law, lets ask how traffic law can be molded so that riding on the streets seems less scary, and that both cyclists and drivers are accountable for road safety.

The beauty of cycling is its freedom & independence. But freedom also needs to be tempered by self-discipline, and much of the cycling community, especially critical mass, has completely failed to exercise that. Here’s a basic rule of politics: if you don’t control yourself, somebody else–mainly the government–will do it for you, often in a manner that you don’t like.

Amen. Notice how many of those same arguments have been made on this site? (Hint – Every single one of them.)

As of today, no other commenter has agreed with this comment, or even acknowledged it yet.