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?