Monday, January 14, 2008

Thinking Outside the Boxes

There’s been a fair bit of discussion on the ABC forums and several of the other bike message boards about the initiative in Portland, OR to establish “bike boxes” at a number of intersections where cyclists have been killed, injured, or made to soil their chamois by motorists who fail to yield the right-of-way as prescribed by existing traffic law. One of the other ABC members brought the issue up on the club forum, where I responded by mentioning that the issue was also being discussed on the LCI list server, where the opinions weren’t favorable, since these things encourage several unsafe practices by cyclists who would use them. After some remonstration by an ABC board member, I deleted my post and took a resolution to stay off the forums for awhile. However, most of the gist of my response, plus a few extra opinions, are still here.

Here’s the original article (1/4/2008) in the daily Oregonian:
And the New York Times coverage:

John Allen (LCI #77 and the author of Bicycling Street Smarts and a host of state bike manuals based on that pamphlet) expresses his thoughts on the bike boxes at .

And another view on the boxes here, with some interesting (and sometimes valid) comments:

This last one notes that bike boxes area direct transplant from European traffic design... because they work over there, they ought to work over here, too.

I drove and cycled over in Germany for a little more than six years in a previous life, and the "it ought to work here" concept ignores a major difference -- traffic principles, especially the concept of "right-of-way," are drastically different between Europe and North America. Here, the principle of right-of-way is based on "first come, first served;" absent a yield or stop sign, if you're the first person to the intersection, then you have the right-of-way. The European traffic rules are different, and the absolute principle there is that the vehicle farthest to the right has right-of-way, and with multiple vehicles at an intersection, right-of-way proceeds left-wise from there as the next rightmost vehicle take their turn. Also in Europe, it's drilled into all drivers' minds that all vehicles are equal on the roadways, whether they be a truck, a BMW 750i, a bicycle, or a farm tractor. Little kids over there learn traffic rules from kindergarten all the way up. If there's a kid on a tricycle waiting on your right, then he/she has right-of-way and there ain't no quibbling about it.

Likewise, most European communities don't have a right-on-red rule, which is universally taken for granted here in the States.

Placing the bike boxes where they are in North American traffic sends two messages that actually decrease cyclist safety rather than enhance it. First of all, it invites cyclists to "filter" forward past stopped traffic in order to get in line ahead of the cars. Probably the most important piece of advice in avoiding getting "right-hooked" is don't pass on the right. Cars already in the right-hand lane simply aren't expecting anybody to pass them on the right, and keep a notoriously poor lookout in that direction. (See Collision Type #3 (The Red Light of Death) and Type #5 (The Right Hook, Part 2) for a fuller discussion at

Filtering forward like this is also poor manners, since the motorists waiting at the light may have had to strive most impatiently to pass you way back down the road, and now they have to do that all over again, boosting their level of road rage against those "lawless cyclists." The right (and safe) thing to do is to take your place behind the cars, and wait your proper turn ("first come, first served").

And since a slower cyclist can be just arriving at the bike box when the light turns green, he/she can still be right-hooked by a right-turning motorist who was waiting at the light.

As described in the Times article, Oregon law already requires motorists to yield to bicyclists in the bike lane. But the ability to look in two directions at once can't be legislated. Many motor vehicles (especially high-cab trucks) have blind areas at the right side and front so that the motorist might only see a bicyclist overtaking on the right by keeping attention on the right-side rear view mirror. That diverts his attention from the intersection ahead. The motorist is given a much more difficult task, and the bicyclist is given a false sense of security. There's a sizable "No Zone" around big trucks and buses where both cyclists and pedestrians need to stay out of unless they have a death wish. This includes pulling up even with them on their right side, where they really can't see you and usually aren't looking for you. (Ronnie Clark was killed in exactly this manner up in Fayetteville last July when a tractor-trailer turning right-on-red ran over him in the crosswalk.)

What I've learned, both on the road and in the League courses, is to wait behind the vehicle in front of you at a stop light or stop sign, and then take your proper turn going thru the intersection, and this is what we teach in Road I and the other Bike Ed courses. And as noted above, passing stopped or slower moving vehicles on the right is a symptom of a latent death wish.

Bike lanes create about as many problems as they attempt to solve, especially at intersections, where motorists turn across them, and again, they encourage the cyclists to slip up on the right hand side where motorists usually aren't looking. In most cases, dedicated bike lanes will terminate some distance away from major intersections, like the ones on Rebsamen in LR, and on North Hills Blvd in NLR. This is a different approach to the bike box solution, where cyclists are expected to merge into the traffic lane and behave, well, like vehicles.

One of the surprises to many fellow bike advocates is the negative opinion of the boxes shared by many of the League instructors. How can we be so strongly against something that’s obviously so good for emphasizing the rights of cyclists on the road?

As Ed Wagner notes at CycleDog, in a large sense, we are not purely bicycle advocates. That’s mainly for manufacturers and businesses that exist to sell bicycles. LCIs are bicycling advocates engaged in an effort to educate cyclists, motorists, law enforcement, and public officials regarding the best practices that make cycling enjoyable and safe. This demands an approach that reviews what's effective. And, by and large, bike lanes have not been effective at providing real safety since the crash rates are essentially the same whether a bike lane is present or not.
Bike lanes have an undoubted psychological effect, because people believe they're safer.

However, the statistics don’t support this belief. Bike lanes make intersections more complicated. People fear being hit from behind, the one type of crash that bike lanes are supposed to prevent. Yet hit-from-behind crashes make up only about 10% of all bicycle/motor vehicle accidents, with 6% attributed to cyclists “swerving” in front of cars. Of the remaining 4%, about half result from a motorist not seeing a cyclist. These crashes are nearly always at night and involve a cyclist without reflectors or lights. The majority of bicycle/motor vehicle crashes, 85%, involve turning or crossing movements. Typically, that means intersections. In fact, the accident rate where bike lanes exist is 2.3 times greater than where there are no lanes at all. (Source - Effective Cycling by John Forester, and The Art of Urban Cycling by Robert Hurst), by the way, has a passionate thread going on concerning the effctiveness of separate bike lanes:{36EA5C91-D12A-425E-9769-04EAB123AD84}&numPost=all

Both cyclists and motorists regard the solid white line delineating a bike lane as a wall between their traffic lanes. Cyclists think that motorists will never cross it to the right, and motorists think cyclists will never cross it to the left. In reality, the painted stripe merely provides the illusion of safety. People will cross that line when necessary, and the danger is that the unprepared motorist or cyclist can be caught unaware.

The division between facilities advocates (bike lane supporters) and vehicular cyclists (who believe cyclists should act and be treated as merely another vehicle on the road) is a fundamental disagreement about human nature. In very broad strokes, on one hand you have one group that tries to influence behavior through engineering, paint, and concrete. The interstate highway system is an excellent example of this approach. On the other hand, you have a separate, sometimes overlapping group that tries to change behavior through education and training. Driver's Ed and the League's Bike Ed are examples of this approach. The first group strongly advocates the painting and establishment of bike lanes wherever there’s room; the others acknowledge that under the law, every lane is a bike lane, and that we should teach motorists and cyclists alike to share the available facilities.

Both BACA and the League play both sides of this fence, by advocating for bike paths wherever possible for those riders who simply will not venture out into the streets, and by providing educational courses, classes, and outreach for those who pursue the vehicular cycling principle and lobbying/litigating against those who would restrict cyclists’ rights and access to the public roads. It’s not being two-faced… It’s a simple realization that as cyclists we have the best of both worlds.

Cyclists are unique, because we are the only highway users that have a choice. We can follow drivers’ rules on the roadway, or step to the side of the curve and off the bike, and become pedestrians. And after a situation clears, we can check for a safe space in the traffic flow, hop back aboard, and pedal off again.

Yes, you and I fare better in traffic when treated as any other road user (for the most part), but the laws cannot assume that all riders are perfect cyclists. They have to take into account that there are just ordinary people who jump on a neighbor's bike from time to time. Furthermore, most people believe that since they learned to ride a bicycle in the fourth grade, they don't need bicycling education. That their knowledge hasn't progressed much since then just doesn't occur to them. Surprisingly, the most resistant group is composed of experienced cyclists.

Recent tragedies in Boise, Portland and Seattle, where cyclists were killed in the bike lanes, highlight the perfect storm of bad law, bad design, and bad choices on the part of both drivers and cyclists. It's truly sad that it takes some deaths to make cyclists, motorists, public officials, and law enforcement re-think the issues regarding bicycle lanes and question the initial assumptions that lead to their implementation.

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