Bike Boxes Stoke Motorist Resentment in Seattle

Changes to the street often have a way of irritating people who were accustomed to the way things used to be, but sometimes it’s surprising how seemingly minor changes can set off an angry response. In Seattle, the city’s installation of bike boxes — painted street markings that let cyclists advance to the front of an intersection and make safer turns when red lights turn green — has prompted complaints from those who think the road belongs to the users with the most horsepower.

Bike boxes put cyclists in front of motorists at intersections, literally and figuratively -- to the indignation of some motorists. ##http://www.oregonlive.com/cycling/index.ssf/2008/03/bike_boxes_will_they_work.html##Oregon Live##

Erica C. Barnett of Network blog Publicola reports on her recent appearance on KOMO radio, where the subject of the segment was “the war on cars”:

Perhaps even more than “road diets,” which replace driving lanes with bike lanes and add a turn lane for cars, the bike boxes have brought out anti-bike, pro-car contingent, which argues that it’s unfair to make drivers wait for cyclists at red lights.

From the cyclist’s point of view, of course, this is an asinine argument. First, the primary point of bike boxes is to make cyclists more visible to drivers. When drivers hit cyclists—and yes, cyclists do frequently get hit in right-hook accidents by inattentive drivers—the inevitable refrain is, “I didn’t see her!” Bike boxes make drivers more likely to see us.

Second, cyclists already have the right to block cars in traffic. If I’m first at a traffic light, I’m allowed to take the lane—there’s no law obligating me to scoot over when a car comes up behind me, any more than a driver is required to pull out of the way to let a car behind him pass.

Third, and most importantly: It isn’t logically consistent to argue that cyclists should have to follow the rules of the road (AKA, act like a car) and that cyclists should have to get out of the way the instant a driver shows up on the scene. If you want me to ride on the right side, obey traffic laws, stop at stop lights, and stay off the sidewalk, it makes no sense to say I should move to the side—i.e., act like a pedestrian—the second I keep someone in a car from turning right.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Kaid Benfield at NRDC’s Switchboard takes a stand against massive urban demolitions in shrinking cities. The Rails to Trails Conservancy reports $580 million has been cut from bicycle and pedestrian projects nationally due to rescissions. And World Changing ponders the future of the city of Seattle from the perspective of sustainability.

  • Clarence

    In an associated tidbit, I was told that KING5 TV in Seattle showed parts of our Streetfilms educating bike riders how to use the new Bike Boxes.

  • googlyeyes

    Excellent breakdown of driver arguments. To me, the arguments behind the latest rounds of bicycle bashing don’t come down to logic, they come down to driver dominance. It is a “do as I say, not as I do” & a “might makes right” mentality, similar to the many other forms of domination in our society.

  • No surprises here – people in Seattle aren’t nearly as “progressive” (or whatever word you’d choose to use) than you think. Just because they’re not some rust belt city does NOT mean that people up there are all linking arms and singing the praises of ecotopia.

    People in Seattle do not like change and do not like progress. During the 1995 campaign to pass the original Sound Transit, people came out against any system that used rails to get around as the Tool of the Devil, and a surefire way to get “those people” into one’s neighborhood. Total bullshit, but it worked. The only time people want change up there is when there’s a billionaire’s stadium to be built.

  • Here’s the thing about bike boxes. For 99% of situations, they dont make sense.

    They were popularized in Portland for one key reason:

    Oregon is one of the few, if not the only state to require cars to turn ACROSS the bike lane, instead of merging into the bike lane to turn.

    This is very dangerous. Instead of changing that stupid law, theyve worked around it by creating the bike box.

    In the past, a car would be sitting at the light, trying to turn right (thus looking left) and a bike could be sitting to the right of them waiting to go straight. Then, when the car turns right, he doesnt see the bike and theres a collision.

    That doesnt happen if the car had to be in the bike lane (furthest right) to turn. In that case, the bike would be directly in front already, directly behind, or to the left of the car. Never to the right of right turning traffic.

    So the bike box was invented to put the cyclist in front of the car because Oregon law was putting the bikes on the right.

    For the rest of the country, where logically right turning traffic needs to be all the way to the right, this isnt an issue.

    The only situations where bike boxes are then useful are for anomalies. Like the DC example where a contraflow lane is used and bikes cross diagonally into a bike box to wait. Or in Boston, where a bike lane switches from the right side to the left side of the road, or in San Francisco, where the wiggle requires many left turns.

    Every other situation? Not needed, not really useful.

    It’s important to understand the unique (bad) situation in Portland before advocating for this treatment.

  • Mike

    Jass – what about bicyclist left turns? Why wouldn’t a bike box be useful for them?

  • At Scott and Oak (heading north on Scott), the bike box is good because it positions cyclists to proceed straight ahead into the bike lane in the center of the road (cars are on the right).

    At 14th and Folsom (headed east on 14th), the bike box is good for cyclists turning left onto Folsom.

    Those are the only two I can think of that I come across regularly… and they are 100% helpful!

  • I disagree with Jass’s comment #4 about bike boxes. I find they are useful in NYC in the few places where they are available.

    If you are riding your bicycle to the right of the road, it gives you the space at a red light to position yourself in the left lane to make a turn. If you want to continue going straight, you can’t be hooked because you are in front of the car that’s going to make the right turn, rather than sandwiched between it and the curb.

    Of course, the bike box isn’t useful in either scenario if when you reach the intersection the light is green.

    If I need to make a left turn onto or from a road with heavy traffic, and there isn’t a bike box (99% of cases), then I just use crosswalks and crosswalk signals until I can get my bike to the desired road in the correct position.

  • Zufechten

    In places where right on red is legal (most of the country), you could make the argument that bike boxes allow cyclists to get out of the way of motorists.

  • Mike, I mentioned left turns, like in the san francisco wiggle. The opposite of course is true, a left side bike lane for common right turns. Of course, this is only necessary if the turn is extremely common. For all other situations, changing lanes or using the pedestrian turn is fine, no bike box needed.

    Urbanis, new york requires cars turning right to do so all the way on the right, like almost every state. If you’re being sandwiched between a car turning right and the curb, someone is doing something illegal. If a car is there before you, indicating that it wants to turn right, then you need to wait behind it or use the lane to the left of it. If youre there first, then he needs to wait behind you. The whole point of merging into the bike lane is to avoid right hooks.

    Right hooks should only be a sad reality in states that have silly laws like Oregon or in situations where someone is making an illegal maneuver.

  • DudeSF

    I think they can rarely make sense, personally. I have no problem with the “first to the light gets to be first in line rule”. The problem i see with these boxes is that it breaks that rule. Bikes go to the front of the line regardless. And then, as the slower vehicle, they slow down everyone behind them… even if they got to the intersection first.

    is it wonder some drivers are resentful? it’s about fair play.

  • asha

    I *loved* it when bike boxes were introduced in London; found it so helpful to get a headstart on a turn, or go straight where there is also a large turn lane for cars/buses. With bike boxes the cyclist is given time to make very clear his/her intentions to the motorists. the attention shift that the motorist must make is crucial to increasing safety for the cyclist, i think.

  • asha

    @dudeSF: “it’s about fair play.”

    is it fair to let the three ton, exhaust-spewing behemoth get its way just because it can? i don’t get it.

  • Simon

    Overtaking stopped cars is one of the great advantages of riding a bike. It’s not unfair – it’s partly the point of riding a bike!

    Those who think it’s “unfair” or “jumping the queue” should apply the same logic to any overtaking, which is always a form of queue jumping because traffic is always a queue, even when it’s moving.

  • Kaja

    > And then, as the slower vehicle, they slow down everyone behind them… even if they got to the intersection first.

    Typically in NYC, bicycles traveling straight through an intersection can safely enter the intersection during the leading pedestrian interval. Stop at reds, use the bike box, and go on walk signs.

    I am typically up to 20mph by the time the cars behind me get the green light. This is the safest way to handle intersections; it’s unfortunate that it’s illegal. (We need the Idaho Stop.)

  • Bike boxes are a bad idea on bike lanes. Not because of their goal to make bicyclists more visible, which is absolutely right, but because this sends conflicting messages: a driver with a green light thinks s/he has the ABSOLUTE right of way and feels ENTITLED to move, no matter what. I understand, I was a driver , and as a pedestrian, I have exactly the same attitude, “its my turn .. get out of my way!”

    ON 34th Street at Dyer avenue, cars used to stop at a green light in order to yield to pedestrians and the cars behind them would honk constantly . After an LPI was installed, cars waited at the red light for 17 seconds more, with no honking.

    The best solution is dedicated time slices giving the drivers a “TRUE” green without obstruction.. the separated bike lanes on 9th Avenue are the right set up. Everyone gets their own dedicated slice. No negotiation.

    By walking away from the time slicing model, the DOT is letting bikes and cars fight it on the ground everyday. At intersections, the most dangerous places, the drivers are now told that they are not the top dog any longer, a powerful message to the type A population. NO wonder there is a backlash.

    30 seconds more of red light for bike to turn is a much clearer, subtler and safer way to get to the same result.

  • ChrisCo

    I’m glad Seattle is getting things like bike boxes. I never found Seattle to be too bike-friendly. They do have trails like Burke-Gilman (I think it’s called), but the streets, especially in and near downtown, leave a lot to be desired from a cycling perspective.

  • CBrinkman

    In SF on Market Street I would estimate that 90% of the right turns are made by car drivers from the wrong lane, i.e. not merging to the right into the dashed line bike lane. The bike box could help simply by making the space more organized. This is assuming that everyone, drivers and pedalers, would notice and comply. Mkt St could be a great test case for increasing road rules compliance. To see what it really would take to tame American drivers and pedalers. The 3 Es in action: engineering, education, and enforcement.

  • Paul Johnson

    The bike boxes are installed at locations throughout Portland that see a high level of bicycle traffic and have been accident prone in the past. Oregon is far from the only state that has right turning traffic crossing the bike lane, particularly in non-suburban areas. Left turns are supposed to be made from the same position as motorists (or from the bicycle lane if the bicycle lane is the leftmost lane), though there is an option for using the crosswalks around the outside of the turn instead. As a motorist, I’ve found improved flow for motor traffic at intersections with the bike box after people got used to it, especially considering there’s usually at least one lane bypassing the box if the few extra seconds matter that much.

  • dsfx

    I hate bikes on the road, you can make and change all the laws you want to try to protect them but the laws of physics state a big heavy fast car will win out over a small slow light bike any day. 

    Bikes need bike trails keep them off the road so people don’t get hurt. 

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