American Traffic Engineering Establishment Finally Approves Bike Boxes

Bike boxes are going to become part of the standard street design guidance. Photo: NACTO
Bike boxes are on their way toward becoming a standard street design measure. Photo: NACTO

The wheels of change grind slowly at the institutions that guide the American traffic engineering establishment, but they are moving forward.

This week, U.S. DOT issued interim approval for bike boxes [PDF], a treatment that positions cyclists ahead of cars at intersections.

Dozens of American cities currently use bike boxes — some for the better part of the past decade — and the federal government is now satisfied enough by the results to conclude that they lead to “reductions in conflicts between bikes and turning drivers” and less crosswalk encroachment by both drivers and cyclists.

Cities installing bike boxes will still have to submit a request for “interim approval” to the Federal Highway Administration until a final rule is adopted, but now bike boxes will be perceived as less risky by transportation engineers.

The committee responsible for approving new bike infrastructure treatments for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommended approval of bike boxes nearly three years ago. The same group has been dragging its feet on protected bike lanes, a key obstacle to their widespread installation.

  • RobMF

    Bike boxes are great in theory, but meaningless in reality; at least here in DC. Motorists ignore them, and pull all the way up to (or into) the crosswalk. Until that changes (and I really hope it does), bike boxes are a bit of a waste of paint.

  • Brad Aaron

    The same federal government that takes years to sign off on proven safety measures like this one allows carmakers to use the country as a living laboratory for all kinds of untested technology, like infotainment systems and “autonomous” driving.

    And they wonder why people are dying.

  • Unfortunately, this approval doesn’t come with an instruction manual for use, which will NOT be good at all as most engineers are unfamiliar with them. Bike boxes only have a very limited scope of usefulness: situations where a major bikeway on a low (motor) traffic street crosses a high traffic street. The optimal use is a location where a local street or perhaps lower-trafficked collector crosses an arterial, especially if said street hosts a bikeway (such as this example: https://www.google.com/maps/@52.0829622,5.1557827,3a,75y,125.62h,74.69t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1srPjS9FDAvWSM2nMahGPmtA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656). In those instances, green times may get as low as two or three seconds. That’s hardly enough time for a stack of bicyclists to clear an intersection if they’re single-file (or two-by-two) in a bike lane, but it’s much easier for them to do so when they all congregate at the line and the bike box also provides a simple way for green time differentiation. However, installations such as pictured above are far more problematic and really should be avoided. Traffic counts tend to be higher and using them as a means to facilitate bicyclists crossing (multiple!) through lanes to reach a left turn lane should instead use two-stage left turns for those who don’t want to merge with traffic.

  • xplosneer

    Education and more bike boxes, then?

  • Jason

    I think a related problem is that curbside parking often makes it impossible for drivers to have enough visibility to determine whether they can safely turn without pulling into the crosswalk. A combination of eliminating curbside parking (especially on wider, faster-moving streets) and banning a lot of currently-legal left turns would make things a LOT safer for everyone. I’m reluctant to put this one on drivers considering that poor road design is basically forcing them into it.

  • PFT Future

    Jason, I agree road design leaves a lot to be desired in term of control speeds; it really shouldn’t affect a drivers ability to properly stop at an intersection. In general terms, a vehicle is always supposed to come to a complete stop before the limit line (on a red light), once they determine it is clear then they can proceed to make a right turn. If the light is green the bike box really doesn’t come into use and motors marking right turns still have to proceed with caution as pedestrian traffic could still be in the crosswalk. There is by no means road design that forces a driver to proceed into the intersection before it is safe to proceed, they may be speeding or driving poorly but intersection design is not to blame for drivers doing a poor job complying to existing regulations when proceeding at a controlled intersection.

    Curbside parking or not there is no slight line issues for motorist at intersections with bike boxes. The intersections with bike boxes are signalized and in all cases prohibit right turns (unless it is a two-stage bike box or another type of experiment not covered by this interim approval). Additionally, because of the lead-in bike lane or because cause geometry curbside parking would be dropped as one approaches the intersection.

    I think education, as stated below, and enforcement are key for new treatments to have any real effects as bike boxes do not have protective infrastructure rather just paint on a road which is dependent on compliance to regulations.

  • Jason

    I’m not really sure you read 100% of what I said. I’ve seen plenty of intersections where it’s literally impossible, even making a right turn, to be able to determine whether it’s safe to make the turn without first pulling forward (potentially into the crosswalk). Curbside parking absolutely creates line of sight issues for drivers.

    However if bike boxes are only to be used at intersections controlled by traffic lights then yes, I did miss that and it would seem to largely moot my point here.

  • Vooch

    I despise bike boxes

  • PFT Future

    I read what you said but made a mistake as I thought you were referring back the original post which talked about the how bike boxes work in theory but that DC drivers or drivers in general ignore them.

    Sorry for the confusion, and you are 100% right that intersection design needs to be modified to require day-lighting at corners to improve sight lines or implementation of an extended curb to help ensure pedestrians are viable to drivers.

  • Eric W

    Bike boxes serve another purpose beyond controlling intersection timing. The bikes may filter up to the front of the line of cars waiting for a light (here in Santa Monica they are all at lights. ) This make the cyclists much, much more visible to the motorists as the line of vehicles proceeds, even if the bike lane doesn’t. It’s a visibility effect here. Of course your milage may vary…

  • Frank Kotter

    Education: ‘Whathefuckyoudoing?’
    Continuing Education: ‘HoodSlap’

  • Frank Kotter

    This is fantastic that it has finally happened. I feel there is no better design device to consequently place cyclists in a bit more respected position as a road user. The action of being overtaken by cyclists who then queue in front of you you while driving – and this being encouraged by law and design – really knocks the hierarchy around. Yes, motorists will freak out but please, stay calm, explain nicely, and use the bike box with confidence and poise. When people freak out, just point at the green ground below.

    I have noticed since their inception in road design in Europe that the ‘crazy Ivan pass’ just to move up a spot at a the next light gradually is reduced as drivers realize how fruitless it is. Also, the right hook is reduced as drivers are confronted by many more cyclists coming up the right side at lights and are reminded that they are lawful doing so.

  • midringrider

    Here in Munich there is no problem with visibility for right turns on a red light. They are for the most part not allowed. With the pictured bike box it looks like there is a right turn pocket so the turn would/could be allowed, but with traffic blocking the lane, bikes in the box, there should be no expectation of making a right turn. Another feature here is the traffic lights are on the near side of the street so if you pull way up you can’t see them.

  • Guest

    Kinda like “American Traffic Engineering Establishment Finally Upgrades to Windows 98”

  • Tricia Kovacs

    FHWA asked for comments regarding bike boxes and two stage turn queues last year. I hoped they would approve the two stage turn queue rather than the bike box. Sadly, Kathryn Rickson couldn’t comment.

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