The Center for Transportation Research at UT Austin recently published a report on bicycle boxes. The study was prepared for the City of Austin Bicycle Division. Bike Portland recently posted about this report and another by Portland State University. Both reports conclude that bicycle boxes are effective in improving cyclist safety. I haven’t read the PSU report but I recently finished the CTR Austin study. I’m not sure I buy the conclusions.
In their executive summary, the CTR authors cite the following as definitions of “safety.”
- bicyclist used the bicycle lane to approach the intersection
- bicyclist used the bicycle box after installation
- motorists did not encroach on the stop line or bicycle box
- bicyclist departed the intersection before the motorist
- bicyclist did not make an illegal movement, such as running a red light
I’ll give you illegal movement and encroachment by motorists. But the others are subject to debate and if they are not completely valid, then the reason for designing and installing bicycle boxes is suspect.
The concept, as I understand it, is to prevent conflicts between cyclists going straight at an intersection and motorists trying to turn right. The idea is that the box allows a cyclist to position themselves in front of a car waiting at the stop light. This allows the cyclist to depart the intersection first and prevents a right hook manuever. Additionally, the proponents seem to focus on a need to get the cyclist across the intersection and back into the “safety” of a bike lane on the other side.
A couple of problems with this idea. It’s fine if the cyclist is the first to the intersection. But if a car is first to the intersection and waiting on a light, allowing the cyclist to move to the front is violating a basic traffic principle of right of way. In addition, if there is insufficient space in the front part of the box, you are encouraging (requiring) other cyclists to remain in the bike lane to the right side. This places them in conflict with right turning cars, unless the cars wait for all cyclists to clear the box before proceeding.
The bicycle box is unnecessary. If the cyclist moves out of the bike lane as they approach the intersection and queue up with traffic waiting at the light they do two things. One, they communicate that they are intending to travel straight. They avoid conflicts with right turning cars. A motorist trying to turn right from behind the cyclist has to wait for the cyclist and is physically prevented from doing a “right hook.” If the cyclist is the first in the intersection, then an extreme left hand position in the lane allows motorist to execute a right on red if that is allowed. If the lane is too narrow, then motorists must wait just as they would for another car in front of them.
Shoal Creek and Anderson Lane
I also have specific issues with the study authors on their conclusions about this intersection. They seemed very concerned about allowing bicycles to cross the intersection first. There is no marked bike lane on Shoal Creek south of Anderson Lane until you get past Foster Lane. Again, they begin from the position that a bike lane is safer than proper lane positioning. But they take this position about this particular intersection in isolation. First problem is that even if there was a bike lane on the other side, a cyclist in that lane would have conflicts with the traffic trying to get into the parking lots to the right.
Second, most cyclists on this section of road have a destination in mind and that is continuing down Shoal Creek. As you approach Foster, the right lane becomes right turn only.
A safer way to negotiate this intersection is to take the lane before Anderson, continue through and maintain control of the lane. This prevents right hooks at the intersection and in the various parking lots and business entrances south of Anderson Lane. This also allows the cyclist to begin maneuvering into the left lane as they approach Foster — this is the right most lane that serves their destination further south on Shoal Creek.
Change State Law?
First problem with bicycle boxes is that they are not recognized by traffic laws. Bicycles do not have default right of way at an intersection. Their right of way is currently based on sequence in that intersection.
Second, how are we going to train people to use these? Not just talking about cyclists. Motorists will also have obligations. How is the driving public going to be educated on this new facility if it gains official sanction. Witness the sad implementation of Austin’s 3 foot passing ordinance. Many users of the road are still oblivious to the rule. In addition, many are confused about what it really means, including many cyclists.
Without very aggressive education and enforcement the bicycle box will only serve to confuse both motorists and cyclists alike. They are unnecessary facilities that will in fact lead to more conflict, not less.