The caption with the picture below in the Starts and Stops column of the Metro section of the June 17, 2012 Boston Globe reads:
Cyclists stopped for a red light in the “bike box” on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. They provide the cyclist a safe space to wait ahead of cars at traffic signals.
(The Globe story may be behind a paywall, but you can probably access it through a public library’s Web site using your library card number.)
The smiling cyclists show that this is a posed photo; the photographer evidently only thought of the large puddle in the foreground as an artistic touch. How about the car encroaching into the bike box in the background?
Well, yes, OK, waiting in the bike box might be safe — drivers are unlikely to encroach on a cyclist who is already waiting in the bike box. The problem is with getting into the bike box. The Globe columnist, Eric Moskowitz, never considered that bicyclists approaching the bike box on a red light are encouraged to swerve sharply left across multiple lanes of motor vehicles, with no way to know when the light will turn green. A waiting motorist will not see the swerving cyclist if looking to the left for traffic at the wrong moment. A tall vehicle in one lane will conceal the cyclist from a driver waiting in the next lane.
Portland, Oregon has hosted a study of bike boxes, which found that this is actually a rare problem in Portland, because cyclists are smart enough not to swerve into the bike box. Instead, if the light is red, they wait at the right curb, blocking other cyclists behind them. I saw the same thing on Commonwealth Avenue. As I said before, the Globe photo is posed.
But on the green light, there’s another problem. Bike boxes and the bike lanes which lead to them invite cyclists to overtake waiting motor vehicles on the right, risking getting struck by a right-turning vehicle. A bicyclist was right-hooked and killed in Portland, Oregon, on May 16, 2012 but apparently that news didn’t reach the Globe’s columnist, or didn’t make an impression on him. Now a letter from the City of Portland is conceding that car-bike crashes have increased at some of the intersections where bike boxes were installed. So much for the Globe’s assertion of safety.
Conscientious bicycling advocates have been warning about the “right hook” problem for decades, based on the difficulty which motorists have in looking into their right rear blindspot, while also checking the intersection ahead.
Swerving across is illegal too: here’s the Massachusetts law, in Chapter 89, Section 4A. It applies to bicyclists, the same as other drivers. Every state has a similar law.
When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.
Bicycling advocates, planners and government officials who promote bike boxes have simply chosen to pretend that this traffic law doesn’t exist, or can be ignored. Same for the limits of human abilities.
Now, I wouldn’t be fair in making this criticism if I didn’t suggest alternatives.
The one I favor is for cyclists to merge before reaching the intersection. That can be facilitated by signal timing at the previous intersection to allow cyclists to merge across when motor traffic is stopped, and a clear lane into which to merge.
Other suggestions have been to prohibit right turns, or to install special signals to warn cyclists that the light is about to change. Denver’s retired bicycle coordinator, James Mackay, has described some of the measures used in European cities.
These measures will, however, result in more delay, for both cyclists and motorists.
It may be more practical just to designate another street as the one for through bicycle traffic, My favorite suggestion at this Back Bay location would be Newbury street, configured as a two-way bicycle boulevard with a bridge over the Muddy River to connect it with the Fenway area.