Monday, July 1, 2013

Indianapolis Adopts "Bike Boxes" That Have Proven to Make Bicycling More Dangerous

The city is beginning to unveil its newest and possible dumbest idea yet to make commuting by bicycle less safe: bike boxes.

Imagine cars stopped at a light. Bike boxes are an area ahead of the stopped cars.  A bicyclist approach the line of the stopped cars is supposed to go to the front of the line, to turn left, right or go straight.  One of the benefits is to make a left turn easier. The problem with that though is that as the slowest vehicle in the que, cars behind the bicyclist turning left might not get through the intersection before the light turns.

Bike boxes also supposed to fix the problem of right hooks, in which a car not seeing a bicyclist approaching cuts the bicyclist off.  By putting the bicyclist at the front of the line, he or she can execute the right hand turn without being cut off.

While the photos on the City of Indianapolis' bike box web page shows those boxes being used in conjunction with bike lanes, they don't have to be.  The blog Urban Indy, which supports anything the City does regarding bicycling, no matter how poorly thought out, notes that Indianapolis has installed a bike box at the intersection of Spring Mill Road and 73rd Street where there is no bike lane.

In October of 2012, the Portland's Traffic Engineer issued a report to the federal government that the number of vehicle-bicycle right turn crashes  had actually doubled since the bike boxes were put in.   The Portland Mercury reports on that report:
In the four years leading up the installation of the bike boxes, there were 16 right hook crashes at the problem intersections involving bikes. In the four years since their installation, the intersections had 32 right hook crashes involving bikes.

What appears to be leading to the new crashes in that people are biking through the intersection faster, overtaking cars that are turning right. While the bike boxes have been good at stopping right hooks when both the car and bike are starting up from being stopped at a light, 88 percent of the crashes happened at a "stale" green—not from a dead-stop but from a turning car striking a cyclist who's in motion, pedaling down the block and through a green-lit intersection. That's the kind of crash that killed Rickson this spring.

It's not clear exactly why the new type of crashes are occurring—it could be that the bike box's documented effect of increasing the "perception of safety" actually leads to people biking or driving less hesitantly through the intersection because they think they're in the clear.
One of the Portland right hand accident involved a fatality as a female bicyclist began passing a truck on the right hand side at a "stale green" light. The truck ran over the bicyclist and pinned her under the wheels at the back of the cab.

A Portland bicyclist wrote about problems with the bike boxes on his blog. He also provided the below video showing him getting cut off, which he said happened three times in a week. 

(Note: That Portland bike lane is incredibly dangerous in another way.  It is very narrow and runs right next to parked cars.  At any minute, a driver of one of those parked cars could open a door causing the the bicyclist to hit the car or swerve into traffic.  That is called "dooring" and is probably the most dangerous thing that an urban bicycle commuter can encounter.  You NEVER ride a bike right next to parked cars.)

Portland traffic engineer proposed changes to the bike box intersections to fix the dangerous bike box intersections.  The proposals did not include eliminating the bike boxes.   Rather those proposals included a redesign of the intersection by removing a through traffic lane or removing parking, prohibiting vehicle right turns, providing a separate traffic signal for the bicyclist, or provide traffic warning lights that are triggered by approaching bicyclists.  All the proposed fixes involve much more cost to the taxpayer and decreased convenience for the motoring public.

It should not be surprising that motorists have trouble seeing bicyclists, especially when the bicyclist is cutting through the driver's blind spot..  when a bicyclist is passing a slowed or stopped car at a light, it is quite possible that the motorist will never see the bicyclist as he or she turns the vehicle.  That's why bicyclists need to always be on guard, always vigilant, always proceeding with the assumption that the driver of the auto cannot see the bicyclist.  Too many times bike lanes and bike boxes have bicyclists doing things contrary to what is standard bicycling safety practices.  Perhaps worse is that bike lanes and bike boxes often cause bicyclists fall into the false sense of security that a line on the pavement will protect them from a collision with a several thousand pound vehicle.

Once again, the City of Indianapolis saw something, in this case bike boxes, that had failed in another city, and proceeded to adopt it anyway.  Make no mistake about it. Bike boxes are not about safety. They are about city officials pandering to members of the Indianapolis recreational bicycling community who are so thrilled that someone is finally paying attention to them.


Cato said...

Wow, what an absolutely idiotic, stupid, idea.

Why this pandering to lycra-clad leg-shavers in a snow-belt city?

If you want to ride a bicycle, that's why we built the Monon.

Downtown Indy said...

"What appears to be leading to the new crashes in that people are biking through the intersection faster, overtaking cars that are turning right. "

Green boxes do not eliminate the need for common sense.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Cato, I don't agree bicyclists should be confined to the Monon. I have an excellent route downtown that doesn't involve getting close to the Monon. But I don't purposefully put myself on roads where bicycling is dangerous.

Pete Boggs said...

This stuff's been complicated to the template tune of over-fed dollars; at the usual expense of credibility, common sense & private sector productivity.

Cyclists who've read their driver's manual understand that they have the same privileges & responsibilities as motorists.

"Sign-sign everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery..." Constitutionally speaking, the Simon of Simon Says is supposed to be the people; not blabber mouthing government.

indyredvelo said...

I think this is a great idea and a great location for a bike box. Let me explain.

First, there actually is a bike lane on 73rd street that runs to the bike box.

If I am turning left from 73rd to Spring Mill, the light is red and there is no bike box, I will leave the bike lane and jump in the car que slowing traffic until I reach the left turn lane.

If there is a bike box I move ahead of stopped traffic via bike lane and bike box and enter the turn lane in the bike box.
As far as slowing the auto que turning left, I can pedal from the turn lane through the intersection just as fast as a car can drive through. We are talking about crossing about 20 feet of pavement.

This is a great spot for the bike box because cyclists tend to use 75th street to cross Meridian. This will take bikes off the narrow higher speed 73rd street to Meridian lane.

The video depicts the Toyota ignoring the sign posted advising motorists to yield to bike traffic in the bike lane. Based on my experience riding bike lanes in Indy I would say 95% of drivers don't check their mirrors before driving through a bike lane. This is probably the biggest cause of the so called "failure" of bike box in Portland.

The bike boxes are certainly dangerous if you are trying to use them during green lights. They are intended for red lights only.

If cars use their signal, check their mirrors and cyclists use common sense and never assume the auto driver sees them, bike boxes can be a safe effective way to integrate autos and bikes.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Indyredvelo says:

"If cars use their signal, check their mirrors and cyclists use common sense and never assume the auto driver sees them, bike boxes can be a safe effective way to integrate autos and bikes."

The trouble is that "if" ignores the fact there will be a percent of drivers or bicyclists or both who will use the bike boxes in the wrong manner. All it takes is ONE time and the bicyclist gets hit or worse is killed as happened in Portland.

Instead of building a design that incorporates how people operate their cars, we build one thinking we can cause people to change their driving habits. The bike boxes have flopped in Portland, resulting in a doubling of right hook accidents. Yet Indy plows ahead anyway with this ill-thought out change.

Matt said...

You make a very good point in this post...Indy cycling advocates are indeed content with any bone that DPW throws at us, no matter how rotten it is. After being neglected for so long, we tend to be happy to receive any consideration at all. That needs to change.
Lets set aside for a moment whether a piece of cycling infrastructure is or is not safe...if your goal is to increase bicycle ridership it needs to FEEL safe. Most of Indy's bike lanes don't pass that test.
Last year Indy's bike share stood at about 0.6%. The national average is about 1%. The best the US has to offer are cities like Portland or Boulder, where it ranges from 6-10%. Best in the world is Copenhagen: 36%! The biggest factor in how they pulled this off? Their bike infrastructure is physically separated from auto traffic. It's so safe that you see grandmothers biking to the store, and you'll see parents schlepping their kids in cargo bikes to school...and you'll never see a single person wearing a helmet. My point: if our goal is to make cycling a truly viable transportation option, we'll never get there by slapping paint on the streets. Rather than repeating mistakes of the past, we should be learning from them and implementing best-practices.

Enna Nguyn said...

All good except tip number 6 doesn't make a lot of sense, perhaps more explanation needed.