Get in the box

Bike boxes help riders navigate busy intersections

A group of bicyclists wait in the bike box at the intersection of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and East Park Avenue.

A group of bicyclists wait in the bike box at the intersection of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and East Park Avenue.

Photo By kyle emery

Contrary to how it may sound, a bike box isn’t something to store your ride in. It’s a safety feature for riders, allowing them better visibility in intersections.

Chico’s first bike box went in recently at the south end of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, where it intersects with East Park Avenue. There, at the front of the outer left-hand-turn lane, is the outline of a box, with a symbol of a bike inside. Being the first of its kind in Chico and well away from areas of heavy bike traffic, many motorists and cyclists likely don’t recognize what it’s for.

Bike boxes are intended to serve several purposes. They allow cyclists to move to the front of traffic waiting at a red light, making them more visible and giving them a jump start. They also help prevent the “right hook” collision—where a motorist turning right collides with a cyclist moving straight through an intersection—that accounts for nearly 5 percent of all bike crashes, according to a report compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Chico, any feature that gives bicyclists a leg up on safety is a good thing, especially when it comes to dodging vehicles.

“I ride enough to experience some pretty rude behavior from motorists where they cut you off,” said Steve O’Bryan, owner of Pullins Cyclery. “I ride fairly fast, around 17 mph, and somebody will accelerate to go past you and immediately turn right into an intersection or driveway. If they had just waited for a fraction of a second, I would have cleared the intersection and it wouldn’t have been any problem at all.”

Brian Mickelson, a city traffic engineer, said similar bike boxes could start appearing at intersections all over Chico.

“As projects go in, we evaluate every intersection for multi-modal transportation, so bikes are included in whatever treatments would best enhance the intersections,” he said. “We’re always making improvements to enhance bicycling. Of course, [bikes] are still the minority to cars on the roadways, but we design all of our roads for bikes and for vehicles.”

For O’Bryan, some of the intersections that could greatly benefit from the construction of a bike box include the corners of Cohasset Road and Mangrove Avenue and Second and Main streets, both of which have heavy bike and vehicle traffic.

“The boxes would be nice, because they give bikes a little space and anything that improves the safety of cyclists is a good thing. Plus, it better defines where we’re supposed to be to avoid conflict with cars,” he said. “It would be convenient because a lot of the time you look pretty stupid waiting through several cycles of a stoplight.”

Bike boxes have been employed in Europe and Asia for decades, just catching on in bigger U.S. cities in recent years.

“There are cities like Portland that use them frequently, and the reaction seems generally favorable amongst cyclists,” said Mickelson.

There, many of the bike boxes are embellished, colored green with white bordering and large signage signaling vehicles to “wait here.”

Mickelson does foresee potential problems—most obviously, motorists and cyclists unfamiliar with the system won’t know what bike boxes are. If they work the boxes into road construction projects downtown, which Mickelson says will be considered on a case-by-case basis, the city will release an advertising campaign illustrating proper bike-box procedure.

As a bike shop owner, O’Bryan sees a trend toward using bikes as a primary mode of transportation, making the city’s street plans even more important.

“I was born in Chico, and it’s always been a good bike-riding town, but now with the economic situation, the price of gas and how the city is committed to nice bike facilities, more and more people are moving in that direction,” he said.