Nowadays more people are riding bikes more, and bicycle safety has become an urgent priority in cities across the country. One of the new ways that makes riding bikes on city streets safer are “Bike Boxes.”
Bike boxes make space at traffic lights to allow bike riders to position themselves in front of motorists when facing a red signal. Bike boxes allow bike riders to get to the front of traffic, make them more visible, help making left turns and avoid right hook-type crashes. The bike boxes can preclude motorists from turning right on red and hitting a bicyclist, and this can be communicated through signage.
Green Bike Boxes like shown above in Denver and Lakewood, Colorado were funded by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG as it is commonly known). DRCOG has a comprehensive plan for the Denver Metro Area that is based on the practices and guidelines from the MUTCD research as described below.
In addition to the bike boxes being painted all over the Denver Metro Area, I was recently asked a question in which Green Bike Boxes would be the answer or solution for the student’s question. Before the pandemic, I gave a Bike Law presentation to Bike Jeffco in Golden, Colorado. After that talk, Bike Jeffco’s Chairman Charlie Myers submitted the following question from a Ph.D. student at Colorado School of Mines on the legality of her riding maneuver:
“While biking to campus, I rode past a line of 3 cars to get to the front of the intersection at 6th and Heritage in Golden, Colorado so that I could be visible when I make my turn. The intersection of 6th and Heritage is a stressful intersection, since both Highway 6 and Heritage are busy roads, especially during commute hours. One morning, I did the same thing I always do (ride to the front of the intersection to be seen, and avoid breathing car exhaust fumes during the long light), and when the traffic signal turned green, the car behind me yelled ‘abide by the law, you stupid ***”!’ This exclamation was no doubt surprising and startling, but I wondered if it was justified.”
Our response to the student was that she was not making a legal maneuver at the intersection in question. However, if that intersection had Bike Boxes then she would be legally justified to filter or ride around the stopped cars or to ride over lane line. In most cases, lane filtering and lane splitting are not permitted in Colorado as bicycles need to follow the same rules as other motor vehicles unless there is an exception. Like many of the laws in Colorado, there are some exceptions. One such exception that we hope gets more widespread is the Colorado safety stop which has been adopted in a few places and we hope more to come. Another exception is when the Green Bike Boxes are present because that allows the bicyclist to filter to go around the parked cars in the green lane and go to the front of the intersection to be visible and then can take the lane if needed.
My advice would for the student bicyclist was to wait her turn in the line of cars rather than filtering through ahead of stopped cars. The student should make a the left turn like any other vehicle and then move as far right as is safe. In additions, the student bicyclist will talk to her local city official or city engineers to try and get a Green Bike Boxes installed where the need is present.
But, as always, enforcement is necessary to keep cars from obstructing them!
Bike Boxes and the MUTCD
When researching the background on Green Bicycle Boxes, we found that they are not specifically described in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). In fact, Bicycle Boxes have only been used in the United States only on an experimental basis through the MUTCD official experimentation process. MUTCD calls the Bicycle Boxes “intersection bicycle boxes” and categorizes them as a new traffic control device with many benefits for traffic control and safety. As many streets now have marked bicycle lanes, more traffic control is needed for bicyclists who ride on the right side of the lanes to go straight or turn left at on when approaching an intersection with a traffic light.
MUTCD explains that the Green Bicycle Box is a marked area on the approach to a signalized intersection, between an advance stop line and the intersection stop line, intended to provide bicycles a space in which to wait in front of stopped motor vehicles during the red signal phase so that they are more visible to motorists at the start of the green signal phase.
Positioning bicyclists in the center of the appropriate lane allows them to turn from a location where they are more visible to surrounding motor vehicles, can increase the visibility of stopped bicycle traffic at an intersection since the bicycles are in front of the stopped motor vehicles, can reduce conflicts between bicycles and motor vehicles because it is marked and signed, can reduce right-turn (“right-hook”) conflicts, and can allow a group bicycles a safe place to wait for a red light so they can quickly clear an intersection.
All these benefits come with the low cost of paint, so we are hopeful more Green Bike Boxes will be painted in areas that are commonly used by bike riders.