By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: January 10, 2008
“Ghost bikes,” riderless and painted white, were placed at two busy intersections in Portland, Ore., last October, makeshift memorials to two bicyclists killed when they were hit by trucks in accidents that month.
This spring, at those same intersections and at 12 others across the city, “bike boxes” will be laid out on the roadway to provide a clearly designated place for cyclists, in front of and in full view of drivers, to wait for traffic lights to change. The boxes will be marked with signs and wide stripes alerting drivers to stop behind them at red lights.
Portland, which has a higher percentage of people who bike to work than any other large American city, is already considered one of the country’s most bike-friendly urban centers. But the boxes, believed to be the first such to be put to use by any city in the country, will make cyclists even safer and more comfortable on the street, biking advocates and transportation officials say.
“It’s something the city has been talking about for a long time, but these two deaths have certainly given an added sense of urgency,” said Jonathan Maus, whose bikeportland.org is a focal point for Portland cyclists. “The community has just made it so clear that this is very important, that they’re very concerned following these fatal crashes that things need to change.”
By allowing cyclists to wait in front of motorized traffic, the bike boxes are intended chiefly to reduce the risk of “right hook” collisions, the kind most frequently reported in Portland, in which a driver makes a right turn without seeing a cyclist who is in his path. Drivers will not be allowed to pass through the bike box to turn right on a red light, although many right hooks now occur after the light has turned green, when traffic quickly accelerates.
Right hooks were what killed the two cyclists in October, a college student and a bike racer hit by large trucks. The drivers say they did not see them.
“In a lot of people’s minds they weren’t doing anything wrong and they were just run over,” said Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for the Portland Office of Transportation.
Another feature of the new project is that on the approach to an intersection with a bike box, the bicycle lane will be the same color as the box. “We want them to have that visual cue to take a look over their shoulder,” Mr. Geller said of drivers, “and we want cyclists to know this is an area for potential conflict.”
The city will spend about $150,000 on the bike boxes and also plans to pay about $50,000 to retrofit larger trucks in the municipal fleet with new mirrors to reduce blind spots and with guard bars to prevent cyclists from falling into the trucks’ big wheel wells.
The trucks involved in the October collisions were not city vehicles. “We’re just setting a good example,” Mr. Geller said.
There were six cycling deaths in Portland in 2007, an unusually large number, though Mr. Geller and others say that with bicycle use up fourfold since the early 1990s, the rate of collisions has actually declined. Mr. Geller credits driver awareness.
While the city is installing the bike boxes at certain busy intersections, it is also trying to shift more riders away from bike lanes on busy streets to what it calls bike boulevards, quieter streets with less potential for collisions. The city is weighing a proposal to spend about $25 million over 10 years to designate 110 additional miles of bike boulevards, for a total of 140, and make other improvements for cyclists.
About 4 percent of Portland workers already commute by bike, and city officials and biking enthusiasts say they believe the number can rise much higher.
“Bike advocates around the country are looking to Portland to create a model of how an American city can be a bike-friendly city,” Mr. Geller said. “We feel that, and we take that seriously.”