Jake Tobin Garrett moved to Toronto earlier this year from Vancouver. Here, he provides some perspective on his experience with bike boxes in his former home, as well as design improvement examples from other cities.
Toronto’s first “bike boxes” have appeared [PDF] on the corner of Harbord and St. George in the heart of the University of Toronto campus. While they may be a mystery to some cyclists (as well as drivers) they’re an important step in creating a safer and more visible way for cyclists to get around the city. The Toronto Cyclists Union issued a “how to use a bike box” release, but in short bike boxes provide a space at intersections for bikes to wait in front of cars at red lights.
I have seen many close calls at intersections where a cyclist resting against the curb at a red light is almost clipped by a car turning right who didn’t see them. I’m sure many drivers and cyclists have similar stories. Cyclists seem to pop out of nowhere when you’re in a car, appearing suddenly at your side just when you thought the coast was clear. For cyclists, waiting at a red light means forming a very Canadian and orderly line between the curb and cars. Bike boxes remove the need for this line — and thus the surprise element to drivers — allowing cyclists to pool up at the front of the intersection.
I recently moved to Toronto from Vancouver, where bike boxes are already an established part of the bicycle network. I found them useful in making intersections safer; no longer did I wonder whether that driver with their right blinker on saw that I was there. I knew they saw me, because I was in front of them. Making a left turn was far easier as well, since I could just position myself in the correct lane during the red light.
The bike box that I used most on my route to downtown Vancouver went even further than Toronto’s by making the pavement a different colour. Many other cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle have experimented in different coloured asphalt. This helps to delineate road space for cars and road space for bikes, which I think would definitely help the learning curve here in Toronto.
What is truly a shame, however, is what is lost in the polarizing dialogue of the “war on the car” that is often sparked by bicycle infrastructure projects (I’m thinking here specifically about the Jarvis bike lanes). Bicycle infrastructure is viewed as a zero sum game, in which any concession of road space to the bicycle is seen as a negative for the car. There’s only so much road space to go around, right? But this obscures what bicycle infrastructure, like bike boxes, actually provide. Of course they provide a safer, legitimizing physical space for cyclists on the road, but they also contribute to a better and less stressful driving experience. Bike lanes and bike boxes — and definitely separated bike lanes — are ways of giving cyclists certain areas on the road. Put another way, drivers know where the cyclists are going to be.
So, other than making cyclists visible, what does a bike box do for a car? The hot-button issue is surely going to be the fact that cars at intersections with bike boxes can no longer make a right turn on a red light. However, when the light turns green cars will be able to make those right turns quicker than they would have without the bike box. By putting all the bikers in front of the cars, the intersection will clear faster and right-turning drivers will no longer have to crane their necks, waiting for that long line of polite curb-leaning cyclists to ride past them. Sharing the road, in other words, means making it safer for all users.
Photo by Yvonne Bambrick