Drivers should love Toronto’s bike box, too

photo by Yvonne Bambrick

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

26 comments

  1. Good article, thank you. Your last point is the most important to communicate – put it first!

  2. Okay, I don’t understand what’s happening in the picture.  

    The users of the bike box should, in theory, be relatively clustered around the far left and far right, correct?   Right-turners and those going straight should be keeping to the right, while those turning left should venture far out to the left of the box preparing for their turn.

    In this picture, we see four cyclists spaced out evenly across the block, as if awaiting the start of a race.  What’s more, the cyclist on the the far left is, inexplicably, giving a hand signal indicating he plans to turn right.

  3. Good points, especially the one on: “when the light turns green cars will be able to make those right turns quicker than they would have without the bike box”

  4. So that’s a bike box!

    After seeing one, I’m not sure I see the point. I usually turn south one block earlier at Huron, but will check it out tomorrow when I ride in to work.

  5. Except they don’t want us on ‘their roads’ at all, much less in ‘their way’, or get to move ahead of their steel behemoths because that is ‘unfair to tax-payers’ like them. Sigh…

  6. I’m with Bork on this one. I think it’s cool that they have their space, but if you are waiting directly in front of the car aren’t you just asking for trouble?

    When cycling through a busy intersection, if there is someone making a right turn I proceed with caution, pass on the left, or yield depending on the situation. When driving (especially if there is a bike lane) while doing my pedestrian check I also make sure no bikes are coming up along my side.

    Besides, one of the best things about cycling is being able to slide between cars stopped at a light and be ready to go right next to the front car 😀

  7. Bork: Aside from the strange ‘right signal’ (which might just be a wave at the photographer), I think the folks in that photo are using the bike box properly.
    Since people travel at different speeds on a bicycle (some with stronger legs, some in less of a hurry), and since bike lanes are too narrow to pass (without swerving into car traffic), it makes sense for bicycles to spread out at a bike box. That way when the light turns green, everyone starts out and immediately merges back into the bike lane.
    The alternative you describe, for the straight and right-turning cyclists to line up on the right, would take much longer to clear the intersection to right-turning traffic, and would lead to a lot of bunching and passing immediately downstream of the intersection.
    I’d love to see some proper bike box traffic studies to back up our guesswork, does anyone know of any?

  8. Please note that the quality of this photo is due to the fact that it was taken with an iPhone 😉

    @Bork, the fellow in the left turn position was gesturing to the volunteer that was handing out ‘How to Bike Box’ postcards produced by the city.

    City staff are also beginning an on-site survey next week to get user feedback on this new infrastructure. Not sure though when it will be made available.

  9. I love the idea and have seen them work quite effectively in other places in North America, Portland and Vancouver mainly. New York City have them now too. They do control right turns on reds and do minimize this highest incident of collisions between cyclists and vehicles.

    However, as stated in the article, the design in Toronto does not include coloured asphalt which further delineates the boundaries of the bike box and notifies both drivers who are not familiar with the facility and cyclists where they should stage. I would suggest adding blue, green or red colour to the box.

  10. I think that bike boxes would work ideally at intersections in conjunction with left turn arrows/signals, allowing cyclists to make faster and safer left turns.

  11. Are these appearing in places with bike lanes in place? Or other places?

    On roads without bike lanes, I see a lot of drivers who are frustrated at having to pass the same bike over and over again. They pass the bike (hopefully safely), and then they have to stop behind other cars at a red light, the bike creeps up on the right hand side of traffic and gets ahead of them. They pass the bike (hopefully safely, but often a little less safely each time), and then they have to stop behind other cars at a red light, the bike creeps up on… Well, you get the picture.

    I feel like these bike boxes may just make that problem worse.

  12. i dont know about this…. if the “long line of polite curb-leaning cyclists” (now that is sometimes an oxymoron statement) understood that they DO NOT have the right-a-way to travel through an intersection over a car making a right-hand turn, then the cars would not have to wait for this “polite” group to pass before making their turn. i personally, and i might add politely” put my car right against the curb so that no bike is able to gain access to the right side of my car when i am making my turn. (that is why the bike lane is “dotted” at the intersection….ie: shared lane) if they are going through the intersection, they can do so safely and “politely” on the left-hand side of my car the way they are required to do so legally or they can wait behind me the way that i have to wait behind other right turning vehicles. corralling bikes in front of cars at red lights sounds like a recipe for disaster once the light turns green. cars will be forced to wait for all the bikes to once again form their “long line of polite curb-leaning cyclists” and in the process they will slow the cars and possibly run into each other as they re-form their polite line. i really just dont understand this logic. why, if the bike is suppose to be using the bike lane, make them “break formation” at a red light just so they can reform in the bike lane once it turns green?!?!? whats wrong with an orderly line of bikes at a red light the same way cars line up?

    i just find it a little strange how we seem to be bending over backwards to accommodate a mode of transportation that is only utilized to its full potential just over 1/2 of each year. but maybe im just an asshole driver that is a little tired at having to constantly give up my space and slow my commute for the sake of a very small percentage of people.

    fyi…. i fully support the jarvis bike lane. once again this city jumped onboard the wrong bandwagon with that protest. that was the best solution for that street, but i think these bike boxes are just going to drive another wedge between cars and bikes that seems to just be getting worse and worse. there has to be a better solution.

  13. BTW, I think bike box would work perfectly with advance signal for bike and pedestrians. This will totally take the guess work out of the equation. Cyclists in the box will go ahead merge back to bike lane while motorists are still waiting on red. When it turns green, the box is already clear for motorist to go. Pedestrians are already half-way in the cross work, so that right-turning motorists will have to yield to them as they should, instead of weighing the possibility of making quick right turn ahead of pedestrians, which is often the reason for a collision.

  14. I think there are some misconceptions here. Bike boxes are for cyclists heading in all directions through an intersection: right, straight through, and left. So, yes, it does make sense for the bicyclists to spread out, so, as Antony says, bicyclists get through the intersection faster. Note that this is exactly the same principle behind single lane roads becoming two lanes at the intersection: allowing faster traffic through the choke points, which are often the true measure of a road’s capacity.

  15. the advance green is a good idea. my biggest concern is that it would be a bit of mayhem having slower moving bikes and faster moving cars behind them all trying to advance throught the intersection at the same time.

  16. Greg, your concern for the 48% of Torontonians that ride bicycles is kind.

    You’re totally correct to merge flush with the curb on a right turn. The safety problem comes from car traffic behind you trying to squeeze through the intersection between right turning and left-turning vehicles. The street is only two (and a half) lanes wide, leaving little clearance between fast-moving and stopped cars. Merging from a bike lane into that kind of traffic squeeze feels like trying to duck through a rugby scrum to pick up your wallet.
    About the image of a ‘clown circus’ starting up at a bike box, we’ll see how bad that really is in practice.

    Fundamentally, your complaint that bicycles will be ‘slowing up’ cars confuses me the most. How does that happen? Try an experiment for the next day – every time you’re stopped in your car downtown note what’s blocking your path. It’ll be a car or a red light 95% of the time.

    Driving in downtown isn’t like racing down an open highway, where the faster you go the quicker you get there, and being stuck behind a bicycle is like slugging behind the pace car at the Indy. Driving in downtown is like waiting in line at the supermarket. If there’s a gap in front of you, it doesn’t really matter how fast you step forward to fill it. What matters is how many people cut in line in front of you.

    If I can stretch this metaphor even further, cyclists don’t ‘slow up cars’ because they’re not in the same lineup. If you want to be kind you can allow them a place in your line, and they’ll return the favor by getting back out of your way as soon as it’s safe. Unless some jerk driver takes the opportunity to cut you off, you’re not slowed in the least.

  17. Greg, thanks you. You just demonstrated why bike box is necessary.

  18. As the cyclist on the far left, I would just like to confirm that, yes, I was gesturing to the photographer (thumbs-up) and that the other cyclists were properly positioned to proceed straight through the intersection or turn right (no right turns on red at this intersection).

  19. Greg writes: ‘i personally, and i might add politely” put my car right against the curb so that no bike is able to gain access to the right side of my car when i am making my turn’. That is neither polite nor legal. The Official Driver’s Handbook states that drivers making a right turn must ‘[l]et cyclists or moped riders go through the intersection’ first. Forcing cyclists to go around to the left is unsafe and inconsiderate.

  20. Larry, I didn’t know that advice was in the Drivers’ handbook… it’s pretty ambiguous, as to whether the bicycles are overtaking or next to the car, whether the right turn is on green or red, etc. It also contradicts the City cycling brochure: http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/safety/

    Right turns are a typical example of how much improvising it takes for everyone to get around the city safely. Despite Greg’s “self-effacing” tone, I think he’s got the right idea.

  21. Antony: I agree that some improvisation is needed and that right turns are a judgement call. Whether I am biking or driving, the procedure at a corner depends in part on timing – whether the bike reaches the corner first and then proceeds straight ahead or whether the car gets there first and is able to make the right turn safely and quickly without needing to occupy the broken-line section of the bike path at all. The city’s advice notwithstanding, my assumption is that ongoing vehicles have priority over turning vehicles and that Greg would not be blocking the bike lane if he (or the cyclist) were continuing straight, so why do it only when turning? My experience tells me that drivers sometimes either knowingly or unknowingly squeeze bikes well before the broken lines begin and that biking to the left (and to the front) of a stopped car is confusing and irritating to drivers waiting to proceed. That is why a bike box is a better way of organizing traffic in some cases.

  22. We in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke say…NO THANK YOU!!!

  23. Hey Greg, think of this way: That line of “polite” cyclists on the right of your car – they’re not going away. On my bike, I pass right turning cars on the left pretty much all the time – but sometimes you can’t. And it’s the same people cycling that are driving cars – they’re not all the best at it 😉 So, with the bike box, instead of this “polite” line of bikes on your right, they’ll all be in front of you. When the light turns green, they’ll all start up and head over to the bike lane, so you might have to wait another 3-5 seconds. If there’s a bike’s in front of you trying to turn left, then it’s pretty much the same as when a car’s in front of you trying to turn left. What would make driving a car even easier would be if there was an ‘advance green’ for the bikes – they all clear out and then you easily drive along! 

  24. Seems to be working okay, except that some enforcement is needed at this stage. Too many cars are rolling over the line or creeping into the box. It’s not difficult to obey the ‘stop here on red signal’ at other intersections, so why not here as well?

Comments are closed.