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Not all cyclists go bonkers for boxes

Some want more research on supposed safety measures
by: JIM CLARK, Cyclist Ryan Conrad is one of two Portlanders challenging the city’s quest for federal approval of its bike box design. He and other critics say their safety and utility haven’t been proven.

Some cycling advocates are trying to stick a wrench in the spokes of Portland's new bike box program, saying they're confusing and inherently unsafe, and should not be approved by the federal government.

The challenges they have filed to the new designs, which are intended to improve safety, could doom the city's request for 'experimental' federal approval of the already installed designs - thereby making the city more vulnerable to lawsuits stemming from future fatalities.

The boxes are a lane-wide square marked with green paint and a white bicycle symbol located at 12 intersections around the city. Already used in Europe and elsewhere, they were approved by the City Council last year after two cyclists were killed by vehicles turning right at stoplights and running into them, causing a 'right hook' collision.

The bike boxes prohibit motorists from turning right on red lights. They also require cars to stop well before the normal stop line and allow cyclists to move into the painted box in front of cars at red lights.

'This is being employed because it has worked (in other countries),' said Commissioner Sam Adams, who spearheaded the idea. He said the goal is to reduce the fear and danger that otherwise might discourage would-be cyclists, thereby tripling the number of trips made on bikes.

'I'm trying to build a network of bike paths, bike lanes and bike boulevards where we will have 15 percent or more of our trips by bike - and the system will be family-friendly as well,' he said.

The city now is requesting federal approval of the bike boxes as an experimental design, a formal recognition that, while not required, would help the city defend itself in lawsuits stemming from future accidents at those intersections.

Several cyclists, however, including two Portlanders and a California-based traffic engineer and cycling advocate, have challenged Portland's application to have the boxes' design approved by the federal government.

'There's too much (research) that hasn't been done, and that's what concerns me,' said Ryan Conrad, a daily bike commuter and mechanic at the Bike Gallery's Beaverton store.

The federal decision is expected in the next three weeks.

Jonathan Maus, editor of the popular Bikeportland.org Web site, said that the link between the fatalities last year and the bike boxes - a link made by city officials as well as media outlets - is a red herring, claiming the boxes will not 'cure' the right-hook problem.

'They're not a silver bullet,' he said. 'They're being put in to create a more comfortable environment for novice cyclists.'

Maus, like Rob Burchfield, head traffic engineer of the Portland Office of Transportation, downplayed the criticisms as motivated by a philosophical belief that bicycles should mingle with traffic under the same rules.

Conrad said that's just not the case - he's motivated strictly by safety concerns. He, like other critics, feels that if bike lanes ended 200 feet from intersections, cyclists would be more aware of vehicles and vice versa.

'The utility of (bike boxes) is dubious, and the fact that that's not really being acknowledged, that there's just wholesale support for these without any real discussion - that's what concerns me,' he said. 'Some of these bike boxes (are) kind of scary. I don't use them, and they're confusing.'

The critics' concerns echo those of the state's head traffic engineer, Ed Fischer of the Oregon Department of Transportation, who in an e-mail late last year laid out eight reasons he thinks Portland's bike boxes are a poor idea.

'I do not believe 'bike boxes' should be used' on higher-speed main streets, he wrote in a Nov. 21 e-mail to his colleagues at ODOT. He wrote that a cyclist parked in the roadway could be hit by drivers who, with their eyes on the traffic signal, are not expecting a cyclist to be in the middle of the road, and that people from out of town also might not be prepared for the unfamiliar traffic rules.

Meanwhile, bike boxes won't eliminate the ''right-hook' type of accidents that led to their approval, he wrote, adding, 'This box does nothing (in my opinion) to reduce that potential conflict.'

He told the Portland Tribune that he feels bike boxes should not have been installed without first being approved by the federal government, saying lawyers could 'have a field day' if the rationale for the design is not well-documented.

Burchfield of the city transportation office conceded that a federal ruling against bike boxes could put the city in greater danger of being sued and also could slow the spread of a road design feature already employed in Europe.

Currently, he said, Portland is the only American municipality other than New York City to employ bike boxes.

So far the reaction of the expert peer-review panel used by the Federal Highway Administration has been skepticism, which Burchfield said 'surprised us.'

To bolster its application the city has enlisted support from groups like the League of American Bicyclists and Oregon Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, who by virtue of their committee assignments have significant influence over federal transportation agencies.

Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration said the decision is being weighed carefully, as 'it can have pretty big ramifications across the country.'

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