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Ridin' with Mary Poppins

City gives bike safety a green light, and that's not always a good thing


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The bike box at Southwest Madison and Third is supposed to protect cyclists at one of the city's most dangerous bike intersections. Yet many riders choose to ignore the boxes, and crashes at the site have increased since the box was installed.A few years ago, British psychologist Ian Walker used an ultrasonic sensor connected to his bicycle to measure how close cars came as they passed him as he rode his bike.

Walker discovered that drivers were more cautious when they passed him when he wasn’t wearing a helmet, giving an extra 8.5 centimeters of space. They gave even more room, an average 14 extra centimeters, when they passed a bicyclist who appeared to be a woman (it was Walker wearing a wig).

What Walker measured has come to be called the Mary Poppins Effect, and since the release of a new study two weeks ago, traffic engineers in Portland are wondering what they can do — short of suggesting people discard helmets — to encourage a little more Poppins-like attitude here.

Portland is the city other U.S. cities look to for traffic safety improvements. During the past 10 years, the city has put in more bike traffic signals, bike lanes, cycle tracks and green intersection boxes than anywhere in the country, all intended to improve bike safety and to encourage more people to become regular bike riders.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT  - A variety of signs mark the approach to Northwest Everett and 16th, warning drivers turning right that cyclists are heading through the intersection.But a new Portland Bureau of Transportation report reveals a disturbing trend. At 11 intersections with a history auto-bike accidents, engineers discovered that collisions have doubled since the bike boxes were installed.

Bike boxes, which allow cyclists at red lights to pull in front of cars so they won’t get hit when the light turns green and drivers turn right, represent the most extensive attempt the city has made to make biking safer. They are intended to prevent the precise type of right-turn accident that dominates bike crashes and has led to three Portland deaths.

The bike boxes appear to be working as intended. Crashes after a change in the traffic signal have been reduced since the bike boxes were installed. But another type of crash has increased: when both bikes and cars approach an already green light and the car or truck turns right at the intersection.

Some bike advocates think the proliferation of bike safety improvements may even bear some of the responsibility for the increase in crashes.

Green boxes, painted bike lanes and special signs, they say, may encourage a false sense of security among bike commuters similar to what traffic engineers have said pedestrians feel in painted crosswalks on streets such as Northwest 23rd Avenue.

Bike box? What bike box?

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Portland State University graduate student Kristen McCaffrey pulls to a stop at the Southwest Madison Street and Third Avenue intersection, heading for the Hawthorne Bridge. But she doesn’t move into the bike box. In fact, she rarely uses the green boxes at intersections.

“I’m not as fast as cars,” she says. “I don’t want to obstruct the traffic.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - PSU student Stephen Bridges pedals up the cycle track on Southwest Broadway. Bike advocates say more such protected bike lanes are needed.McCaffrey started commuting only a month ago out of necessity, she says. She can’t find affordable parking at PSU. Prior to that, she was reluctant to ride a bike in the city, partially out of safety concerns. And in that respect, McCaffrey represents a sort of holy grail for transportation engineers who believe that if the mix of regular bike riders on Portland’s streets include enough elderly, women, children and obvious recreational riders, the city might experience its own Mary Poppins Effect.

In that scenario, drivers and cyclists become more accepting of each other as equal partners, and the entire city transportation culture could take on a more European feel. But, about seven of 10 people biking on Portland streets are men.

Mike Psaris, another bike commuter, pulls up next to McCaffrey. He’s been using his bike to get to PSU for graduate school classes as well.

“Portland is incredibly safe,” says Psaris, who moved here from New York City. “Compared to where I’m from, this is like heaven.”

But Psaris says he understands why this particular intersection might see an increase in the number of cars hitting bikes. Madison Street heading toward the river is a downhill ride. Bicyclists wanting to make the green light speed up. They move in and out of the blind spot of any driver reaching that same green light and turning right.

Psaris says his sister gave him one piece of biking advice he follows today: “When in doubt don’t use the bike lane. You’re less visible.”

In fact, Psaris says he tenses up when he’s driving his car and making a right turn at a continuous green light, knowing how easy it is to miss a biker coming fast on his right. The new city report on right-turn crashes points to the speed of cyclists on the downhill as a key factor in the proliferation of crashes.

PSU professor Jennifer Dill, who has studied behaviors and attitudes of cyclists, says the popular acronym for the types of riders who still dominate Portland streets is MAMIL: middle-aged men in Lycra. Dill has grouped Portland riders into four categories, and the key to achieving a mix that might get drivers to be more cautious are the riders she labels “interested but concerned” in her surveys.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A ghost bike and helmet mark the intersection at Southwest Madison and Third where cyclist Kathryn Leah Rickson was crushed beneath a right-turning truck five months ago.
When asked if a striped bike lane will encourage them to become regular riders, most of those occasional riders balk. Only three infrastructure changes get them to a level of comfort that would lead to regular or commuter biking: a bike lane separated from traffic by a curb or parked cars, a route on quiet residential streets or a biking path removed from traffic.

Dill’s research shows that bike boxes, painted bike lanes and dedicated bike traffic signals aren’t enough.

“You need that physical separation,” she says, adding that a complete package aimed at attracting a high number of biking citizens should include infrastructure and bike-friendly programs.

A protected tunnel

PSU professor Chris Monsere, a traffic engineer, says it will take more than three years of data to know if bike boxes are working. Fewer than half of all bike crashes are reported to police, he says, and the number of reported crashes are so low that statistics could get skewed.

Also, there may be more crashes as the number of cyclists increase, but the city can’t count riders at all the city’s intersections so nobody knows how ridership factors in.

But Monsere says it might be that the long green bike lanes leading to bike box intersections have created an unintended consequence.

“One theory is that cyclists are seeing this as some sort of protected tunnel,” Monsere says.

On those downhill runs in their protected tunnels, cyclists gain too much speed for drivers to stay aware of their location, he says. But slowing them is nearly impossible. Monsere says speed bumps in bike lanes are a last option because they penalize even cyclists not riding fast. And the faster cyclists might swerve into traffic to avoid the bumps anyway.

The cycle track on Southwest Broadway in front of PSU represents the city’s most dramatic attempt to attract those risk-averse riders. By taking a lane away from cars and putting parked cars between traffic and the bike lane, it created a buffer between the two.

Monsere is studying the effectiveness of the track, but recognizes that taking lanes of traffic from cars and giving them to bikes —on the assumption that the change will bring out huge numbers of riders — will take a tremendous political will.

Fast young riders

Still, that’s what Jonathan Maus says has to happen. In fact Maus, the outspoken bike advocate and publisher of website bikeportland.org, labels all the city’s bike safety attempts “woefully inadequate” and says they represent more of a marketing attempt than a real effort to keep cyclists safer.

“These are stopgap measures that they can do with very little money to try to appease a public who’s crying for more bike safety,” Maus says.

Studies have shown that cyclists look over their shoulders less frequently when they ride in colored bike lanes because they feel protected, even though they’re not, Maus says. Blaming cyclists for riding too fast toward intersections he calls “a symptom of a city that breeds aggressive, fast riding.”

Maus has noticed that when he bikes with his children Portland drivers treat him differently than when he’s out on his own. Drivers, he says, don’t pass nearly as close. He has considered putting a baby seat on the back of his bike, with a doll strapped where a child would go, to fool drivers into being more careful.

Maus would like to see more separated bike lanes and stop lights that give cyclists separate greens from traffic. At Northwest Everett Street and 16th Avenue, one of the high-crash bike box intersections where cars turn right to enter Interstate 405, he’d like to see the turn onto the highway be set at a more acute angle so cars are forced to slow as they turn.

Until those major — and expensive — changes are instituted, Maus says, the city will be locked in a vicious cycle in which fast young riders become more dominant, drivers perceive them as the dominant cyclists, and aggressive attitudes on both sides ramp up.

“It’s a matter of how much capital the city wants to spend to make this stuff right,” Maus says.

Until then, Maus says, he expects more right-turning cars to hit cyclists heading through bike box intersections.

Back at Southwest Madison Street and Third Avenue, new bike commuter Kristen McCaffrey takes note of the white ghost bike sculpture set in the sidewalk, a memorial to cyclist Kathryn Leah Rickson, who in May was killed at the intersection, crushed beneath a right-turning truck.

McCaffrey says she’s noticed the white bike before but can’t say it has affected her bike behavior.

“I know the bike is a memorial,” McCaffrey says. “But I don’t know the story.”


City experiments with ways to avoid accidents

Portland is something of a living laboratory for bike safety improvements.

City traffic engineers admit that much of their work in trying to prevent bike collisions is based on theory, because there is little data from other cities to guide them. Engineers here try something, and watch to see if it works.

Between 2000 and 2010, there were 17 reported crashes involving bikes on Northeast Broadway Street as drivers turned onto Wheeler Avenue. Last month, the city installed signs telling drivers they could no longer make the right turn.

Nearby, at Broadway and Williams Street, where cars turn right to enter Interstate 5, a special bike signal was installed that separates the green for right-turning drivers and cyclists. Sixteen such dedicated bike signals have been installed throughout the city.

At Northeast Lloyd Boulevard and Oregon Street, near the Steel Bridge, city engineers have spent hours watching traffic and observing many of the cyclists darting across the intersection on a diagonal. A scramble signal was installed that simultaneously stops cars on all the approaching streets just to address the problem.

Scramble signals were also installed at Northeast Sandy Boulevard at 57th Avenue, at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 22nd Avenue and at Southwest Moody Avenue and Sheridan Streets.

When Couch Street became a one-way couplet a few years ago it eliminated bike accident zones and created a new one. Drivers want to turn right off Couch to Grand Avenue, but cyclists want to go straight. The solution involves an inductive under the street 150 feet before the intersection. The sensor detects bikes and lights up an LED sign telling drivers to yield to cyclists.

The message only appears if the approaching bike is going to hit a steady green light.

— Peter Korn