"Well they look mighty cool, and they sure do stand out," said the Bicycle Crank. I was brushing my teeth this morning, and the Crank, who resides in my bathroom mirror, took the opportunity to weigh in on the fancy new red bicycle boxes being installed this week on westbound Williamson Street and eastbound East Wilson at their intersection with John Nolen Drive, South Blair, the Capital City Trail and a railroad crossing.
With a white bicyclist icon against the red field indicating the space is meant for cyclists waiting at a red light, the bike boxes are intended, says Dan McCormick, "to make bikes more visible and reduce conflicts between cars and bikes." An assistant traffic engineer for the City of Madison, McCormick notes that the new bike boxes are supposed to be more obvious than existing white-on-asphalt bike boxes.
The demonstration project imports a concept spreading from Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the Netherlands and other enlightened outposts where bicycles enjoy greater prominence, acceptance and share of the travel-mode pie chart.
A bold white stop bar indicates the position where cars are supposed to line up behind cyclists. A bike lane to the right, also designated in red, indicates cyclists' final approach to the bike box, providing a corridor to the bike box at the front of the line. Bike Crank -- who has spent enough time in Europe to appreciate continental motorists' relaxed accommodation of cyclists -- is nonetheless skeptical that everyone here will buy into the notion. "Yeah, sure," he observed through a mouthful of minty fresh suds. "And drivers and cyclists alike will yield the right of way to pedestrians."
The Crank is not alone in his skepticism. The early response has been "very positive," says McCormick, noting favorable consensus among cyclists. Even some motorists, he adds, appear to intuit the possible payoffs. When everyone knows where they ought to be in an intersection organized this way, the bike boxes may in fact help backed-up traffic proceed in a more orderly manner when the light turns green.
During the bike ride to and from work in recent days, even the Crank has noted that drivers appear to be understanding or intuiting the bike-box rationale. "But here's the thing," he notes, pausing to spit and rinse for dramatic effect. "Notwithstanding my enlightened self-interest as a recreational cyclist and commuter, by providing space for cyclists at the front of the line, it may lend the appearance of preferential treatment for bikers."
As if cars don't enjoy preferential treatment all the time. My rebuttal was unspoken, but the Crank's smile suggested he had read my mind.
There has been some blowback, McCormick allows, from "some motorists who wonder why we're doing this." The Federal Highway Administration has phoned in to voice concern over the city's choice of red, he adds, noting that green and blue have been the colors of choice elsewhere but that red is the choice in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. As the Crank says, the red panels do grab your attention.
McCormick says it costs about $8,000 to install each of the red bike boxes, including materials and labor. Another set is planned for the intersection at Park and Dayton streets, he adds. The preformed panels are thermal plastic, McCormick explains, laid down on roughed-up roadway with epoxy glue and sealed onto the pavement with a blowtorch.
How the material holds up to winter plowing, sanding and salting remains to be seen, McCormick observes, noting that the firm that makes the material has laid down about $1 million worth of it in Colorado. But if it takes too much of a beating here, he adds, the city could opt for such alternatives as red asphalt.
McCormick, who rides a Raleigh Technium bike and drives a Jeep Compass, expects that both cyclists and drivers will grow accustomed to the bike-box innovation. After all, he notes, it's just a "different way of doing a stop bar for cars and bikes."