Eyes on the Street: San Francisco’s First Green Bike Box Remains Unfinished

bike_box_1.jpgA truck driver encroaches on a bicyclist in the green bike box. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

San Francisco’s first green bike box, painted by a smiling group of electeds and bike activists earlier this month, was heralded as an important first step toward finally advancing some "innovative design treatments" in the city’s long-stalled Bicycle Plan. But nearly three weeks later, the MTA has yet to paint any kind of bike symbol in the box, and many San Francisco drivers, and even some bicyclists unfamiliar with the concept of bike boxes, are still not getting the message that it’s for bikes only.

"I think it’s a very good idea to display this bike box here, but most of the public is not familiar with what the purpose of it is," said Wakeem Shehadeh, the owner of Oak Fair Market, which is just several feet away from the new bike box on Scott Street at Oak. Shehedah said he’s spent a great deal of time observing driver and bicyclist behavior since the bike box was installed December 3rd, and has witnessed a few confrontations.

"I still see some cars stop on the green spot, and some pull back, and go into the bike lane," he said. "I would suggest we paint a bike picture on top of the green box so it can tell the driver and the bicyclist, this is for you, and this is for you."

Indeed, some bicyclists are still not familiar with it. As I interviewed people on bikes along The Wiggle today I encountered a few riders who had no idea. "Oh, that’s what that’s for," said one guy, who told me he lived around the corner. "I haven’t been using it."

Judson True, a spokesperson for the MTA, said the agency has to first collect data on the green bike box — because it’s a trial — but assured Streetsblog a bike symbol would be painted in by mid to late January.

"We want to see what the behavior’s like now. We want to test compliance so we need before and after data," said True. "Right now, it’s not an approved traffic control device. There isn’t a uniform standard for bike boxes in California or the nation and so we want to help move in the direction of the most successful bike box installation we can."

Fine, but how do you test compliance on a traffic control device that isn’t complete?

bike_box_4.jpgWe love PCOs but even some of them don’t get the green bike box.

True said the agency is collecting information on bike box signage
symbols from all over the world and said Streetsblog readers should
chime in in our comments section on what kind of symbols they’d like to
see.

Andy Thornley, the SFBC Program Director, is frustrated by the delay.

"We’re thrilled to have some green bike space on the streets of SF, but
with the sharrow missing it’s even less evident now just what the thing
is supposed to mean, to drivers or cyclists or anyone. It’s important
that the SFMTA complete this bike box with a sharrow and some sort of
signage to explain how the bike box works, such as "Stop Here on Red
Except Bicycles" (R10-6 standard, for MUTCD geeks), at minimum," said Thornley.

Picture_7.pngAn excerpt from a Portland DOT glossy on bike boxes.
4052879393_07ff6548de_o.jpgWhy can’t we have this? Flickr photo: itdp

Thornley said the agency should Portlandize the box, giving it the full treatment "with a ‘WAIT HERE’ legend and lead-in/lead-out green bike lanes and
public outreach and education."

One has to wonder, though: If all the recent bike improvements are reversible, as a judge demanded, why didn’t the MTA finish the job on the first day? If they found a better treatment, they could easily change it, right? It doesn’t take a great deal of data collection to know that a bike symbol in the bike box will help people understand what it’s all about.

If the MTA does need data, though, it should turn to Portland, where a study analyzing that city’s innovative bike boxes (see the Streetfilm below), installed about a year and a half ago, is expected to be released in early 2010. Preliminary data from the study by Portland State University Professor Jennifer Dill found that most motorists understood and obeyed the boxes and 81 percent of bicyclists surveyed think drivers are more aware of bicyclists because of the bike boxes.

Despite the publicity surrounding the Scott Street bike box, and the
fleeting excitement it generated, it still seems that despite a
partial lifting of the injunction, and promises that more "innovative bike
treatments" are coming soon, the MTA is still afraid to do anything
really bold because of the injunction. True denied the City Attorney’s office had anything to do with the lack of a bicycle symbol in the bike box, but we have to wonder.

bike_box_2.jpgA driver who gets it. 

  • Brian

    The bike stencil and “wait here” is all they need to fix this problem. Did nobody tell them?

  • Another case of great intent, lousy execution from MTA. Like a lot of people I’ve been waiting for the rest of the paint to go down, like a bike symbol a sharrow or some sort of bike here car there indicator. They’re waiting until January?!

    I ride through here all the time and there is a lot of cyclists who don’t know what it’s for. Just as many motorists. Today I had a motorist stopped at the light at Fell with his car blocking the bike turn lane. So, even with evident marking we still get people who just don’t get it.

    However, what would help make the whole package work is the added paint on the bike box and a green arrow for turning left on Fell from the bike lane. That way cars could turn, bikes could turn and we don’t have to risk getting smacked by a car turning left onto Scott from Fell or dealing with oncoming traffic from the other side of Scott.

  • Nick

    SF can be quite strange when it comes to the mixing of politics of cycling. I get the feeling that the City was moving a little to fast in that first week and was told to slow things down.

    Example: The soft hit posts on Market went up in a day and then further progress from 8th to 12th hasn’t happened in 3 weeks. Maybe I’m wrong and they’re focusing on the approved bike lanes first.

    However, you walk down Market and take a close look at the soft hit posts and you’ll find that they are already scuffed up from use on other streets. If the project is intended to be reversible, I guess you might as well use recycled parts. This leaves me wondering just what brand of environmental responsibility the City is practicing.

  • In Boston, theres a 6-9 month gap between when a bike lane gets painted, and when the bike stencils get added, it makes no sense.

    As for your bikebox….it looks huge. I wonder why it was made so deep?

  • Uh huh. And how exactly are they “collecting” this data? Do they have some guy out there keeping an eye on things?

    It seems to me that it would not be so hard for a citizen to helpfully intervene by stopping by to complete the work themselves.

  • zsolt

    Sooooooooooooo typically San Francisco. Embarrassing.

  • Cadence

    Personally I prefer to maneuver like cars, if I’m going to make a left turn, I get in the far left lane(using hand turning signal, and switching lanes safely, one at a time, or more if it’s safe to do so)

    And as for the right turning cars, there is no problem if
    1. Motorists learn to use their signals, actually this the driving law,
    (perhaps a hefty fine for turning without signal needs to be imposed by the police)

    2. Bicyclist can stop at right before the cross walk as cars have to(not in the way of crossing traffic traveling left to right).

    I find that people in general do not seem to use hand/light turning signals, which is doesn’t help in reading the traffic. This miscommunication, or lack it leads to accidents, because it makes it hard to figure out where everyone’s trying to.

    Of course the absent mindedness such as using a cellphone, not looking, or wishful-multi-tasking compounds this problem. But that’s another discussion

  • Alicia

    The shade of green that was chosen for the bike box is also problematic. It is much too dark (unlike the more neon-green shade shown in the Portland photo). During low light conditions, it is impossible to see the bike box, especially because there is not a bike designation painted on it.

  • Perhaps due to budget cuts the MTA is simply waiting and hoping that someone else will to to http://www.pbp1.com/dynamic/ps/ps_details.asp?PN=HPSTBKA and just stencil the thing themselves. Of course a homemade cardboard stencil would be even cheaper but probably not reusable for other needed bicycle improvements.

  • smushmoth

    Just to add some fuel to the fire. This is more common than cars in the green zone. http://www.zannel.com/viewupdate.htm?id=MCPXZ

  • Nick

    It’s funny that there has to be a Department of Transportation authorization of an approved symbol for the bike box. SF uses about 5 different markings for sharrows and the same amount for bike lanes.

  • In Austin, Texas we also have our first bike boxes. Since they are pilot (experimental) projects, there is a period of study, with cameras at the intersection to monitor road user behavior. For the first stage of the study, nothing was painted — the city needs to see what happens without the bike boxes.

    Then the bike boxes are phased in, in stages. Various insults were hurled about how the city doesn’t know what it’s doing, and so on. Unknown to the skeptics, the point is to get data for various implementations. E.g. does there need to be paint?… a big stencil of a bike?… a no-turn-on-red sign? These things have been (or will be implemented) stage by stage to see what the effect of road user behavior is.

    This appears to be what is happening in SF as well. My suggestion is to be a bit more patient with this.

  • Is that one really the first? Long Beach has a green bike box as well.

  • jacob

    In Portland there was a huge education campaign, There were police stationed at the bike box for the first several days, not handing out tickets to violators but a warning and educational material. It seemed to work pretty well.

  • Nick

    At the end of the day it just a stencil. Nothing to get upset about. Take a left on Fell and you know you’re not anywhere close to Portland.

  • This is such a great idea! Life saving! Always have difficulties turning from that location (and others) hope it catches on.

  • walley george

    I don’t know how I got around on my bike for the last 20 years in this city without.

  • walley george

    Just watched the video, how did Portland get so lame?

  • It’s true this is not California’s only green bike box, and I’ve changed the story to reflect that: http://www.bikelongbeach.org/News/Read.aspx?ArticleId=53. The good news is DPT crews are out there painting a bike symbol in the bike box right now as I type this. We’ll have a story up soon.

  • A minor matter, but it turns out the Scott Street bike box was the first green bike box in California. Long Beach called to say their bike box was installed Dec. 20th. Ours was painted Dec. 3rd.