KATHRYN RICKSON, 28, biked down SW Madison just as the sun was setting on May 16. She rode swiftly past city hall and had a green light in front of her at the intersection of SW Madison and 3rd. But as she neared the corner, painted with a bright green "bike box," a large truck turned right across her path—they collided and she was pinned under its giant wheels.
Rickson's tragic death last spring—at a specially marked intersection meant to promote safer bicycling and driving—came into sharp focus this week as the city released new data showing just how well its bike boxes are working. In a disappointing finding, crashes have not declined overall at 11 dangerous intersections painted green by the city. Instead, crashes have doubled.
Portland's green bike boxes are a part of a years-long safety experiment, and their rollout has been watched by cities around the country trying to rework streets to make them safer. After two Portland cyclists died in right-hook crashes in 2007, the city received federal approval to try painting some of its most troubling intersections with the innovative boxes—which tell drivers to wait several feet from the intersection at red lights and always yield to cyclists when turning right.
This week, the city released a letter to the Federal Highway Administration that shows the impact of the boxes has been depressingly mixed. Although a study by Portland State University researcher Jennifer Dill shows that the boxes have increased the "perception of safety" among both cyclists and drivers, the data shows that crashes at the 11 intersections doubled from 16 over the four years before the boxes were painted, to 32 in the four years that followed.
Crashes decreased only at two of the 11 intersections, while staying the same at one intersection, and increasing at five intersections. Three intersections had no crashes before or after.
Even still, crashes are extremely rare—the worst intersection, SW 3rd and Madison, averages only 2.25 crashes a year.
It's not entirely clear what's led to the surprising spike. But the four intersections responsible for 81 percent of the post-bike box crashes (SW 3rd and Madison, SE 7th and Hawthorne, SE 11th and Hawthorne, and NW 16th and Everett) have a couple things in common. They're all on a downhill and cyclists ride through them relatively fast, at about 18 MPH.
The bike boxes seem to have fixed, at least, the problem they set out to solve: drivers right-hooking cyclists when they're both starting from a dead stop at a red light. The uptick of crashes comes mostly from situations like the one that killed Rickson—drivers turning into a cyclist attempting to pass them while biking through a "stale green."
It appears that by increasing the "perception of safety," the bike boxes could be causing cyclists to ride through the intersections more quickly, thinking they'll be safe from right-turning cars. The vast majority of the time, they will be: One bright spot in the city's data is that drivers yield to right-lane-overtaking cyclists a whopping 98 percent of the time.
In Rickson's case, the district attorney's office last month determined that no one was at fault for the crash, and did not ticket the truck driver or charge him with any crime.
"We have a tool; it doesn't work everywhere," says Portland Planning Commissioner Chris Smith, who happened to have a near-miss crash recently on SW Barbur just like the ones bedeviling the bike boxes. "I was happily bombing downhill because I could, but those cars didn't know I was there. I learned that lesson the hard way. But how do we engineer for that situation?"
The city is looking into several changes to improve the problem intersections: installing bike-only green lights (like on the west side of the Broadway Bridge), banning cars from turning right, or moving the bike lane to the left of the right turn lane (like on the east side of the Burnside Bridge). In the short term, the city will repaint the green of the bike boxes in a "broken" pattern, install yield signs, and paint a right-hook warning in the bike lanes approaching the four worst intersections.
Bike boxes aren't entirely to blame. As more people bike in Portland, the number of crashes involving bikes has increased (though, it's important to note, the rate of crashes-per-cyclist has decreased significantly). From 2004-2007, there were 188 crashes annually across Portland. In the next four years, as 6,000 more people began biking daily, the overall number of crashes increased an average of 50 percent.
Bicycle Transportation Alliance advocate Gerik Kransky points out that bike boxes have several more subtle safety benefits, like improving pedestrians' line of sight and giving bike riders a space to queue up.
"Lives are at risk, so it's easy to get passions inflamed," says Kransky. "The fact of the matter is we've designed roads where bikes have the right of way, but there are cars turning across their lane. That's a fundamental challenge."