Urbana intersection's new 'bike boxes' gives cyclists a bit more direction

Urbana intersection's new 'bike boxes' gives cyclists a bit more direction

URBANA — For bicyclists, turning left at a busy intersection can be a bit dodgy — literally.

Cyclists using a right-hand bike lane have to merge across one or two lanes of traffic in order to enter a left-turn lane while hoping they're seen by cars in the intersection.

New "bike boxes" — flat, bright-green pavement markings — at the intersection of Green Street and Goodwin Avenue in Urbana are designed to make those left turns easier and reduce conflicts between bikes and cars.

They're the first of their kind in the city of Urbana and, as far as assistant city engineer Craig Shonkwiler knows, the first in the region, part of the Multimodal Corridor Enhancement Project, or MCORE.

"They're a new approach," he said. "They allow the bicyclist to avoid that left-turn conflict if they choose."

The green boxes are positioned at each corner of the intersection, with a left-turn arrow painted in white.

When cyclists approach an intersection, they stay in the bike lane through the intersection, stop in the bike box across the street, then turn their bikes 90 degrees and wait. When the light facing the opposite direction turns green, they can proceed with traffic.

An example: cyclists riding east on Green who want to turn north on Goodwin will stay in the bike lane across Goodwin, rather than merging left, then stop in the bike box on the southeast corner of the intersection, outside of traffic. They will then turn their bikes to face north on Goodwin, and when the light turns green for northbound traffic they'll proceed north, a few feet in front of the cars headed north.

"They've got a head start in front of the traffic," Shonkwiler said. "It eliminates all the conflicts."

Drivers can operate just as they always do, though they may have a bicycle in front of them, he said. Cyclists can also choose to turn left the old way if they're comfortable with merging with traffic, he said.

Shonkwiler concedes there could be some initial confusion, though, so the city might host some educational programs to bring drivers and cyclists up to speed. He has been consulting with Urbana's Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Commission and has a link to a YouTube video about bike boxes used in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's a new concept," he said. "The visuals make it easier to understand."

Here's the Cambridge video:

Cyclist: Practical solution

Avid cyclist Ryan Hale, 35, hadn't heard of the concept, but after viewing the video, he and his co-workers at Durst Cycle thought it could be "a good, practical option, if everyone uses it properly."

He said it could improve safety but might also slow down cyclists commuting to work, because they have to wait for another signal.

"I guess I'm just used to going with the flow of traffic. I feel safe doing it, because I got most of my riding experience in Chicago, so I had to kind of get used to it there," he said.

Hale said he obeys the rules of the road, stopping at red lights and stop signs and using hand signals to alert drivers to turns. But he said not all cyclists do, and he's not sure they would follow the new system either.

"I'd definitely be willing to try it out and see if it would make traffic feel safer with cyclists on the road, and cyclists feel safer with traffic around them," he said.

The city will be evaluating how well the program works as part of Federal Highway Administration requirements, Shonkwiler said.

'Hey, this is a bike lane'

In a related part of the MCORE project, bright-green bike-lane markings can also be seen all along Green Street in Campustown on both sides of Wright Street, to improve driver awareness of bicycle traffic, he said.

"They stand out" from the usual white lane markings on gray pavement, Shonkwiler said.

The markings aren't just paint but a plastic coating, pieced together like a puzzle and then melted to adhere to the pavement, he said. They're also recessed slightly into the pavement so they don't create a hazard.

"Anything that catches everybody's attention to say, 'Hey, this is a bike lane,' that's what we're trying to do," he said.

Green Street had no dedicated bike lanes before the MCORE improvements. The new ones are raised, elevated a few inches above the adjacent vehicle lanes, he said. That helps improve visibility of bicyclists, and studies show they feel more comfortable being higher, he said.

Another improvement at Lincoln and Green streets in Urbana gives pedestrians a head start when traffic lights turn green.

The walk signals are programmed to activate three to five seconds before the light turns green for cars, so pedestrians can go into the intersection while traffic is stopped, Shonkwiler said.

They've been shown to improve pedestrian safety elsewhere, he said.